Meet American Sikhs

Dr. Jasbir Kang, a Yuba City physician honored for his community service, works hard to help others understand Sikh culture and the Sikh religion. (© Dean Tokuno)

Many immigrants like to settle in places that resemble the landscape and climate of their native land. So when immigrants from South Asia’s fertile Punjab region began to move to the United States more than a century ago, it’s not surprising that most of them found their way to Northern California’s central Sacramento Valley. The valley’s bountiful agricultural land and river systems may have reminded them of the land they left behind.

The Punjabi immigrants who sought their fortunes in the United States at the turn of the 20th century were predominantly Muslims and Sikhs. Early immigrants found jobs as railway construction workers or farm laborers. Planting, growing and harvesting crops came naturally to these native Punjabis.

A family worships in the Tierra Buena Sikh temple in Yuba City, California. (© Dean Tokuno)

The first Sikh temple, established in Stockton, California, in 1912, became a social hub where immigrants learned about employment opportunities throughout California’s Central Valley.

Few of the early Punjabi immigrants brought their families with them, and some Punjabi men married local, often Mexican, women. Over the years, as U.S. immigration laws changed, increasing numbers of Punjabi families settled in the Sacramento Valley.

Shared cultures

Today, about 10,000 Sutter County and Yuba County residents are immigrants or descendants of the Punjabi immigrants. Most remain connected to the land, and Punjabi Americans are among California’s most successful farmers.

Second- and third-generation Punjabi Americans and new arrivals now include doctors, dentists, lawyers, educators, retailers, engineers, bankers and public servants.

There is no “Little India” or “Little Pakistan” in Yuba City or nearby Marysville, no special clustering of ethnic restaurants and shops. Punjabis have long been integrated into the community, living among other Americans of wide-ranging ethnic and social backgrounds. It is not so much assimilation as sharing cultures.

Yuba City retailers Sujan Singh and Sunita Nakhwal have built the Punjab Bazaar into a thriving supplier of South Asian cooking necessities. (© Dean Tokuno)

At Walmart or Starbucks or on Plumas Street in Yuba City’s restored downtown, men with full beards and distinctive turbans — traditional for observant Sikhs — are common sights, as are women wearing Punjabi salwar kameez or saris.

To fulfill foreign-language requirements, students at the local secondary schools can study Punjabi, as well as French or Spanish. There is Punjabi programming on local cable TV and radio. A domed Sikh temple, or gurdwara, stands on Tierra Buena Road, one of five gurdwaras in the area. Non-Sikhs are always welcome, and visitors on any day are offered a free meal, known as langar.

Singers perform traditional kirtan, hymns taken from the Sikh holy book, at the Tierra Buena temple. (© Dean Tokuno)

Since 1980, on the first Sunday in November the Tierra Buena Sikh temple celebrates the anniversary of the Guru Granth Sahib — the scripture of this 500-year-old monotheistic religion — with an annual parade that attracts 50,000 to 80,000 participants and spectators. In keeping with Sikh tradition, all are offered refreshment at the temple.

The Punjabi American Festival, held each year on the last Sunday in May, is organized by the Punjabi American Heritage Society, which was founded in 1993 to encourage cross-cultural understanding in the community. The festival is a secular celebration of Punjabi food, film, music and dance.

Sikh values are American values

Dr. Jasbir Kang came to Yuba City in 1991, after serving his medical residency at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital. A highly regarded physician and a respected community member, he has made it his mission to help others better understand the Sikh religion and way of life, while celebrating the ideals and heritage of his adopted home.

“Sikh values are the same as American values; the concepts of justice and equality can be found throughout our holy scripture,” Kang explains.

He and his wife, Sukhjit, want their three American-born children to have rich, multicultural experiences. Kang and like-minded community leaders created the Punjabi-American Heritage Society to acquaint other Americans with Punjabi culture.

Kang is a founder of the annual Punjabi American Festival. His other outreach efforts include writing, public speaking and producing educational videos.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he was a consultant for the independent documentary film Mistaken Identity: Discovering Sikhs (2004), which depicts American Sikhs’ heritage and distinctive appearance. Since 1993, Kang and his brother Jasjit have produced a weekly local TV program, Apna Punjab, which interviews newsmakers in Punjabi and English.

Honored as Physician of the Year 2010 by the nonprofit Fremont-Rideout Foundation for his work in diabetes education and prevention, Dr. Kang extends his community service well beyond the Punjabi-American community, earning recognition from Sacramento-based public television station KVIE as a “local hero” in 2006.

Dr. Kang says he was drawn to America not only by the prospect of material success but because Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were his heroes. The United States exceeded his expectations: “I found justice and fairness. I have found human dignity. I found tolerance and love. I found generosity of spirit, a country that rewards hard work.”

Giving back to the community

In Kiran Johl Black’s orderly office are packages of walnuts bound for markets all over the world: Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific Rim. Black is marketing manager for the Sacramento Valley Walnut Growers, a cooperative that processes and markets walnuts and is owned by local farmers, including her father.

Kiran Johl Black, marketing manager for the Sacramento Valley Walnut Growers, poses in a warehouse stacked with crates of walnuts. (© Dean Tokuno)

Previously, she was political affairs manager for the California Farm Bureau Federation, and as a director in its national affairs and research division, she lobbied in Sacramento and Washington. It’s a generational twist on the family business of agriculture. Black and her two younger sisters grew up on a family farm begun in the 1960s by her grandfather, whose operation now produces peaches, prunes and walnuts in three counties.

Her father, Sarb Johl, got his degree in engineering and electronics, but used his education to expand and diversify the business. He and Kiran’s mother, Prabhjot, a schoolteacher, always emphasized academic achievement, leadership and community service and wanted her to become a doctor.

At the University of California, Davis, she began pre-med studies but, like her father, found growing things and “feeling the soil in your hands” far more appealing. She switched her major to crop science and management. “I waited a bit to tell my dad. But you have to do what you love,” she explains.

Being U.S.-born and married to a non-Punjabi — who has joined the family business — Black is definitely bicultural, but points to what her two worlds importantly have in common.

“Culture is more than food, clothing and music, and is certainly more than ethnicity,” she says. “It is the passing on of important values: a strong work ethic, constant learning, bettering yourself, giving back to the community.”