Words and silence were the tormentors in my childhood.
Words spoken not by some strangers or big-boned monsters but family. Uncles, aunts, even my parents—despite their familial affection—reminded me time and again of my aesthetic inadequacy. In their greetings, in their conversations over the years, as if we had no memories they compared my looks to my handsome, older brother countless times.
I could see my brother was a more handsome product of our creation and he did too. But we never had to converse about it. We enjoyed our brotherly bond amidst all things that makes childhood fun. But the adults with their incessant comments about my looks would eventually convince me of my "ugliness."
This word would seep deep into my being. It would change how I looked at myself both in the mirror and in my mind's eye. It would alter my posture. I learned not to look at my reflection for too long. I learned to walk with my head tilted to the ground.
I never learned how to share the words that tormented me with anyone. I did not have the courage to evoke the linguistic demons that penetrated my psyche. No one at home or school created opportunities to share our stories of vulnerability. I cowered into my own personal space with the silence of my unspoken words. I figured this was my problem. Perhaps I was the problem.
If there was a response from my end to the power of words inflicted upon me, it was the overcompensation to do well in school. Although I managed not to read a single book for pleasure before adulthood, I did follow schoolwork to the tee. Somehow concluding my own self-worth was tied solely to professional achievement.
I walked into adulthood on the streets of Los Angeles preparing myself for college. With my long hair tucked into a bun, neatly covered in a turban and small whiskers barely breaking into a beard, I encountered an expanded lexicon of abuse. Young and old of diverse hues would stare at me all the time, burst out laughing in my presence, called me names: "clown," "raghead," "joker," others I have forgotten. Nobody bothered to ask me who I was. I did not have the fortitude to confront misperceptions, ignorance, boorishness. I took this as further evidence of my "ugliness."
I finished college, got a graduate degree and somewhere along the way fell in love with books. Words finally became my friends, my support, my comfort creatures.
The events of 9/11 and its aftermath presented one of the most challenging moments in my life. Words became weapons again. My turbaned, bearded countenance was enough to invoke our collective fears and anxieties. Strangers on the streets beckoned me with calls of "Osama," "Taliban," "Terrorist."
A single cartoon by editorial cartoonist Mark Fiore, "Find the Terrorist in Your Neighborhood!" captured my predicament and changed the course of my life. I started creating cartoons with characters looking like myself to share what inspired me and what peeved me.
I finally found the passion, the courage to speak up through my words, my imagination, my fingers, my cartoons.
It has been a long journey to find my voice, to share my story with others.
Herein lies the biggest lesson for all of us as parents, teachers, friends and even strangers to share our stories, our vulnerabilities, our fallacies, our mistakes with children, young and old. Let them hear things that make life real. Things they might connect to. Things that might inspire them to share brick walls in their way. Someone, words, thoughts, actions that might be tormenting them. To know it is an act of courage to speak up.
Even if they do not immediately find the will to open the book of their life for you, they might latch on to the most important lesson in life. They are not alone in facing the challenges life throws our way.
Editor’s Note: Look for an interview with Singh in the Spring 2015 issue of Teaching Tolerance.
Singh is a writer and costume player as well as the first turbaned and bearded editorial cartoonist in the United States. His spark for cartooning came from a single cartoon created by Mark Fiore in the aftermath of 9/11. Since then he has been creating turbanful Sikh cartoons that can be consumed at Sikhtoons.com.