By Gurmukh Singh
YUBA CITY: Back in the 1980s when every Indian professional going to the US settled in big cities, Indian American doctor Jasbir Kang made a different choice.
Dr Jasbir Kang, who came from Patiala to the US in 1986, decided to settle in the small but famous Yuba City which is known for producing the world’s biggest peach farmer Didar Singh Bains.
“I came to the US after finishing my MBBS from the Patiala Medical College and my marriage to my wife who is from the Bay (San Francisco) area. After doing my three-year residency in Chicago, I decided to settle in Yuba City,’’ says Dr Kang who was to go on to make a name for himself as a Sikh community leader.
“I could have taken a job in any bigger city. But a clinic in the Yuba City area was desperately looking for a physician. So I came here just to explore the opportunity. I did some temporary work here and soon doctor inside me felt that patients here were in desperate need of physicians. I also liked the similarity of Yuba City with Punjab and gradually started feeling at home here,’’ recalls Dr Kang who currently serves as Medical Director of Hospitalist Program at the local Rideout Memorial Hospital.
Coming from a highly educated family of Patiala, the young doctor felt that Yuba City’s Punjabi community was restricted to itself even though they had been living in the area for decades.
“At the time, all our social and religious activities were limited to our homes and our gurdwaras. So I, along with some others, thought that we need to reach out to society at large,’’ says Dr Kang.
Over the next two decades, even as he set about building his medical career in small-town America, the young Patiala doctor, along with like-minded people, decided to change the profile of the Punjabi community of America’s famous Punjab-da-pind called Yuba City.
“So in 1993, we set up the Punjabi American Heritage Society, and our aim was to raise awareness among the Americans about our identity and culture and who we are. We started a Teachers’ Appreciation Evening where we invited white teachers to understand our religion, culture and values. This worked wonders. Teachers were now able to better connect with Sikh students in classroom. Then we started our first Punjabi program on the local cable channel,’’ says Dr Kang.
In 1994, they made presentations to the Yuba City Unified School District to start Punjabi as a subject in schools. “They were nice and accepted our demand. Punjabi was introduced in schools in 1994,” says the Indian American doctor.
And in 1995, Dr Kang and his friends started the Punjabi-American Festival which has become a roaring success over the years.
Today, Yuba City is famous for two biggest Punjabi events – its Nagar Kirtan to mark Gurugadi Divas ( installation of the holy Granth as the living guru) in November and its Punjabi-American Mela or festival – in North America.
“The festival has grown into a big annual event attracting thousands of people, including whites, from far and wide’’ says Dr Kang.
After 9/11, the good doctor and his Punjabi American Heritage Society helped New York-based Vina Sarkar produce the documentary `Mistaken Identity’ in 2002 to raise awareness about Sikhs.
Later, they helped produce another documentary `Sikhs in America’ which went on to win an Emmy in 2009.
For his tireless work to promote intra-faith understanding, Dr Kang has been given the Unsung Hero award by America’s PBS network.
Indeed, the initiatives taken by this Patiala doctor 20 years ago have borne fruit now as the 15,000-strong Punjabi community of Yuba City (which has a population of about 65,000) has become an integral part of the American mainstream.
“Now Punjabis and whites do bhangra together at our festivals,’’ laughs Dr Jasbir Kang.
And to honour its Punjabi population, the local Community Memorial Museum of Sutter County opened a multimedia permanent exhibit on the Sikhs called `Becoming American’ last year.
“The exhibit is the story of Punjabis in America and their hardships since their arrival in California in the early twentieth century. It tells the story of our contribution to America. It tells that we are an American story,” says the Indian American doctor.
Indeed, when Yuba City’s Punjabi community held a candle-light vigil in August for the six victims of the Winconsin Sikh Temple shooting, all communities joined them in expressing solidarity with them.
(Courtesy the Times of India where this article appeared on March 4)