At a height of slightly over 6 feet, turbaned Sukhdeep Singh stands out from most Hongkongers and patients stare at him strangely, but when the aspiring Sikh doctor speaks to them in their own dialect, their faces light up.
Singh, 23, is a final-year medical student at Chinese University. When he graduates next year, he will become one of the few doctors in the gleaming city to ever wear a turban.
“Some people who assume I don’t understand Cantonese would comment on my turban in front of me, and on the MTR (Hong Kong’s public transport network), people would rather squeeze themselves into more crowded rows than take the empty seats next to me,” Singh told South China Morning Post.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Singh grew up surrounded by Cantonese speakers, including his own father, a civil servant. But he only realised the importance of speaking the language when he enrolled in medical school.
“Patients look at me strangely, and that’s normal. But whenever I speak to them in their own dialect, their faces light up,” he said.
“The sad reality is, when I’m wearing scrubs and a lab coat, I get treated differently. If I’m wearing normal clothes, no one would believe I am a medical student,” says Singh, who is one of about 12,000 Sikhs in the former British colony, now a special administrative region of China.
While he has overcome communication barriers, Singh continues to be wary of the way patients perceive him, and keeps his beard tied and tucked in a low bun.
“At home, it’s always free flowing, but at the hospital, I keep it up because you don’t want to scare sick patients even more. As a community, we still need to address these sensitive issues through education.”
The Sikh Hongkonger wants to change attitudes towards ethnic minorities in the city.
“Patients might develop a different perspective on people with turbans in Hong Kong when they see me, a turbaned doctor, and, hopefully, start to view other ethnic minorities differently,” he told the daily.
Although he struggled with Cantonese vocabulary at first, Singh is now fluent in the language and able to write in Chinese.
He is determined to eventually “speak like a local”, saying: “If I really am a Hongkonger, I should embrace every part of the culture.” In the coming year, he hopes to improve his Mandarin to serve more patients.”