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Canada Fighting Addiction In The South Asian Community


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
The sample of home-made alcohol was warm and it burned with a blue flame when Jas Sandhu’s father used a lighter to test it for purity.

Back in the Punjab region of India, where Sandhu’s father came from, the home-distilled booze called desi-sharab was also called daru, or medicine, by hard-working farmhands and labourers who used home-made or store-bought liquor to numb the aches and pains of hard physical work.

The idea of drinking something you can light with a match was not appealing to the younger Sandhu, who never developed a taste for desi-sharab or any other liquor, for that matter.

Not even the expensive bottles of Crown Royal whisky popular in some South Asian homes where drinks were offered in sturdy tumblers on metal trays with small bowls of salty snacks and spoons to serve them with.

Sandhu grew up to become an addictions counsellor.

He often works with clients with backgrounds like his, people trying to balance a modern Canadian lifestyle with the old-country attitudes of the Punjab, where most B.C. Sikhs trace their roots.

There is an urgent need to develop “culturally appropriate interventions” for such addicts, Sandhu recently told a conference on addiction issues hosted at the Surrey campus of Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

In people of Punjabi origin, Sandhu said, there is often an inner conflict between urban and rural environments and between religious teachings and agricultural traditions.

It is important to understand the difference between being Sikh and being Punjabi, two words that are not synonymous, Sandhu said.

To be a Sikh is to belong to a faith that generally takes a dim view on drinking to get drunk and other forms of substance abuse.

In Sikh scriptures, mood-altering substances are said to lead to madness, irrational thoughts and a lack of awareness.

But to be Punjabi is to come from a farming tradition that favours the use of alcohol, cannabis and opium to help working-class people work harder and faster by fighting exhaustion and the physical pain of hard manual labour.

There is a kind of pride in drinking in Punjab tradition, Sandhu said, still seen in songs that celebrate hairy-chested boozing with lyrics like, “these boys are not afraid because they don’t measure their drinks.”

“Ganja is an Indian word, not Jamaican,” Sandhu noted.

But those same rural traditions also limit excessive drinking and drug consumption.

Home-made hooch may be common and marijuana plants may grow wild like weeds in the Punjab region, but statistics show the incidence of substance abuse problems is significantly lower there than it is among people of Punjabi origin in developed regions of India, Canada and the United States.

Sandhu believes it’s the result of an old-fashioned sense of community in those rural towns.

When you grow up in a small Punjabi community, everyone knows everybody and they all drink outdoors together in the town square.

“If you screw up outside, your family is going to know,” Sandhu said.

In the more anonymous big cities and drinking establishments of a modern urban society, there are fewer restraints.

“No one is watching,” Sandhu said.

Other cultures face the same dichotomy between faith and tradition, Sandhu noted. Growing up, his Portuguese and Italian friends were dealing with the same issues.

No matter what your background or culture is, Sandhu stressed, it is important to remember people never choose to become addicts.

“This is a health issue,” he said.

“These people are suffering.”

For referrals to substance abuse counselling and other assistance, you can contact the Fraser Health Authority crisis line at 1-877-820-7444 or visit http://www.fraserhealth.ca and type “addictions services” in the search box at the top of the web page. Any FHA facility can also direct calls.



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