Hey man, is that a crowbar in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?
August 27, 2007 11:34 AM   Subscribe

I'm Sikh, I'm going to SF, I'm (irrationally) scared...

I'm 28, a UK citizen and, ostensibly Sikh. I wouldn't (in a million years) call myself a proper follower of my faith -- my beard is shaved BUT I do wear a modern style turban (kinda like this guy here). I'm traveling to SF in 2 weeks on work and I'll be there for 5 days or so. It'll be my first trip to the USA and in many, many ways I'm *really* looking forward to it.

However, given the current socio-political climate I find myself feeling intimidated thinking about walking around the USA looking the way I do -- and am afraid for my personal safety. I understand that part of this is complete irrational fear, but part of it is based on anecdotes from friends and family who have been there, as well as my own experiences in the UK.

I also understand that by-and-large SF is probably one of the most liberal, cosmopolitan cities in the USA and most people will probably have a rough idea of who I am and where I'm from. I'm just afraid of the uneducated buffoons. So I was wondering, any hints or tips on (1) how to behave (2) places to avoid and (3) generally make my trip more pleasant?
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (42 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
SF is the last place in the US to be scared. You'll probably be too normal to fit in, sorry. Only normal people get noticed here.

I still think most people in the general urban US population are the best and friendliest in the world. There's rural areas that can be highly bigoted, and plenty of scary news stories, but day-to-day life in the cosmopolitan United States has a lot of intelligent, friendly people in it.
posted by kcm at 11:42 AM on August 27, 2007

Aside fom the normal crime etc, you are almost certainly totally safe in San Francisco, at least from the standpoint of being Sikh. SF has soooo many people from absolutely everywhere that I doubt anyone will even notice you.

A resident can better guide you to places of interest, either as a standard visitor or as a Sikh, as could a decent online search. And of course, there are "uneducated buffoons" everywhere in the world. You may meet one during your visit. You may not. The perils of travel.

Have fun. Welcome to our country!
posted by elendil71 at 11:46 AM on August 27, 2007

One thing you may want to do as soon as possible when you arrive is go down to Fisherman's wharf. I'm figuring that would be in your plans, as it's a huge tourist destination. I suggest you go early on in your visit, though, so you can see just how huge of a tourist destination it is.

Ten minutes at Fisherman's wharf in the afternoon, and you will see just how many, many, many tourists there are in SF, from all over the world, every country, every faith, every.. everything! That will give you a good perspective.

And I hope you have fun! SF is a great, fantastic city.
posted by Ms. Saint at 11:51 AM on August 27, 2007

Behave like the nice, normal person I'm sure you are. In SF, you should be 'safe' anywhere you go (aside from places which are generally not safe for anyone.)

I had Sikh neighbours when I lived in a small Midwestern town, and they were accepted and well-liked by everyone in the not-too-progressive town. You won't have any more problems in SF than where you live in the UK - fewer maybe.

So relax, and just have a great trip!
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 11:52 AM on August 27, 2007

You'll be fine throughout the Bay Area, really. There's a pretty sizeable Sikh community here - the Khanda displayed just about every day here in the far East Bay, and turbans are common enough that no-one should bat an eye.
posted by lekvar at 11:53 AM on August 27, 2007

I understand from friends that going through customs as a non-resident has become a complete pain in the ass, but once you actually are admitted, San Francisco is a piece of cake. Behave like a friendly interested visitor and avoid the places that tourists should avoid regardless of who they are and you will be fine. There are tons of threads about things to see and do in San Francisco, too many to point to here.

posted by ambrosia at 11:56 AM on August 27, 2007

You'll be fine. Yes, we have our share of uneducated buffoons, even here in lovely SF, but no more that the UK. Whatever you do to stay safe in the UK should work for you here. People probably see fewer Sikhs here than in the UK, but I really doubt you'll get all that much attention.

There are lots of questions on here about what to do in SF, so read through those before you come, if you haven't already. There's plenty to do here. Enjoy your visit!
posted by gingerbeer at 11:56 AM on August 27, 2007

You'll be safe from bigotry in any major city, including SF. As long as you aren't planning any trips to the Midwest or the South, you will be just fine!
posted by ThFullEffect at 11:58 AM on August 27, 2007

Welcome to San Francisco. This is one of the friendliest, most open-minded places I have ever been. With the sort of eccentricity that passes without comment or reprisal every day on the streets here, another clean, well-groomed fellow in a turban is going to excite absolutely zero notice from anyone.

Unless you're cute, in which case people of both genders will probably hit on you.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:59 AM on August 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

I live in SF and can assure you -- things will be just fine. Be friendly, smile and relax.
posted by cior at 12:00 PM on August 27, 2007

i wouldn't worry about SF city itself, but i would worry about airports (do you go through immigration at sf?)
posted by andrew cooke at 12:06 PM on August 27, 2007

The only reason I can think of to worry would be if you're obviously carrying a kirpan around. That might not go over so well with some folks.

...well, that and the assholes in Customs & Immigration.
posted by aramaic at 12:10 PM on August 27, 2007

out of curiosity, if you're willing to shave your beard, why not go the extra half step and cut your hair? Or why not wear it long like a pony tail? I have sikh friends who have chosen either/both options, who werent that religious minded to begin with.
posted by jak68 at 12:11 PM on August 27, 2007

also, i don't think it's irrational. as far as i understand things they can pretty much detain anyone without trial. i worry about going to the usa and i'm "white". it's not just "terrorism" - i've had crap from police while in arizona because (as far as i can tell) i was in a car with a latino (and an indian colleague there was seriously hassled by the police).

carry your passport with you - don't leave it in the hotel room.
posted by andrew cooke at 12:15 PM on August 27, 2007

Nothing to worry about. Plenty of turban wearing Sikhs in every big city in the US.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:15 PM on August 27, 2007

As long as you aren't planning any trips to the Midwest or the South, you will be just fine!

It's almost certainly an exception, but the small relatively conservative midwestern town next to mine has two Hindu temples, a Sikh temple under construction, and several businesses with names like "Singh & Son Development", etc. Heck, there's even a Singh Street. It's not all guns, trailers and bigotry in the Midwest, even outside of the major urban areas.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 12:17 PM on August 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

You'll be safe from bigotry in any major city, including SF. As long as you aren't planning any trips to the Midwest or the South, you will be just fine!

I would avoid such sweeping generalizations. The truth is there are bigots and idiots everywhere. You might get quizzical looks or double takes because outside of cities its not common to see people with turbans on their head but that doesn't equate to you being harassed or bothered. At least not any more so then what you experience in some parts of the UK.

Enjoy your trip, SF is a great city.
posted by mmascolino at 12:18 PM on August 27, 2007

Speaking from the midwest, there are enough Sikhs even in my city that people know they are not "ayrab terrerists". I thought the whole fear of Sikhs thing went out of fashion in the late 19th century?
posted by JJ86 at 12:18 PM on August 27, 2007

You should be fine in SF. And if you find you're not, for whatever reason, post a followup to Metatalk and we'll all come meet up for tea or something.
posted by judith at 12:19 PM on August 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Also, if people seem unfriendly, or don't smile back, it's not because you're Sikh, it's because people here aren't as friendly as other places. Nothing personal- it's just a cultural difference.

I know nothing about UK-culture, if there is such a thing, in the singular, but I know that people from the mid-west get put-off by the San Franciscan's disinterest in smiling and chatting with people they don't know.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:20 PM on August 27, 2007

safety-wise, wearing a turban isn't going to introduce any extra risk of violence for you -- i can't really think of any major city in the US where this would be the case, and I'm hard-pressed to imagine it anywhere at all, no matter how 'backwards'. You may have an higher incidence of people being rude to you, but enough risk of violence that you should be concerned for your safety? Doubtful. I understand that there is some racial tension involving people of South Asian descent and Caucasians in parts of the UK, but that's pretty much unheard of in the US.

you will probably be under a tiny bit of extra-scrutiny from the police (if you happen to have any interactions with them, from personal experience) and arguably, security checkpoints in airports (suggested by anecdotal evidence from friends), but that's it.

additionally, like lekvar has mentioned, people wearing turbans in the bay area isn't particularly noteworthy.

Worst-case scenario: if you're unlucky you may encounter a couple jerks who would make fun of you for wearing a turban (thanks to the Simpsons, people think it's hilarious to make jokes about indians -- and often, arabic folk -- working at liquor stores).

In general: you should avoid the Tenderloin at night unless you're a fan of the grittier parts of cities (i don't consider it dangerous, but it does have a higher crime rate than most other parts of SF). It is easy to walk into the Tenderloin from the Financial District or Union Square (which is directly on its border). Lower Haight and Lower Pac Heights/Alamo Sq. can be similarly seedy and easy to stumble into if you're doing a lot of walking. You'll probably want to avoid Hunter's Point/Bayview (it's doubtful you would accidentally end up there, however). Aside from Hunter's Point/Bayview (which I know little about, aside from the industrial regions), none of these areas are really "oh crap, I'm going to get knifed for sure" sorts of places, but it's a good idea to keep to well-lit streets and be aware of your surroundings if you choose to walk through them. In the East Bay, you might try to avoid wandering around many of the Oakland BART stations (West Oakland, 12th st, 19th, MacArthur) at night.

on preview: definitely have ID or your passport on you.
posted by fishfucker at 12:24 PM on August 27, 2007

As long as you aren't planning any trips to the Midwest or the South, you will be just fine!

And, ahem, even the Midwest would've been fine.

— slightly put-off Chicagoan

posted by WCityMike at 12:37 PM on August 27, 2007

You'd be more likely to be talked to death by perfect strangers in the Midwest than anything else. I say this having grown up in the one that looks like a hand.
posted by kcm at 12:39 PM on August 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm in the midst of Midwestern suburban sprawl and we have a Sikh temple a half mile down the road from us. The USA isn't all scary rednecks.
posted by desjardins at 12:41 PM on August 27, 2007

You'll be great. (Your biggest concern is being warm enough — visitors always end up freezing. It does get warmer here toward late September, so you may be okay, but weather really varies by neighborhood. It's always gorgeous in the Mission, but if you'll be in the touristy areas or downtown expect fog and a cool breeze.)
posted by rafter at 12:44 PM on August 27, 2007

As long as you aren't planning any trips to the Midwest or the South, you will be just fine!

And, ahem, even the Midwest would've been fine.

— slightly put-off Chicagoan

Not so sure about that -- generalizations are of little use -- but from my own personal experiences, I don't think too highly of Chicago's tolerance levels. I'm an American of south-asian descent, often-bearded, never turbanned. When bearded, I got hassled a good bit in Chicago -- nothing more than annoyances (people calling me Osama, people yelling "terrorist" at me). And although you can dismiss these folks, it definitely sucks when you're on the receiving end of being shouted down for doing nothing besides walking down the street. Also, my african-american roommate there was on the receiving end of much worse. Maybe we just had bad luck...

That said, I've never had a similar problem in San Francisco. It's a great place to start out in the U.S. if you're a little skittish as to how you are going to be perceived. I don't think the fear is at all irrational by the way. It just takes a few ignorant intolerant folks to ruin a nice time - if just temporarily. But still, if you're on holiday, it's something you'd probably hope you wouldn't have to deal with. There are very few places in the U.S. with better odds of being left alone than S.F., so hopefully you won't have any run-ins and will be able to enjoy that beautiful beautiful city.
posted by buddha9090 at 12:53 PM on August 27, 2007

i wouldn't worry about sanfran. enjoy your trip!
posted by thinkingwoman at 1:12 PM on August 27, 2007

You'll be completely fine. You have absolutely no need to fear for your personal safety due to wearing a turban--in SF, the Midwest, the South, the East Coast, wherever.
posted by dead_ at 1:22 PM on August 27, 2007

Just nthing the fact that you'll be completely fine. Here in San Francisco we are quite accustomed to seeing people in turbans. I see several every day. No one will bat an eye.
posted by trip and a half at 1:39 PM on August 27, 2007

As long as you aren't planning any trips to the Midwest or the South, you will be just fine!

Oh, please. Today I took my mom to an appointment with her doctor (Syrian), and then we had lunch at a great vegetarian place run by the father of one of the guys I used to play golf with (Sikh), where we ran into my friend (Greek), who told us that his daughter just got engaged to her boyfriend (Korean). We're in Birmingham, Alabama. It's not 1965, even down here.

Sorry for the derail. Have fun in the states. We're not the hyper-racist cartoon a lot of folks would like us to be.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:39 PM on August 27, 2007 [6 favorites]

Data points for you that I hope will make you feel better (on top of all of the positive opinions):

- Across the bay, California State University East Bay, in Hayward, just established the Ranjit Singh Sabharwal Chair in Sikh and Punjabi Studies.
- The San Francisco Asian Art Museum has one of the only, if not THE only, permanent Sikh art/history collections in the Western hemisphere.
- Although there are no official numbers currently, it's estimated that there are 150,000 Sikhs living in Northern California ("clustered around the Gurdwaras of San Jose, Fremont, El Sobrante, Roseville, and Yuba City"--and many of the residents of the first three work in SF. In fact, my town, Fremont, officially named a street Gurdwara Road. You can read about it at the Fremont Gurdwara site.)

I could tally up the number of Sikh decals I see on minivans and sedans in my town, but I'd probably run out of paper. All of the above is just to provide some concrete evidence that Sikhs are part of daily life in the SF area. It's no guarantee that you won't run into some loudmouth idiot, but that's the way of the world.

Good luck, and I hope you have a good time here!
posted by wintersweet at 2:22 PM on August 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Echoing everyone, there's a huge South Asian community in the region, especially in the South and East Bay. You could, for example, wander into the local eight-screen Bollywood Theater completely without notice.
posted by kittyprecious at 2:36 PM on August 27, 2007

It's San Francisco. The turban won't get any reaction. Now a turban and a sequined pink evening dress might make people notice, but even then they'll just shrug and say:

"Only in San Francisco."
posted by chairface at 4:08 PM on August 27, 2007

As long as you aren't planning any trips to the Midwest or the South, you will be just fine!

I live in a midsized city in the south with a sizable minority of, among other things, Muslims; it is not uncommon to see women with various styles of headscarves who are being treated completely normally by everyone else. Other things which do not warrant a second glance by the majority of the populace: turbans, traditional Indian dress, dashikis. I've spoken with one headscarfed woman who said she very rarely would get a comment, but not often at all and they have continued to fade in number as we get farther away from 2001 - I would imagine they're nothing to the comments that people all over the country get on a daily basis simply for being female. Perhaps you ought to actually, you know, visit the rest of the country before making such a statement.

But yeah, you'll be fine.
posted by frobozz at 7:55 PM on August 27, 2007

You'll be fine all over the San Francisco bay area, and most of the country with or without the turban. Now if you tried to take a ceremonial dagger through airport security, you might have a problem.

If you did get beaten up anywhere in America it'd most likely be for your wallet rather than because you were Sikh, but the more realistic thing to worry about is forgetting to look left-right-left when crossing the street.
posted by BrotherCaine at 8:14 PM on August 27, 2007

I am Sikh and have lived on both US coasts and the UK. If anyone looks at you twice it's not going to be because of your turban, it will be because of your British accent; even then it will be out of curiosity, not hostility. Walking through SF shouldn't be any different than walking down a street in the UK.

Americans aren't the bigots they're made out to be. Personally, I found people in London to be a bit less accepting than most Americans.
posted by ASM at 8:44 PM on August 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Welcome to the US! I hope you have a great time.

I live about an hour south of San Francisco, and I'm dittoing pretty much everyone here. We've certainly got our share of xenophobic jackholes and you might run into one. But chances in the Bay Area are low. The city's a pretty cool place, and if you're accosted by anyone it's likely to be a homeless dude asking for a few bucks.

But really ASM nailed it. People here are more likely to gawk at how you speak (in a good way. A bunch of us are still instantly smitten by any UK accent) than how you dress. Have fun!
posted by amery at 1:06 AM on August 28, 2007

I just want to say that I'm sorry you have to worry about this when coming to the US. That sucks.

That said, I think you'll be fine anywhere in San Francisco. And if you're not, this isn't the city I thought it was.
posted by stonefruit at 6:43 AM on August 28, 2007

judith's got it:

"You should be fine in SF. And if you find you're not, for whatever reason, post a followup to Metatalk and we'll all come meet up for tea or something."

Meetup! As a MeFite, you've got a just-add-water posse, and at the very least a lot of folks interested in making your acquaintance.

I've got a guest pass to the Asian Art Museum if wintersweet's idea piqued interest. You're welcome to borrow it.
posted by cior at 8:14 AM on August 28, 2007

There's a meetup in SF on the 31st. Come out, anon!

I dub it: Yes, We're Just Happy To See You Meetup
posted by cior at 8:18 AM on August 28, 2007

cior, I don't think he'll be here yet on the 31st.
posted by trip and a half at 1:49 PM on August 28, 2007

This just appeared in today's San Jose Mercury News:

"Sikh men feel targeted at airports"

So... I suspect you won't have problems once you're in SF, but you might be hassled a bit by airport security.
posted by lalas at 2:40 PM on August 28, 2007

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