Bangkok-born dentist, Kenneth Singh Singleton, opens up about making it in the USA.
Through sheer determination, wit, intellect and very hard work, Kenneth Singh Singleton, a Sikh born in Bangkok, became a proud citizen and successful dentist in the Land of Opportunity — the United States of America. His journey to the U.S. began in Korat, Thailand more than 40 years ago.
By David Hariman,
As a child, Kanwaljit Singh Sachdev dreamed of becoming a medical doctor, with aspirations of either going to Oxford or Dublin for his education. But dreams sometimes shatter. As they almost did in 1965 when Kanwaljit returned to Korat, Thailand from boarding school in India where he learned English. “It was a good learning experience for me,” he recalls. “Instructors made us do things on our own. I have the best memories from those days.”
Within hours of arriving home from India, the family’s garment business burned to the ground. That put a huge financial strain on Kanwaljit’s five brothers, a sister and his parents. But Kanwaljit never lost sight of his dream, despite the immediate hardship. Because of Kanwaljit’s English skills, he found a job with the United States military which was based in Korat during the Vietnam War. “I became a clerk typist and an interpreter for the staff ,” he says. He spent about 18 months working alongside American soldiers. “I taught enlistees how to do clerical work.”
An American soldier and a friend in Korat urged Kanwaljit to go to college in the States. “That was a green light for me,” he says. Using the soldier’s military address, Kanwaljit wrote to scores of colleges and universities in the States seeking a scholarship. “I had good grades in high school in India, so I thought I could get a scholarship abroad.”
Kanwaljit was not offered a scholarship immediately, but he was given a chance in the beginning to work his way through college at California State University, Chico. He flew from Bangkok to San Francisco in January 1967. At the time, he was 19, bearded and wore a turban.“I called the assistant dean at two o’clock in the morning,” Kanwaljit remembers. “The dean took me into his house for a short time and then found me a host family. I had help in finding an apartment in a garage for US$20 a month, and I bought what I needed at second-hand shops. In six months, I had a scholarship and I was enrolled in pre-med.”
Kanwaljit had to work to make ends meet. He took a summer job as a dishwasher and busboy at a café under a casino in Reno, Nevada and worked in the university’s library. But for Kanwaljit to assimilate and fit in, he had to make a very difficult decision. He finally cut his hair and shaved. “It’s against the Sikh religion to do that,” he says. “I called my father and told him about it. He said it’s over. He disowned me. I was an outcast, a lafanga, meaning a worthless kid. My father made up his mind, and my mother went along with him.”
Kanwaljit graduated from California State University, Chico in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in biology. Later that year, after being rejected by medical schools, he started graduate school at University of California, Davis to pursue a master’s degree in physiology. “I was working at UC Davis with Dr. Gary Moberg, my advisor, who had a research grant from the (U.S.) National Institute of Health,” he says. “I was provided with a nice stipend while doing research in the fi eld of endocrinology, but I didn’t finish my graduate studies. I was accepted at the University of the Pacific School of Dentistry in San Francisco. The dental school asked me how I was going to support myself. Out of fear of being rejected, I signed all the financial documents in my father’s and brothers’ name for support. I got accepted.”
“But in my second year I got into trouble. I was behind in paying my tuition. I had been working at a hospital as a blood drawer, a phlebotomist, working from six to eight in the morning, then Kanwaljit came to another crossroad in his life in northern California. “Looking back, I feel bad about changing my name, losing my identity, but I had to do it to assimilate in my profession and in my new country,” he says. On the Medical Board of Trustees of the tribe, he met Jennifer Singleton, and asked her if he could use her surname. “She told me it would be her honour.” Kanwaljit became Kenneth Singh Singleton.
Kenneth came back home to Thailand in 1976, and all was forgiven with his family, as his father was proud of all the success he had attained on his own. Later that year, he married a Thai-Indian from Bangkok, Ravinder Kaur Virasingh, and returned to the Hoopa Valley tribe with his new wife. “At first, she became bored,” he says. “There’s not much to do in a town with only 900 people. So she volunteered, got hired by the tribe and went to nursing school. She’s now a nurse practitioner.” It wasn’t long after, in the late 1970s, that Kenneth and his wife moved to Eureka about 70 miles away, where he gradually set up his dental practice there.
Through his journey from Korat to Eureka, Kenneth says he met all the right people at the right time to get all those jobs so he could succeed. “I have no regrets,” he says. “But if I knew then what I know now, I probably would not have done it. For me to compete in my profession I had to be better than any white counterpart. I had to do better or be equal to be given any preferential treatment.
Despite his tiresome and challenging journey, Kenneth feels that his path wouldn’t be as fruitful in any other country. “The U.S. is the land of opportunity,” he clarifies. “I went there with US$1,000 in my pocket 40 years ago and I went to all those schools, to the reservation and now I’m in Eureka where I started my own practice.”
Kenneth Singh Singleton is a U.S. immigrant success story. He and his wife have two daughters. The oldest, Emilie, graduated from UC Davis with a degree in civil engineering and now works for a consulting engineering firm in Folsam, California. His younger daughter, Anita, is currently in college in Los Angeles. “America is the most giving country, and I am proud of being an American. What I did to get to America would be hard to do now, but only in America can you go empty-handed and make it, as the system is fair. My parents are proud of me, and all is forgiven. But I do miss my family back in Thailand.”
Originally published in Masala Magazine April-May 2017.