Mansirat Kaur Bhatia, The Circle

Mansirat; meaning beautiful mind, originates from Sanskrit. Like my name, I also come from a family with roots in both India and Pakistan. While my dad was raised in Patiala, Punjab, my mom grew up travelling from state to state, city to city, until finally settling in Ambala, Haryana. My paternal grandfather belonged to Gujrat, a city now in Punjab, Pakistan, whereas my maternal grandfather was from Gujranwala, also in Pakistan. Both my grandmothers belonged to India, coincidentally from the same state, Uttar Pradesh. The primary language in Punjab is Punjabi, with the most prominent religion being Sikhi or Sikhism, and race being Asian.

Being born on a union territory such as Punjab and into a minority religious group such as Sikh, my family, among many others, has struggled to strive and survive. Whether it be the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan or 1984 Sikh Genocide, many families alike mine who identify as Sikh and Punjabi were forced to not only abandon their homes and leave (literally) everything behind, but to also fight for their lives on multiple occasions. As such, many of our familial values revolve being resilient, courageous, honest, and keeping our faith in God. Sikhi, relies on three core fundamentals: Naam Japna keeping God in mind at all time, Kirt Karna – earning an honest living and Vand Ke Chakna – sharing your earnings with those in need, i.e. charity. My family, culture and religion have all shaped my individual values and ‘idea of being’. Where one teaches me how to build strong relationships and interact with others, another teaches me how to self-reflect, keep patience, and grow from within. While I continued to follow the same belief system as my family, as I grew, I found that Sikhi, as a discipline and religion, gave me light and a path to follow. Whenever I felt lost, listening to Gurbani – meaning God’s words, gave me meaning and strength.

My idea of success and failure has varied throughout the years. As a teenager, I relied heavily on my academic achievements to reassure myself that ‘I was worth it’. As I got older, my focus shifted from getting good grades to practical learning and experiences. Through my years in university, I learned how to develop long-lasting relationships and value this over “networking”. I believe that success is defined by an individual’s resiliency and hard work, whereas failure is inevitable. I am also of the belief that no “failed” outcome should be considered failure, rather a learning experience.

Although I was born in Patiala, Punjab, my upbringing has mostly been abroad. My parents and I moved to Manhattan in 2000 where we lived for almost two years. Being a turbaned man, my father has always been vocal about his views. However, 9/11 was a life-changing incident for everyone. As minorities, our lives had changed. We went from roaming the streets of New-York at 2 am to not leaving our houses for days. Having witnessed the attack himself, my dad’s perception of the States changed forever. What was supposed to be a land of opportunities turned out to be jail – at least during that time. Reflecting on this often makes me realize how lucky we were to survive. Not just Sikhs, but Muslims, Hindus, and numerous other minorities faced racism for simply existing. This taught me that we (minorities) share more in common than we think. While we may follow different cultures or practice separate religions, the fight of acceptance for an immigrant remains the same and, in this struggle, stereotypes are often proved false.

Fast forwarding to 2005 when my family and I moved to Canada, we found the culture to be warm and accepting. Canada is built on diversity, on its immigrants, and on the struggles of its people. Yet, racism exists everywhere. When I first started university in 2016, my friend and I were approached by an old white lady. What we thought was a friendly encounter for help turned out to be an attack on our views. She started the conversation asking where we were from. Less than two minutes in, she asked when we would be “going back to our country”. Immediately, I felt an emptiness in my stomach; I was a Canadian citizen; this was my home. Going back, I often think about her and compare this incident to an apple tree. No matter how many “good” apples you have, there will always be one that is rotten. As such, I do not believe she represented Canada. All in all, this has been and is my home. One bad experience will not change my view of those who are different than me. Instead, they will teach me patience, peace, and love.

My university, W. Laurier has known to be an extremely diverse environment. With an enrollment of almost 20,000, there are students from several different parts of the world. Throughout my four years here, I have been lucky enough to interact with numerous professors, colleagues, and staff who are and are not Punjabi or Sikh. Laurier’s Centre for Student Equity, Diversity and Inclusion works to cultivate a culture on campus that respects and promotes equity, diversity, inclusion, and social justice in all aspects of Laurier – from classrooms to residence communities. The Centre provides support, education, and spaces for students to find community and engage in equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives. In the Waterloo campus, Laurier offers a number of student collectives, multi-faith support resources and community collections. Being around so many different people has nurtured me into developing a broader mindset. Living in Brampton, I had been around people who came from a similar background as mine, so when I moved into residence in my first year, I was away from my comfort zone and a bit hesitant in being my true self. As time passed, I noticed that our similarities overpowered our differences. We all shared the same underlying values and to an extent, we were together in this struggle of living away from home, independently. When I first joined Laurier, I had several regrets, mainly, choosing it over the University of Waterloo, but now that my degree comes to an end, I think back on this decision, and realize it may have been the best decision of my life. I have made countless memories here which I will cherish forever. I met some of my best friends through Laurier’s diversity initiatives, namely, Laurier International and Student’s Union.

Throughout my years at Laurier, I have been involved in leadership roles in several student-run clubs and cultural initiatives, such as the Waterloo Laurier Punjabi Association, Laurier East Meets West, and Waterloo-Laurier Sikh Students Association. By actively participating in these associations, I built newer relations with people I never could have imagined to. From vendors, to speakers, to local business owners, artists, and so much more, I interacted with these individuals on a one-to-one level and learnt about their life, their values, their struggles – and these were the eye-opening moments for me. These connections significantly influenced my interpersonal skills and shaped my awareness of my surroundings. I have also had the privilege of being a Teacher’s Assistant for the Department of Physics and Computer Science since my third year. This position further solidified my understanding of perspective. Over the last two years, I’ve taught more than 500 students – all coming from different cultures, believers of different faiths, some international, some local, and it’s quite amazing to see how many different interpretations you can have of the same thing.

Moving out of India, away from family was never an easy decision. We were doing well there; my grandparents believed highly in education. They ensured my parents, my aunts, uncles, everyone up to and including the caretakers got a basic education, and had they decided to pursue it further, they supported that as well. My family was financially stable, they had job security, and most importantly, we were all together – one big happy family. Being the first-born grandchild from both maternal and paternal sides, there was no shortening in the love and pampering I got. As such, when we left India, I felt that I left a part of my heart behind too. With family still living back home, I can draw comparisons between our lifestyles to further understand how different environments can impact our mental health, emotional intelligence, and social awareness.

Living in a diverse society like Canada often reminds me of the privileges I have had growing up. However, at the same time, I find myself in a weird trade-off, recognizing my freedom but questioning, what did I do to deserve this? It breaks my heart, to learn how much the history of my ancestors, of my faith has been downplayed. It breaks my heart, to know that despite what the Sikhs have done for other communities, what we get in return is attacks on our faith and beliefs. In a perfect world, we are all supposed to be accepting. Forget perfect, in any diverse society, we should embrace one’s culture and faith; acceptance does not mean changing nor converting, it means recognizing your differences and being okay with it. But, honestly, I am tired, I am exhausted, and I am broken. How much more do my people, do our people, do our minorities have to fight for their rights? As reported by The Economic Times, on March 25, 2020, a heavily armed Islamic State suicide bomber stormed a prominent Gurdwara in the heart of Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul and killed 25 Sikhs while injuring eight others. Following this attack, on March 26, another blast took place near a Sikh crematorium, injuring a child and disrupting funeral services for the 25 members of the minority community killed in the Gurudwara attack.

To further add to the plight of our minorities, on March 27, there were reports of another attempted attack on the same Gurdwara in Kabul, in which mines were planted around the house of worship and its neighboring complex. This was not the first attack on our faith and would not be the last. Whether it be 1947, 1984, 2001, or 2020, our minorities have been persecuted by fascist governments, nationalists, extremists, and just immoral humans, in the name of religion. But what religion is that which teaches its followers to kill? What religion is that which divides a community and turns its citizens against one another. I thank God every day I live in Canada. I am grateful for the roof over my head, for the food, for the education, and mostly, for being able to practice my faith openly. But, at the same time, I also feel helpless. I am privileged enough to be typing this reflection paper, when there is probably another girl my age, struggling to make ends meet, and just surviving. And in moments of self-reflection like this, I often ask myself – what did I do to deserve this?

Nonetheless, living in Canada has not been short of promises. Jagmeet Singh – leader of Canada’s NDP, Harjit Sajjan – Minister of National Defense, Bardish Chagger – Minister of Diversity, Inclusion and Youth, Navdeep Bains – Minister of Innovation, Science, and Industry, Nav Bhatia – Businessman, are all examples of visible Sikhs who have worked against the odds and proved to be successful. By having such role models, it serves as a constant reminder that if they can do it, why cannot I? April has also been recognized as “Sikh Heritage Month” in Canada. This serves as assurance that Canada is our home, we might be culturally different, pray to a different God, but we all breathe and bleed the same, we are one.

As a young Sikh girl, I have grown to become vocal about my views on religion, on injustices against minorities, on feminism, in other words, on issues that may seem conventionally controversial. Being able to do so openly often reminds me of the privilege we all have. However, with great power comes great responsibility. While I can openly share my opinions, I do have to think twice before I do, especially as a visible minority, where our words may be used against us. In an article for global news, Dr. Eddy Ng, a professor at Dalhousie University believes, “I think discrimination happens at a higher level because of a tendency to associate certain culture and ethnic groups with certain professions”. In a study he conducted, he found that both Black Canadians and Asian Canadians experience similar levels of discrimination. For instance, Black Canadians are more wrongly associated with low level jobs such as janitorial work and alternatively, Asian Canadians tend to go for professional managerial jobs which leads to discrimination amongst the population.

Although we moved to Canada, the stigma behind being a South Asian girl who wishes to pursue further education or work in senior managerial roles still exists. I consider myself beyond blessed that my family supports me in achieving my goals everyday. Never have my parents discriminated between my brother and I – and in fact, they are the ones pushing me to pursue a Masters. However, I have had several encounters with other members of the community who frown upon this. I recall, in conversation with a random lady at a party, she asked my dad what my plans after undergrad were because “I wasn’t going to study forever, one degree is enough” and “I should focus my efforts on settling down” to which my dad said with a straight face that “yes, she’s going for her masters soon”. For us [women of color], ambition has never been the issue, the real problem is battling the individuals in our own communities who try to discriminate based on gender. Until we combat that, we cannot fight the issues faced by women of color in climbing the corporate ladder. Jo Piazza of Wall Street Journal shares that “48% of women of colour said they aspire to be a top executive compared to 37% of Caucasian women. However, women of colour make up only 12% of management”. Apart from this, one of the biggest challenges I have personally faced as a Sikh student in Waterloo, is the accessibility to places of worship. In Waterloo and Kitchener, there are only two Gurdwaras, both of which require owning a vehicle to get to. This distance becomes extremely difficult as whenever we want to go to the Gurdwara – we have to think twice as it is not nearby.

I believe in leading by example. We cannot preach unity, until we practice it ourselves. We cannot preach acceptance, until we learn to co-habituate and co-exist. To enhance our overall understanding of other faiths and cultures, we must begin the conversation at home. We are quick to celebrate Western holidays, such as Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and so on, but how much does the common man know about Vaisakhi, Eid, Diwali, Puthandu, etc. As such, I believe schools and communities should have open conversations and interfaith events that celebrate the diversity in their community.

For instance, in my high school, we had a 2-day festival called Culture-Fest, where students participated in several activities and put on a show, featuring multi-cultural singing and dancing. I would further extend this and have schools dedicate a day in their school year to all major faiths. In fact, a world religions course, should also be mandatory in both high school and college/university. As important as it is to know how to file our taxes and become financially independent, it is equally as important to equip ourselves with awareness and understanding of other cultures, so we do not become ignorant. To further elaborate, I also believe that university and college communities should work with the City of Waterloo in setting up places of worship near campus, for instance, opening a Gurdwara, Mandir and Masjid nearby the schools and not hours away.

During my time at Laurier, I have had numerous occasions where I got to learn something new, dislike my culture. In my first year, my roommate was Italian. She often cooked pastas and pizzas from scratch, which to me was completely different than what I was used to seeing. In my second year, I became good friends with some of the international students in my program. Being around them made me realize how mentally strong, resilient, and determined they were – leaving family behind and starting a new life in a new country. In my third year, I attended my first Walima – a completely new culture for me to experience, but still the same love. From others around us, we can learn so much, ranging from new skills, new values, a better understanding of their lifestyle, where their emotional quotient derives from, their way of thinking, and more – all of which is only possible with an open mind. We are often quick to jump to conclusions or make assumptions about someone or something, but the reality is, that is our ignorance speaking.

To conclude, this course has affirmed my belief in the importance of discussion and acceptance, we all become severely engrossed in our lives that we do not see beyond ourselves. Tomorrow, when our lives return back to normal and we become engrossed in our daily tasks, I might forget parts of this course, I might not remember each detail of each religion, but I will remember to be patient, to listen and to respect. Taking part in courses like such is awfully important because they stimulate thoughts in your mind which are different from your everyday life – some you must dig deep and ask yourself about. We can only broaden our knowledge and learn about the different cultures around us if we partake in conversations as such.


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