A 3,000-Mile Journey for Aspiring Punjabi Drivers

Sikhs are transforming the American trucking industry. But for those in New York, becoming a licensed driver starts with a trip to California.

Wufei Yu

October 1, 2019

A 3,000-Mile Journey for Aspiring Punjabi Drivers
(Mike)

For Punjabi New Yorkers, applying for a driver’s license often kicks off with a 3,000-mile westbound expedition to get over the language barrier.

Four years ago, Narinder Singh, 42, of Queens, New York, heard the news that California had officially included Punjabi in the state’s driving license test. He immediately booked a six-hour flight from New York to California. Ever since he had come to America three years earlier, Singh had needed a driver’s license for the jobs for which he had applied. Although Singh had learned to drive when he was only 10 — back in Punjab — New York did not provide the written test in the language he speaks, Punjabi.

He stayed in California for a whole year, scrutinizing every line in the learner’s manual. He eventually got his learner’s permit and then his driver’s license from the California Department of Motor Vehicles. For Narinder, the flight and the time spent living in California were worth it. He came back to New York, worked as a truck driver for a year, and gradually established himself as a construction worker in Richmond Hill.

Hundreds in Singh’s Punjabi community in New York have made similar trips to California to get a license to drive. Upon his return, Singh told his friends that he hoped that, someday soon, New York’s Punjabis would no longer have to travel thousands of miles for a basic test offered in their language.