American Sikhs Find Careers on the Open Road

There has been a romanticized view of the American truck driver, dating back decades. “Truckers” are frequently envisioned as all-American (and usually white) men from the South, the Midwest, and, of course, Texas, embodying an American ideal of freedom and individuality. Memorialized in countless films, especially in the 1970s and ’80s, truck drivers may not be as iconic as the American cowboy, but they certainly have earned their place as part of the Americana landscape.

So, it may come as a surprise to learn that many American truck drivers can be recognized by their turbans, rather than the traditional trucker hats of the last century. That is to say, a growing segment of the trucker population is now made up of Sikhs who emigrated from India. There is a major shortage of truckers in this country, and the need for licensed drivers is only increasing as a large percentage of drivers currently on the road are nearing retirement age. In recent years, Sikhs have been stepping in to fill these positions. As Raman Dhillon, founder of the North American Punjabi Trucking Association, recently explained to the Los Angeles Times, “Punjabis are filling the gap.”

The job has its challenges. Prospective drivers often must pay to complete required training courses. Working as a long-haul trucker means spending significant blocks of time away from one’s family. Plus, there is the added challenge of being Sikh and driving across stretches of rural America where local residents may have had limited exposure to foreign cultures and customs. “They think because my English sounds different that I am not smart,” said Palwinder “Pal” Singh, a 15-year veteran of the industry. But, while Pal recounts a handful of encounters with less-than-welcoming individuals, these incidents are hardly the norm. And, as more Sikh drivers take to the roads, presumably the locals will become more accustomed to their presence.

With thousands and thousands of Sikh truckers traveling cross-country, businesses catering specifically to this population have sprung up from Pennsylvania to Oregon. There are trucking schools that market to Sikhs, truck stops offering hot Indian meals, and even a bi-monthly digital magazine, Punjabi Trucking. Pal explains, “You used to see a guy with a turban and you would get excited. Today, you go to some stops and can convince yourself you are in India.” [See article with video Sikh Drivers are Transforming U.S. Trucking. Take a ride along the Punjabi American highway. by Jaweed Kaleem, Los Angeles Times, 27.Jun.2019.]


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