During a job interview with an LGBT magazine once, the hiring manager looked me dead in the eye and asked me if I was “desi” — this, after I had rattled off my qualifications. As if good grades, solid work experience, and an outstanding portfolio of clips didn’t matter and what did was how well he could objectify me on the basis of my skin color and foreign-sounding name.
I let him down the same way I let down the men at a club who clamor about me like I’m a unicorn from a far away land and not a guy from fly-over country: My parents are from India, but I was born and raised in Michigan.
The sparkle faded in his eyes. Not surprisingly, there wasn’t a call-back.
I’ve always had an adversarial relationship with the word “desi.” The South Asian experience is complex, mired, and expansive. It includes the stories of men and women who can trace their heritages back to nations besides India, such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Nepal. It also includes the stories of non-resident members of these communities who raise their families abroad. Despite being a term native to the Indian subcontinent, it’s reductive. “Desi” doesn’t even begin to sum up the richness of South Asian cultures — nor does it scratch at the surface for men and women who are forging new identities in lands and communities that don’t have a pre-existing concept of their identities. As a slang term for people from the Indian subcontinent, it’s conveniently reductive, at best.
A Clinical Look at “Desi” From The WSJ
Over at The Wall Street Journal, professional linguist Ben Zimmer reported on the origin and usage of the word “desi” — inspired by the surge of interest in South Asian culture, in the wake of our current Miss America.
“Desi” as a noun or adjective has become the typical way for people of South Asian ancestry to identify members of their diaspora. With South Asian-Americans like Ms. Davuluri achieving more prominence in popular culture, “desi” will no doubt become a more widely known buzzword as well. The word comes from Hindi, with roots in ancient Sanskrit. It originally referred to someone or something native to a certain country, or “desh.”
At best, this analysis is purely clinical — an idea that might work in a vacuum, but that may not be the most accurate representation of how the word has evolved, along with those communities it might be used to describe:
But as South Asians have built up diasporic communities around the world, “desi” has traveled with them, used not as a put-down but as an expression of ethnic pride. Make that pan-ethnic: Anyone with heritage from the subcontinent—India, Pakistan or Bangladesh—can identify as a “desi” and partake in “desi” culture.
As “desi” pervades American consciousness, reductiveness is inevitable. One of the riskiest assumptions non-South Asians make about South Asians is that we’re indiscriminately homogenous, or worse, that we understand each other’s cultures completely. To summarize the vast Indian subcontinent as a single “motherland” is problematic. For the record, there’s one five mile square radius in Kolkata that I’d probably consider my “desh”, largely because I know nothing more of the city’s local geography than those roads whenever I go back to visit.To summarize the vast Indian subcontinent as a single “motherland” is problematic.
To make things more complicated, another divide occurs between those who have stayed in their homelands and members of the diaspora community — those South Asians who have moved abroad to U.S., Canada, the U.K., or anywhere else in the world. By adopting new homelands, many adopt two sets of cultures and customs. These customs end up informing one another and getting remixed, so that nowadays, there are people of South Asian origin who may not even know how to write and speak the language of their parents, but they do know how to skillfully negotiate Western culture.
‘ABCD’ and the Realities of Identity
Zimmer talks about the phenomenon of the “ABCD” — a short-hand that refers to the American-Born-Confused-Desi. This refers to South Asians who are born in the U.S. and are so disconnected from the culture of their parents, their ancestors, that they are classified as “confused.” I’ve had cousins and relatives dismiss me as an “ABCD” because I can’t read or write Bengali — and when I speak the language, it’s frequently stilted and awkward; I don’t know any of the colloquialisms of the language. It’s a term that’s rooted in the idea that because you’re an Indian growing up in the U.S., you’re inherently isolated from the culture of your parents and your ancestors.
The concept of the “ABCD” assumes that “desi” is a very idealized kind of South Asian identity. It also assumes that anyone in breach of that ideal is confused. It doesn’t allow for the reality that identities are ever-changing and ever-morphing, and informed by shifts in culture.
This kind of reductiveness is already becoming programmed into our global cultural consciousness. Google “desi meaning” and you land on the following search result:
This kind of clinical meaning that doesn’t take into account how “desi” identity has morphed. It makes no mention of Sri Lanka or The Maldives. It even seems to think “desi” applies uniquely to non-resident members of the South Asian community.
The reductiveness of the “desi” identity becomes even more apparent when corporate brands try to market to it.