On court, the Lakers were flattening the Phoenix Suns. High in the stands at Staples Center, Ramneek Walia stood and cheered. His purple and gold Lakers shirt tagged him as an insider, a die-hard fan. Earlier, he had stood, hand over his heart, singing along to "The Star-Spangled Banner." He hadn't been pleased when the crowd clapped and whistled after the national anthem--"I think that's disrespectful."
He and his friends, all in beards and turbans, elicited hardly a glance from those in their row and rows adjacent, to whom they are by now "high-five friends." Looking around, Walia, a season-ticket holder, said, "I feel very comfortable in here. But the minute I walk outside, it all changes. You see people pointing fingers, saying, 'Here comes the Taliban.'"
Walia, 27, is a Sikh, a disciple of a monotheistic religion founded in India in the 15th century. Born in the United States to parents who emigrated more than 30 years ago from India, he was educated at USC. Los Angeles is home, a place where he always "just kind of fit in"--until Sept. 11 when, he said, "suddenly all that changed."
Now, he rarely ventures out alone. "My parents really worry about me. My mom told me not to come to the [Lakers] games." He feels, he said, "naked," like the emperor in the classic children's tale who wondered why everyone was suddenly staring at him and whispering. "You're so carefree one moment, and the next you're watching every movement people make."
At the USC-UCLA game at the Coliseum a couple weeks ago, he was surprised to be hassled as he and two turbaned friends walked through Exhibition Park to their car. Yes, he was wearing a USC shirt and the taunters were UCLA fans, but it went beyond that.
"It was really hostile, kind of scary," he said, "people saying really bad things like [expletive] you, Taliban [expletive]. Hundreds of people must have seen what was going on, but not one person came to our aid. But what can you do?"
Ramneek, an independent financial consultant in La Habra, is the older son in a close-knit family. As Sikhs who choose to wear turbans, in deference to their religious beliefs, the men of the family know they are taking a risk, that people are all too quick to mistake them for Muslims, and all too quick to blame Muslims for the terrorist attacks.
Their decision has created conflict within the family.
"We are more scared this time than ever before," said his father, Rajinder Walia, 57, whose black turban and green plaid sport shirt seem symbolic of his embrace of two cultures. Sitting in his expansive home in La Habra Heights, he recalls how Sikhs--who number about 2,000 families in Southern California--were harassed during the Gulf War. It's the same, he said, "any time anything goes wrong in the Middle East. They think we're Middle Easterners."
Just as he wears his turban partially as a gesture of Sikh pride, he wears his patriotism, his love for America, on his sleeve. He has been a citizen since 1975 and is "mad as hell" at the terrorists. "If I laid my eyes on Bin Laden, I'd kill him with my naked hands."
Before Sept. 11, his wife, Saran, 53, wore a salwar kameez, a traditional Indian pants costume, to work at the boutique she co-owns in the Little India section of Artesia, where her shopkeeper neighbors are an Indian Muslim and a Pakistani Muslim. Since the terrorist attacks she has been wearing Western dress. She is proud that her sons, Ramneek and Rasneek, 21, a Cal Poly Pomona student, choose to wear the turban, yet it makes her nervous.
"It's just like Christians wearing a cross," she said. "If you keep wearing this cross, you might have a chance of getting killed" by those who do not understand your beliefs. Still, she knows, asking her sons to take off their turbans would be "pushing them to dishonor a part of their religion."
To the world's estimated 20 million Sikhs--about 500,000 of whom live in the United States--the turban, mandated centuries ago by their gurus, is sacred. Once a symbol of royalty, it has become a symbol of holy dedication, dignity and self-respect. Rajinder is a baptized Sikh, a member of the Khalsa, a voluntary order of men and women who have dedicated themselves to the highest values and traditions of Sikhism. Before he would remove his turban in public, he said, it would have to be a "question of life or death."
An engineer by training who now has a mortgage business, he recalls seeking a job through a headhunter soon after arriving in the United States. He was told he had the job, but he couldn't wear his turban. "I said I'd rather not have the job."
He worships each Wednesday evening and Sunday morning at a Sikh gurudawara, or temple, in Buena Park. Asked the tenets of Sikhism, he said, "basically there are three teachings: the oneness of a loving God who is attainable through meditation; honesty and hard work; and the sharing of blessings."