Cultural Excursions

Tomorrow is the last day of classes for the school year at Washington Irving, and I’m a little sad. For the last couple of months I’ve been tutoring there, mostly with a group of women from Afghanistan who don’t speak much English. They are awesome. They work super-hard and are so appreciative of any help that they get, and they love Schenectady. At one point I was asking them where they’d like to live if they could live anywhere in the world, and they were like: Schenectady. Schenectady is the best. It is calm and they can walk in Central Park. Of course. They arrived with zero English or schooling or experience holding a writing instrument, even, and they are copying words down like crazy and just gamely doing their best to make conversation.

Also, they are excellent cooks. Exhibit A:

I’m going to try to meet with them over the summer, too. If you or someone you know may be interested in helping with tutoring during day or evening classes, you can like Schenectady Literacy Partners’ Facebook page or let me know. They’ll start new tutors in the fall.

On Saturday, J and I took a walk over to the Sikh Community Fair hosted by Guru Nanak Darbar, the Sikh Temple located in Niskayuna at the corner of Route 7 and St. David’s Lane. J was all on board when she heard that there would be free Indian food involved, but we almost missed the food because we arrived fairly late and started with a tour of the temple itself, which maybe took slightly too long for J because I ask too many questions, according to J.  I can’t help it, it was interesting! Plus, it’s usually awkward to ask people specific questions about people’s closely-held religious beliefs. We lucked out with our tour guide, a young woman who’d recently graduated from college who was friendly and non-intimidating about asking questions. Perhaps I was too comfortable: on the walk home, J told me that I laughed too loudly multiple times. Ah, having a daughter is so great for encouraging humility.

So, what did I learn? Okay, well, obviously you can learn plenty by reading a book or checking websites and such, but here’s what I gleaned from our visit.

First, here are the basic tenets of Sikhism according to their handout from the event:

  • Belief in One God without any human form.
  • Equality of men & women and equality of all social classes.
  • Unique physical identity (unshorn hair, turbans, other articles of faith).
  • Social activism in community to promote equality and charity.
  • Utmost respect of ALL religions; no attempts are made to convert others to the Sikh faith. What is important is to believe in God in your own way, live an honest life, help those in need, and view everyone as equal. That will help create a perfect society.

At the beginning of the tour I had one burning question: should I be pronouncing Sikh sick or seek? Our guide explained that Sikh comes from Punjabi and roughly means “always faithful and learning,” and in Punjabi this word is pronounced like sick, but many people talking about the faith pronounce it more like seek so it’s not confused with, you know, being ill. Which left me with the impression that, okay, sick is technically correct, but the whole point is that they are super friendly and welcoming and chill like that, so they’re cool with whatever works. Although, now that I write this, the word “seek” seems really appropriate to the whole “always faithful and learning” ethos. So I might be leaning seek as my personal preference. But whichever way you pronounce it, they are sure to welcome you and offer you some food.

We walked around the altar area, which you can see in that first photo on their home page. So one thing that jumped out at me was the five rings. They’re symbolic of the “5 Ks” that are part of that whole physical identity/articles of faith thing. They are:

  • Kesh, which is uncut hair, symbolic of accepting how God made you
  • Kara, an iron bracelet that everyone wears as a reminder not to do anything bad with your hand
  • Kangha, a comb to symbolize clean mind and body and respecting what God’s given you
  • Kachera, an undergarment to symbolize modesty and chastity
  • Kirpan, a sword to symbolize the ability to defend the good and the weak or vulnerable

I was trying to remember all these, and this BBC site has some great and more explanations of the symbolism, but the bullet points are how my tour guide explained it.

So, the follow-up question was obvious: was she wearing a sword on her person right now?

Nope. Our tour guide hasn’t been baptized yet. The way she explained it, Sikhs only get baptized when they’re really, really ready to give it all up for God, to eschew anything material that might get between them and God, to pray five times a day, to really devote themselves fully. She wasn’t there yet, she explained, motioning to her earrings, which are an official Sikh no-no (since that’s not how God made her). Her grandma was baptized, she explained. She does it all.

This sword thing is a big thing, and you can see a bunch of them on the altar in that photo as well. What you can’t see, which is too bad because it’s pretty fun, is that there’s also basically an electric skillet plugged in and sitting on the altar. This is another Sikh thing, our guide explained: they’ve always got some warm food there, as a way to be hospitable and welcoming as well as to provide charity for those who need food. I literally thought that someone was just pressed for enough electric outlets because of the special event, but that food is waiting for you right now.

Another interesting thing that you can only sort of see in that picture is that there’s a little room over to the right of the altar–see that white door and the window?–which is like a little bedroom for the Bible. Our tour guide explained that the last living prophet in Sikhism said that there wouldn’t be another living prophet, that instead everyone would have a Living Bible to guide them like previous prophets had. So they continue to treat the Bible as if it is a living entity, and part of that is the ritual to bring the Bible out, open it, and place it on the altar very respectfully each morning, then to sort of “put it to bed” each evening. “My Grandma has one at her house,” she said. And yes, she puts it to bed each evening.

I actually could have asked many more follow-up questions, but I didn’t want to keep our guide forever and J didn’t want to miss out on the food. We hurried out and ate some tasty food.

You’re totally jealous now, right, and you want to do some cultural exploration of your own? Well, dude, this Saturday it’s Scots Day at Ft. Ticonderoga and Juneteenth at Schenectady’s Central Park. Come to think of it, there’s also a Stockade Scavenger Hunt I’ve been meaning to visit. That’s the trouble with my work–I’m always well aware of everything that’s going on, which makes me feel extra-lazy when I just feel like hanging out around the house.


  1. Generally they tend to be, but it’s not an absolute must. I got the impression that most people are vegetarian and the folks who are baptized are strict vegetarians and/or vegans–our guide was saying that was part of the whole full-on, sword-wearing, Bible-tending, all-in attitude of folks who are baptized.

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