Sometimes, it’s the bright dresses or head scarves.
Sometimes, it’s the beard.
Sometimes, it’s the turban.
Sometimes, it’s just an accent.
Whatever it is, many Sikhs in Tracy sometimes feel like odd men out.
Jass Sangha, who ran for City Council in 2010 and is a former business owner, said that while she feels “very welcome” in Tracy, many who adhere to a more traditional look — especially men who sport both a beard and a turban as part of their faith — don’t.
Mostly that means sidelong glances or impolite whispers. But sometimes Sikhs find themselves on the receiving end of insults. Or worse.
Earlier this month, two Sikhs walking down the side of the road in Elk Grove while wearing turbans were shot down, one fatally. Police say there’s no apparent motive, but common sense screams hate crime, that some ignoramus wanted to send a message — you don’t belong here.
It’s stunning irony. Because if that unknown thug had talked instead of shot, he probably would have found himself treated to comfort that would put the famed Southern hospitality to shame.
If you doubt, take a visit to a local Sikh temple, as I did this past Sunday, when I joined several hundred believers for an annual festival of prosperity.
This time, it wasn’t a faithful man in a turban who was in unknown territory — it was me. But even though I was only one of a handful of folks there who weren’t Sikh, I didn’t feel like a stranger for long.
Sangha gave an immediate greeting and introduced me to everyone within arm’s length. Five minutes into my visit, I had friends for the rest of the day.
The welcome was unquestioning. It didn’t matter if I only spoke English and didn’t quite know what was going on. I was given tea, food and a much-needed assist putting on a bandana so I could enter the temple with reverence.
And when I did, they honored me and a few other guests with ceremonial orange scarves — honored, just for being a part of their community for the day.
If that wasn’t touching enough, I was asked to eat as a member of the community, sitting cross-legged on the ground, where everybody is an equal.
I was befriended, fed and feted. And I was the one intruding.
While I ate and talked, the tragedy in Elk Grove came up more than once, and temple leaders spoke about the need to reach out, break barriers and become a more integral part of Tracy.
It’s a struggle as old as the United States, a story told in immigrant communities from New York to Los Angeles: How do you assimilate without abandoning your heritage?
Local Sikhs know the balancing act.
Many members of the temple I visited are upstanding citizens and business owners who maintain strong ties with the temple. Take Sangha, who mounted a serious campaign for a council seat last fall. Or Bob Sekhon, host of Sunday’s event and owner of Mountain Mike’s Pizza, who the company named its franchise owner of the year.
Meanwhile, Sunday school at the Grant Line Road temple passes along culture and language to the next generation, keeping tradition alive. And family and community togetherness remain of paragon importance, something that was abundantly evident Sunday.
I thought about that tension and the Elk Grove shooting when I drove away Sunday, still wearing my brilliant scarf. And while I drove, I wondered.
It’s hard to imagine how a community that extends so much warmth can sometimes feel it’s on the outside looking in.
Maybe it’s just the way things are. Or maybe it’s time for the rest of us to open our arms and return the welcome.
• Contact associate editor Jon Mendelson at firstname.lastname@example.org.