In eighth grade, his uncle put him in charge of a women’s footwear store in Hempstead, saying, “This is your store, you’re going to run it.” So in between classes and homework, Singh said he was in charge of hiring and training staff and changing the storefront display on a regular basis.
He said getting into business so early was “a blessing.”
“I’ve worked hard ever since, and I’ve kept the same routine.”
Then, when Singh was 14, his father helped him tie his turban for the first time. It’s part of a traditional Sikh ceremony for adolescent boys, called “dastar bandi.” The uniform look of the turban reinforces the Sikh belief that everyone is equal.
“Usually your uncle, your father, your brother, one of them will tie it for you,” he said. “And your ears hurt, I’ll tell you that. Your ears are very sensitive; they’re very soft, so when you’re putting fabric against it for the whole day, they tend to sore up.”
Singh said his ears stopped hurting after about a year. “They kind of get used to it,” he said, laughing.
Now, at 43, Singh is an executive, fluent in four languages and father of three daughters he described as “princesses.”
Business runs in his blood; Singh said his parents used to run a retail manufacturing company in New Delhi. When he was 11, they emigrated from India to the United States and all worked together for a couple of years at the Roosevelt Raceway Flea Market before it closed in 1995. He calls this his training period for what was to come.
Singh is the CEO of NY Tent Sale, based in Melville. The warehouse store specializes in athletic wear and sneakers, carrying brands such as Nike and Timberland. Singh says he usually works until midnight or later, except for nights he’s playing volleyball.
He’s also a board member at the Plainview Gurudwara, or Sikh temple, which he’s attended since he was 11. He volunteers there, cleaning the parking lot and washing dishes.
‘If you’re stranded anywhere, just look for a Sikh temple… You don’t have to pray, you don’t have to bow down, nothing.’ -Bobby Singh
There are two other Sikh temples on Long Island — in Glen Cove and Hicksville — that collectively serve more than 10,000 Sikhs, according to Mohinder Singh Taneja, a local Sikh leader.
“If you’re stranded anywhere, just look for a Sikh temple,” Singh said. “Just walk in and have a meal, end of story. There are no second questions. You don’t have to pray, you don’t have to bow down, nothing.”
“If you need money, if you’re stranded, ask for help and it will be given to you.”
Among the practices of Sikhism, Singh keeps five articles of faith with him at all times, sometimes referred to as the five Ks: kesh (uncut hair and beard), kangha (a small wooden comb to be used twice a day), kara (an iron bracelet), kachera (an undergarment) and kirpan (a small ceremonial knife).
Each item has particular significance. For instance, the kara serves as a reminder that “this is a hand of my Lord,” Singh said.
Singh provided an example: If someone is walking ahead of you and drops some money on the floor, “I’ll pick it up. The moment I pick it up, the first thing I see is my kara. The moment I see it, I remember this is not my hand, this is the hand of my prophet, my guru or my Lord. So I give it back. This keeps you honest.”
One of the most distinctive marks of a Sikh man is his turban. Singh says he keeps his wardrobe simple: “Jeans, shirt, turban.” And sneakers, of course.
Before heading into work every morning, he chooses one of his 50 turbans to wear. Usually out of the 20 or so colors available, he opts for a black one. Singh says people will ask him whether he sweats underneath the turban — he says he doesn’t, and calls it “airy.”
He’s also often asked if he’s Muslim. Although both Islam and Sikhism are monotheistic faiths, like Judaism and Christianity, there are many differences.
“The first visibility that you’re looking at is a piece of cloth on my head: a turban. You’re looking at a beard right away. And that gives you the immediate perception of who I’m going to be versus who I really am.”
‘[A Sikh man] will give his life before anything happens to you.’ -Bobby Singh
Putting preconceptions aside, Singh says that if you see a Sikh man walking on the street, “you can just start walking right behind him, because by second nature, he is going to protect you. Irrespective of who you are.”
A Sikh man “will give his life before anything happens to you,” he said. “And this is something that we practice, this is something that we teach our kids.”
“This is what I teach my [oldest] daughter every day, that no matter where you are, if you see your friends being oppressed, you have to just stand there like a shield.”