Members of the Sikh faith gather Monday evening at a cultural center in Pacoima… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)
Each morning, Angad Singh carefully wraps yards of fabric into a tight turban atop his head before heading out into a world that doesn't always understand him or his Sikh faith.
"Where are you from?" they ask the 22-year-old, who was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, if they ask anything at all. "Are you Muslim?" "Why are you wearing that?"
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, August 09, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Sikh community reaction: In the Aug. 7 LATExtra section, a production error caused two names to be changed in an article about the reaction in the Southern California Sikh community to the fatal shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Prashant Raj was misspelled as Peasant Raj; Jagjit Singh Reen was misspelled as Jaggy Singh Rein.
"People don't know who we are," said Singh, who is about to begin classes at UCLA Law School. "I can tell they have [other] questions they are too afraid to ask."
Sikhs make up the fifth-largest religion in the world, with more than a quarter of a million followers in the U.S. and close to 20,000 in Southern California, but they are little understood. Observant Sikh men wear turbans and have long beards, as their faith requires them not to cut their hair.
That has led to confusion, insults and discrimination. Sikhs say they have had difficulty landing jobs and renting apartments. It isn't uncommon, they say, for Sikhs to be thought of as terrorists or for their children to be bullied at school.
"Yes, there have been unpleasant remarks yelled through an open car window. Yes, people have called me Osama.... But I've been given many opportunities by my country, but that's not universally true," said Gunpreet Singh Ahuja, a pediatric surgeon and university professor from Irvine.
The shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin that left six worshipers and the gunman dead was a blunt reminder of that.
Details of the shooting spread quickly through the local Sikh community Sunday, leaving fear and unanswered questions in its wake. Services were sparsely attended and patrols were stepped up.
When the Vermont Gurdwara in Los Feliz received word of Wisconsin attack just before its Sunday service, the head priest immediately notified those in attendance. There was a collective gasp. Later, a prayer was said for the victims.
"We are not against anybody, nor do we expect anybody to be against us," said Hukam Singh, 62, who lives and works at the temple.
Hukam Singh, like many Sikhs, is accustomed to being mistaken for a Muslim and said sometimes it means being eyed warily or spoken to with disdain. He is frustrated that people aren't familiar with Sikhism, but also pointed out that the temple received condolence calls from area leaders of all religions.
In a region at the confluence of cultures from around the world like Southern California, many Sikhs say they find themselves in a far more welcoming part of the county than those who live in places where wearing a turban and having a long beard raise deep suspicions.
"We do have it a little better, a little easier," said Nirinjan Singh Koalas, director of the California Sikh Council.
"I go everywhere with a turban and I get a lot of respect," said Jaggy Singh Rein of Temple City.
The 56-year-old left Chandigarh, India, for the U.S. more than two decades ago and opened a luggage store at the Glendale Galleria. "I was the only one in the entire mall with a turban and everyone was friendly to me and would say, 'How you doing, Singh?'"
Rein, now a real estate agent, was shocked to hear of the Wisconsin shooting but said that neither he nor the other Sikhs he knows harbor any anger toward the gunman.
"I feel depressed when these kind of things happen," he said. "It's a hate crime, and if it happened to any other kind of religion, I would feel the same way. Sikhism is a peaceful religion so we feel sorry for our people but also for the family members of the shooter."
But Peasant Raj, an actor who recently moved to Los Angeles, said he was infuriated by the temple shooting. Services, he said, are long, joyful and communal events where worshipers share food and each other's company in equal parts.
"It's a beautiful process, and I fail to understand what would motivate someone to disrupt that in such an inhumane way," he said.
Many local Sikhs said that in the aftermath of the shooting, it was imperative that they raised awareness of their faith and taught people that a turban isn't something to fear.
"We stick out, and we're proud of that," said Angad Singh, who recently graduated from USC. "If anyone needs help, you find a Sikh with a turban and they will help you. This is a uniform."