Sukhdev Sawhney

Transcript of Sukhdev Sawhney
Interviewee: Sukhdev Sawhney
Interviewer: Dorothy Nygren, Maribel Morales and Madison Higgs
Date: April 24, 2014
Place: Chicago, IL
Transcribers: Maribel Morales and Madison Higgs
Total time: 29:15

Copyright © 2014 Edgewater Historical Society

MM: This is Maribel Morales.

MH: And this is Madison Higgs.

MM: And we’re here interviewing Mr. Sukhdev Sawhney who comes from India.

MM: Did you grow up in a small town, a village, or a big city?

SS: I would say a big city.

DN: Could you tell us the name of it? Was it in Northern India?

SS: Yeah. I’m from a place called Chandigarh, which is two hundred miles north of the capital, New Delhi.

MM: What was it like growing up there?

SS: Life growing up was like for any kid -you know there’s playing. It’s relatively a new city, had been built up in 1950 after India and Pakistan partitioned, went their own ways and that’s how this new city was born. And it was born in 1950, we moved into the city in 1964 and prior to that we lived in a city called Shimla, which is in the Himalayas, in the mountain. And growing up was normal like any kid, a lot of play, lot of going to school; and it was fun growing up in that city.

DN: Did you have a lot of brothers or sisters that you played with?

SS: I did. I have three sisters and 1 brother so it’s a practically a large family. I’m the youngest in the family, so strangely in India the youngest, especially in the northern part of the country, the youngest kid is called “Kaka.” The spelling is “K-A-K-A” and that is how everybody addressed me- and good or bad for me I am still called “Kaka” publically - even in my business associates and in the air force where I worked for many years.


DN: So you were the youngest in this big family and did you have a brother and some sisters? Older brother?

SS: Yeah. Everybody is a little bit older to me - older brother and three sisters.

DN: So who kind of looked after you when you were playing? Your brother or your mother or your older sisters? And what kind of games did you play?

SS: It was more of my older sister who was given the task of taking care of the younger kids so she was more responsible to our daily needs of clothes and your dress up and whatever came along. So she was more responsible in the house and the family.

DN: Now with your older brother did you play games like soccer or what kinds of games did you play?

SS: I think the most popular game in India is cricket and that was a game that we always loved to play. And soccer of course is also played in India and I did participate in that. But cricket was of a major interest.

DN: And then how old were you when you left India and came to Edgewater?

SS: Most of growing up has been in India you know. I went to a military school in India and then I went to a military academy. From there I joined the air force. Twenty two years I served in the air force as a fighter pilot. And I left the air force in ‘95 and decided to get into something else. And then I got a consultancy business of energy in the power sector and I did that for about 4 or five years. And then in 2001 we moved into the U.S.


DN: Now Betty told me that your religious background is to be a Sikh; did I pronounce that correctly?

SS: That’s right, yeah “Sikh.”

DN: And I understand that the Sikh is the religious minority - religious, Hindu religious minority, that has the distinction of keeping their hair long?

SS: That’s right.

DN: And we know, that Betty told me that you cut your hair off for your wife.

SS: Yes.

DN: So we would enjoy hearing that story if you would like to share it with us.

SS: Yes, growing hair and growing beard is part of Sikh religion. And I perceive it you know anything that we do today has to have some relevance. When the religion was initiated - and it’s an offshoot of Hinduism- so when the religion did come up the idea of this being segregated from the rest of the religion was to give it a different identity and identity came with this beard and hair. Now as we get into the modern world or today’s living, everybody knows it’s not easy to keep hair and keep beard and maintain that. So my personal… that’s my personal… it has nothing to do…. It’s my personal thinking is that you can be a devout Sikh at heart, yet you probably don’t need hair or beard to believe in that you are a devout Sikh. And that’s always been my thinking since my parents were pretty religious. I had to kind of adhere to them and listen to them and go along. So I had my hair for a very long time in my life and at some stage I thought that I need to pay attention to my own thinking and that’s how I decided to cut my hair.


DN: I see. Now because you were a minority… having the long hair and the turban was a very visible mark of your devotion….Was there any conflict that you had with other people in India because of wearing a turban or having this religious difference?

SS: No, not at all. You know Sikhs are very well accepted. They are very much a part of the culture, very much a part of the society and we have very distinguished people in the society including the President, Prime Minister of India and many other people who are Sikh and they support the beard. They support their hair and their turban and whatever. But it’s a religion which [is] well respected and well, you know, into the main society of India.

DN: So your turban and your long hair werereally not just a visible signs of your religious devotion, but because Sikhs are so religious and devoted it was a sign of respect as well that people would give you - do you think?

SS: I would say that it’s more of a tradition that comes along when you’re born in a Sikh family. You go along with the traditions and in India you know parents are a big part of any society. So if your parents believe that you need to keep your hair and beard, you go along with that. So it’s very considerate. You know that you’re born in a Sikh family and you should adhere to its tradition and thinking.

DN: I think that India, and other countries, there’s a very strong tradition of respect for the parents.

SS: Absolutely. In fact I would go a step ahead and I would say if you believe in Indian thinking, it is taught to be that first comes your god or your creator that you consider in the line of your respect and right below that is your parents. So that’s how the thinking goes in India.


DN: Now that’s pervasive though all the religions in India I think?

SS: Yes.

DN: And there are several different kinds of religions in India.

SS: Absolutely.

DN: How did you feel growing up about all those diversities of religion in India? Was it well accepted that somebody could be of one religious background and somebody else would be of another religious background - so people didn’t think that somebody was better than someone else because they were one religion or another - or how did that work?

SS: No, I don’t think so. You know especially my growing up there, or anywhere in India, you know every religion is respected on its own merit and everybody gives due respect. Like we hear the term ‘hardliners’ and all, they are there in every part of the world so you do have them in anywhere, whether it’s in India or Africa or anywhere else. But generally all the religions are given their own place and they’re very well accepted in the society and people you know give them the due respect.

DN: I think too that the Sikhs are very well respected in the military in India, and you said you had a military career, so could you tell us a little bit about that?

SS: Yeah that’s another, you know, very well, diversified part of the society because in the services in the military, of the air force where I was, you have people from all over the country. Somebody would be from the deep south, southern part of the country, another person is from the eastern part; but it’s a very well-knit family and you enjoy each others’ culture, each others’ food, habits and it’s a…I think the best form of consolidating a society from all angles.


DN: How old were you when you went into the military?

SS: I joined the air force when I was twenty-two years and I left when I was about forty-five.

DN: Oh, so it was a career for you as well?

SS: Oh yes, absolutely.

DN: Now when you were twenty-two, were you still living at home when you joined the air force or were you living on your own?

SS: No, I was living…. I was in training you know. I went from training for five years. That was part of the air force training. So I was living in the part of air force circle for that period.

DN: Then you went from living at home, to the air force training and then into the fighter pilot?

SS: Yeah. In fact I joined the military school so I left home pretty early.

DN: Ah ha.

SS: So I left my home when I was, I would say, about eleven or twelve years and after that I came home only for on vacation. But generally I was always away from home.

DN: When you went to the boarding school where you lived - was that hard to leave home or was that something that you were looking forward to?

SS: I would say it was hard; it was hard because at that age you are kind of attached to your brothers, sisters and parents and suddenly you… you’re in a new environment. You’ve got to take care of everything yourself. So that was a tough part. But I think within about a six months to a year I very much accepted being a part of that school. And I knew that this is where I’m going to build my career. I’m going to join the profession that I’m… in my mind there couldn’t be a better route than going through that.

DN: Before we move on to your career in the military I wanted to ask Madison and Maribel if they had any more questions about early childhood or growing up at home or anything else.


MH: No, I don’t think so.

DN: All right. Let’s move on to your career in the military. What was there that you especially liked being a pilot? Twenty years, more than twenty years is quite a long time to be in the military.

SS: You know when I was a young kid we used to go to my grandparent’s house, they lived in a different city, and summers were the time when we went on vacation; and right next to their house was a air force base where we had the planes landing from time to time – the fighter planes.

DN: Can you tell us a little bit about your career in the Military?

SS: When I was growing up as a child, before I join the Military school, very often we go to my grandparents place…. they lived near an air-force space. From their house you could see this flight of jets coming and landing and taking off. I would always love to see those planes going up in the air and then coming and landing. I thought… I hope someday I get a chance to fly these planes and sure enough I got a chance. I went to military school, went to military academy, and then joined the air force as a fighter pilot. Flying was very, very much part of my life. I flew for twenty two years, flying sometime one or two or three or even more sortiesevery day – a sortie is from take-off to landing. We consider that as a sortie. That is how I did my career and it’s really thrilling when you are flying at about 30 feet above ground and you’re at about fifty or sixty miles an hour. It’s a real thrill. I enjoy my career very much.

DN: Why did you leave it?

SS: It was a decision made on the bases because….. In the air force you are not at one place for a very long period of time. You are there for about three years, two years. In my career of going two years I moved about eleven or twelve times, that’s a little disturbing - not when you are young, when you don’t have family. But when you have children it comes in their way of their education at some state. I thought I got to give more consideration to their education of my kids instead – to get a steady education in school in colleges. I thought it’s a good idea at this age; I should change in career and get into something else.

DN: How old were you when you got married?

SS: I got married in 1975; it should be about twenty five years.

DN: It was while you were in the military?

SS: Yes.

DN: Would you like to share with us a little bit about how you met your wife?

SS: My wife was a friend of my sister. She would often come to our house to meet us. We just met and talk and became friends, than we fell in love, than is a typical romantic story.

DN: It is a romantic story, is she also a Sikh?

SS: No, she is not a Sikh.

DN: What is she?

SS: She’s a Hindu.

DN: Has this been a problem?

SS: It was initially an issue with the parents because marrying into custom … into religion… was not a very acceptable norm, but the two of knew what we had. We were made for each other. We wanted to get married. At the same time we wanted to all openly get married. We [were] taught it’s best to get the blessing of our parents. And we did finally succeed at that.

DN: You secure the blessing of your parents?

SS: We did.

DN: How many children do you have?

SS: I have two boys.

DN: Where they born in India?

SS: Yeah both born in India.

DN: While you were raising them you said you were moving from one place to another. Was that difficult do you think? Or no, ‘cause I know you said that you think it was ….

SS: Yes, it was difficult because, like I said. I made about eleven or twelve moves in the two years… the kids came in. My oldest son was born in ‘78 and the young one born in ‘82. They did get disturb[ed] from schooling: from one schooling in there, going back to another school after maybe a year or two years, that was partly disturbing. But, I guess they also enjoyed seeing new places and [have] been in new locations so it had both the plus and the minus.

DN: Do you think they felt pretty much at home any place they were, once they were established and made friends?

SS: Why sure, they enjoyed, they made good friends. Some of their friends… they are still in touch today.

DN: Wonderful, that’s wonderful those are good friends.

MH: You said you moved to United States in 2001 could you tell us why you pick Edgewater?

SS: Not any specific reason… The first year that we were living, we were living in Irving Park, forth and so on. I would say after one year we decided we need to move to a bigger place. That’s how we came around looking for this place. Fortunately for us we landed on this building, Malibu East, and the doorman directed us to the realtor. And the realtor told us, “Why you want to rent? Why don’t you buy this place?” Initially when you move to a new country, you don’t have all that cash to buy a house. We talk it over to our son and he said, “Yeah we can do something about it.” And that’s how we decided to buy a unit in this building.

DN: Wonderful, when you came to the United States you came as an immigrant?

SS: We did.

DN: Was that a difficult process for you to file for immigration papers and move here?

SS: Not really, not really it wasn’t a difficult process because…. we came thru a program which is called A Global Education that is part of the Chicago Public Schools. When we were in India, we decided to….In fact in 1999 we came on a vacation here to the U.S and visited Chicago. We had some friends living here and that’s the time we came to know that there is something called Global Education program in CPS Chicago Public Schools. And we decided when we went back, “Let’s give it a shot. If we can get accepted,then that will decide whether we wanted to move or not.” And sure enough, my wife came for an interview here. And the very first interview, she was through, she was selected. That’s another process of us moving in here.

DN: Your wife is a teacher?

SS: She is.

DN: What grade does she teach?

SS: She teaches high school.

DN: So you came first to a place in Irving Park and then came to the Malibu East, one of the most diverse buildings in Edgewater - as you said,the United Nations of Edgewater. Did you find people helpful here?

SS: Oh yes, people are very friendly, always wishing you… always smiling at you. It’s a very friendly and helpful building.

DN: Outside of the building are there other organizations or churches or whatever in Edgewater that you attend or work with?

SS: We don’t go particularly to any religious foundation as such, but once in a while we do take a shot. Like last year, or year before last, we went to this Jew temple which is right in Edgewater. We enjoyed being part of their prayer system for an evening. We go to get similar into this culture as much as possible. So we try our best because this is our country now. This is our adoptive country, so we want to be very much part of this beautiful society.

MM: What is one of the major differences that you found between India and America?

SS: This is a more organized society. More mature society, things are more organized here than they are back home. But things are changing gradually I would say between the time we came in and today. There is a lot of difference between what it was in 2001. India today is moved many steps ahead and there are equal opportunities -equal job opportunities or business opportunities - that probably are here. But yet I would say this is a well more organized system of working.

MH: So do you feel at home here in Edgewater?

SS: Absolutely, absolutely.

MH: Would you ever want to go back to India or do you see yourself livinghere for the rest of your life?

SS: That million dollar question is there in every immigrant who comes to the U.S. You are half minded living here and saying, “OK. Someday I will go back to my country and retire there.” That’s always an open option, but for the timing, we don’t see anything of that nature happening.

DN: I noticed that you did say a few minutes ago something about back home but you also said you feel at home here. Could you talk about that a little bit?

SS: Yeah, when I say back home that’s country of birth. This is a country of immigration - the country that you adopted as your new country so…. We came when I was about fifty years old. So I’m not the one you know when you come at about ten or eleven or fifteen or twenty. There is a great difference between a person coming in at a later age and somebody coming in at an earlier age. When I say back home, it doesn’t mean that I would want to go back there right away. But that option is every time open in any immigrant’s mind that sometime I may want that option to go back and be in the society where I grew up.

DN: To visit or to live do you think?

SS: Probably visit. We visit once in two years or something.

DN: What kinds of things do you miss in India that you don’t have here? I know - we have a lot of food stores here.

SS: I don’t think that there is anything that you can miss. You get every kind of food. You get every kind of entertainment that you get there. So there is…is just that you don’t have your friends or your roots… that you grew up. That’s only probably the difference - the realities of the area. Part of your family is there and part of your friends is there. So that’s the only difference. Otherwise I have a very good circle of friends there as well.

MH: Could you tell us a little bit more about your job here in America? I know you said you worked as in consulting?

SS: I am a consultant in energy - in electric power, and we are basically in capital funding. I have another three partners of mine working from different part of the U.S. And we work to help any project secure funding for their own projects.

MM: Have you found yourself trying to bring a sense of your culture from India trying to incorporate it in here the way you live in here?

SS: No, not at all. We always have been…I said right from my childhood I have been more a liberal minded person. So I adapt myself very well into any culture that I go and set on. So I don’t think any necessity to bring any culture from there to this place or viceversa.

DN: This is your story, your immigration, your life here. Is there anything that we haven’t asked you that you want to share with us or any other little story?

SS: I also… while I was in the air force I was part of a…like you have this elevated teams here called TheBlue Angels here.And the kind of birds. So I was part of the turn of birds. That’s the team that we called in India. And I flew those noneairplanes together probablya closer distance than what you and me are seating together. And we did all those crazy things for many years, - about three or four years I did. And they are really nerve wrecking stuff because you are so close and you are flying at such high speeds that a small fractional mistake can be really devastating for everybody. So that’s another part of my career which I really enjoyed. I have one of the pamphlets that you might like to have a look. So that’s all I have to say.

DN: Well you said it was really exciting to fly so fast thirty feet above the ground. And I can only imagine that flying planes around you must be quite a thrill.

SS: Absolutely, absolutely.

DN: Do you miss that at all?

SS: I do miss it sometimes and I do get a chance once in a while to fly with some friends. But it’s more of….The friend I fly with are more on a passenger planes, small passenger planes, but I haven’t had a chance to fly any of the elevated planes like I did back home. But I do intend to do it one of these days.

DN: Well sounds as so you had a very full productive and exciting life so far and I think you probably the kind of guy that is going to continue on that path.

SS: Absolutely

DN: We thank you so much for your time, thank you.

SS: Alright.