ABCD, or American Born Confused Desi, is a term first generation South Asians in America, and elsewhere, have for these second generation Americans who are purportedly “confused” about their South Asian background. (Desi means “from my country” in Hindi.) The alphabet extends all the way to Z, in fact. Two versions: American Born Confused Desi Emigrated From Gujarat House In Jersey Keeping Lots of Motels Named Omkarnath Patel Quickly Reaching Success Through Underhanded Vicious Ways Xenophobic Yet Zestful.
And: American Born Confused Desi Emigrated From Gujarat House In Jersey Kids Learning Medicine Now Owning Property Quite Reasonable Salary Two Uncles Visiting White Xenophobic Yet Zestful.
When I first heard the term ABCD, and directed at me, by university friends from Pakistan and India, my reaction was mixed: a sense of excitement that there was a term for ‘us’, we Indian Americans who til that point had seemed to inhabit a neither-here-nor-there-space (when I was a child, we were constantly ticking ‘Other’ on questionnaires demanding our ethnicity as no other option seemed to fit). And as well, a sense of indignation — at being named (and in a somewhat derogatory manner) by people who were not in fact part of this ‘other’ space.
When I was living in New York in the late 90s I heard this term bandied about quite a bit. But it was in the process of becoming outdated (if it had ever been fully appropriate) even then. The late 90s The late 90s was an incredible moment in terms of the subculture’s gaining of critical mass and momentum.was an incredible moment in terms of the subculture’s gaining of critical mass and momentum: We witnessed the birth of South Asian Studies departments, South Asian Student, Journalist, Lesbian & Gay associations, parties such as DJ Rekha’s Basement Bhangra and Mutiny, South Asian film festivals and more. At the same time, mainstream culture was adopting (some would argue coopting) many aspects of South Asian culture: Gwen Stefani in the bindi, Madonna’s yoga period, and so on.
The intersect and sometimes clash of these two forces was a fascinating space. It was a period of cultural confusion and cultural exhilaration — which can be one and the same thing at times. What did it mean to be Indian? To be South Asian? And, at the heart of that: To be American? And at the heart of that heart: To be yourself?
Why did a bindi — an element of an ancient culture and later, in some cases, a symbol of immigrant shame — look trendy on a non-Indian girl but often What do you do, how do you feel, when popular culture begins to make mad use of your own?outdated and traditional on an Indian one? What do you do, how do you feel, when popular culture begins to make mad use of your own — before you feel like you’ve even gotten a grip on it yourself? How can you be a minority if the majority is latching on to so many parts of your heritage? What does it mean to be a minority, anyways? What are the prejudices directed towards that group from the outside in — and those directed from that group out? What are the ones that exist even within that group itself? What if you could find a space (such as HotPot, the nightclub in my first novel Born Confused, inspired by DJ Rekha’s Basement Bhangra party) where the minority is the majority — what might happen then?
Born Confused takes its title from this ABCD moniker, and is a redefining of this alphabet through the journey of Dimple Lala, an aspiring photographer living in New Jersey (it’s set both there and in New York City, largely in the context of American Born Creative Desi.the burgeoning South Asian club scene) as she turns the C for Confused to a C for Creative. American Born Creative Desi: This seemed to me to be a more accurate version to describe the second gen South Asians who peopled my world, and were in fact shaping and creating the culture as they went along. It seemed to embody the idea that this Neither Here Nor There is in fact a You Are Here.
And that we are All Born Creative Dreamers. And are creating, scripting our own stories to realize our own dreams, expand and define our own space. So for me, through the process of We are All Born Creative Dreamers.writing (living), the term ABCD has been redefined to the point it is more of a historical record of previous preconceptions about the culture. We’re living in such a globalized world now — with so many people having access to travel, whether physically or through the Internet — that even the idea of a geographically or nationally centered sense of identity is often a tenuous one (geography, nations themselves are not as fixed as maps may lead one to believe).
Several ideas I was working with became clearer to me during the writing process: how identity — cultural, personal — is fluid, a continually morphing thing, and that much of this morphing is in your hands as well. And that part of the process of coming to terms with your own is learning to put yourself in another set of shoes and walk. And further, walking, inhabiting another terrain — a ‘foreign’ space — and discovering what is ‘foreign’ in you in a new context is key to the process as well. This terrain can be an actual place, country, setting. This terrain can be art, dream, the imagination.
So how do you reconcile two, or really, multiple worlds, loves, cultures, languages, sexualities, without losing yourself, in a way that allows you to remain fierce and undiluted? No easy answer, but part of the solution could be to stop seeing things in terms of conventional dualities and dichotomies, as so tidily bifurcated, and to start to come to some sort of more encompassing view of the world and of identity. And to create a language that allows for expansion rather than one that constricts, boxes a person into easy, often inaccurate, and usually suffocating labels and names.
Bombay Blues, my sequel to Born Confused, out this August, moves into this space: is an exploration of these New York City characters transplanted to modern-day Bombay, of what happens to their dynamics, relationships, sense of self as they follow their art and heart in this new setting.
So for me the term ABCD was a vital starting point. To a work in progress: an alphabet I hope to continue expanding, translating, redefining as I, we, go.
Tanuja Desai Hidier is a writer/singer-songwriter, born and raised in the USA and now based in London. Her first novel, Born Confused — the first ever South Asian American coming-of-age story, set in the context of New York City’s bhangra/underground club scene — was hailed in a Publishers Weekly starred review as “absorbing and intoxicating … sure to leave a lasting impression,” and as “a breathtaking experience” by Kirkus Reviews. It was named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults and became a landmark novel, recently selected by Entertainment Weekly as a contender for one of the best YA novels of all time, as well as by Rolling Stone as a top 40 YA novel of all time. When We Were Twins, Tanuja’s album of original songs based on Born Confused, was featured in Wired Magazine for being a first-ever booktrack; Wired deemed it “…reminiscent of Alanis Morissette…[the music] reflects the clash of styles, sounds, and influences inherent to cultural assimilation and urban living.” Her latest novel, Bombay Blues, the sequel to Born Confused, comes out this summer along with her new ‘booktrack’ album of original songs to accompany it. Please visit www.ThisIsTanuja.com for more info.