I love being desi. They-see. Theeyy-see. I let it roll off my tongue; I ask other desis if they are also desi and we commiserate, connect, smile quietly and share a diasporic bond. I make my Afro-Caribbean boyfriend and my closest white friends take the time to learn the “th” sound; they untrain themselves from the hard D that grates on the ears of so many South Asians.
However, Rohin Guha doesn’t care much for the term, and understandably so. The word desi has been appropriated, manipulated, and twisted into a neat, perfect model that too many South Asians in every corner of the world strive to fit. It has been used by corporations to sell us crap that we don’t need while destroying our people through exploitative labor practices. The diversity of experiences and cultural baggage that South Asians both inside and outside the subcontinent carry with them is not evident at first sight in societies built on racism, xenophobia, and mistrust of those who are not-quite-white.Desi, like the word Black, is a marker of unity and respect.But in my short life, I have never seen or heard desi used in a less than an affectionate or collegial manner. Desi, like the word Black, is a marker of unity and respect, and in many cases it is an outstretched hand in a new place. Above all, it is about unapologetic, radical self-love and everyday resistance to white supremacy, xenophobia, imperialism, and patriarchy. It is reclamation of the heritage denied to millions through imperialism, forced migration, or economic struggles. It is a marker of who we are in lands that may or may not be foreign to us.
To be desi is to go beyond borders drawn in the blood of millions. It is a peace offering, a motion of solidarity with those who intimately know. How beautiful that Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Indians, Nepalis, British Asians, Kenyan Gujaratis, Trini Indians, Punjabi-Mexicans in California, and Guyanese folks all share a common humanity. To hear the word desi coming from their mouths is to acknowledge that we have all struggled. To say the word desi is to resist the divisions and resentment that comes from having your mind colonized for hundreds of years.
Being desi encapsulates that awkward, no like really where are you from moment, and then the curt, sassy ‘I’m from Texas/Michigan/Canada/London/Birmingham/Jakarta’ response. Being desi is that campy but loveable bhangra performance on your college campus with people asking you what the lyrics in the songs mean, even though you’re not Punjabi at all. Being desi is about fighting for the right to an education to begin with, even if you are a girl. Being desi is having a million aunties and uncles peppering you with unsolicited advice throughout your life while knowing that they are forever family regardless of blood ties. Being desi is watching those aunties and uncles fade from your memory and knowing that you can truly never go back to their safe, loving arms.
To be desi is about communal violence in some parts and gang problems in others. It is about the fear of a loved one being swallowed whole by immigration laws and detention centers, being torn apart from them and seeing them fly away to a land that they have probably never known.To be desi is a contradictory mess, but it is my mess.To be desi is as much about sorrow and loss as it is about music and film. To be desi is a contradictory mess, but it is my mess. It is the mess of those who have never had a label to describe themselves with, it is the mess of those who have never known how to articulate their identity in a system that wants to box it in and control it.
Being desi reminds me that I am a part of something much larger in this world. For that, I am thankful for the term.