What’s the definition of a “good” desi? There is no denying my South Asian, Indian-American, whatever PC term you want to use, heritage. It’s who I am. You see it on my skin. But since moving to the city three years ago, my extent of “Being Desi” has been ordering Indian food once a week and practicing my Hindi and Bengali with the guys who work at the local convenience store and the local Dunkin’ Donuts, respectively. That’s it.
When I was younger, I wrote a horribly depressing (not to mention craptastic) novella that included ruminations about “weekend Indians” — people who drive out to the Indian stores, go to temple, do everything cultural on a Saturday or a Sunday to hold on to their heritage, while going about their assimilated lives during the week. I’m not even a “weekend Indian” anymore, unless you count hiding out in my apartment and eating samosas while watching Bollywood films I’ve Netflixed.
We try to be bi-monthly Indians, I’ll give you that. Some of the kids I grew up with, we send e-mails back and forth in the hopes that we’ll find time in our crazy schedules to meet somewhere, laugh about our parents, our “aunties” and “uncles,” and feel connected to where we came from. There’s a shorthand between us, a code, a shared language of in-jokes and eye-rolls that can’t be duplicated. It’s ours and only ours. Unfortunately, that sense of mini-community comes very sporadically. Payel, Soma, Ronjan… we’ve all got our own lives… and mine seems somehow lacking.
Because in Cincinnati, in Dayton, there was a community already in place, we didn’t have to DO anything. There was always some place to go, a temple to visit every few weeks, a function to MC at, or dance at, or sing at. Here, upholding those traditions are far more difficult. Who wants to hoof it all the way out to Flushing to go to the mandir alone? But I am still brown, I still think in Bangla and touch my forehead when I kick something. Not “doing” it doesn’t mean I’ve stopped “being” it.
I am the only South Asian in my particular industry. Mine is a lone voice, a tremulous one at times. But, still, it’s there. It infuses much of my work, shapes my point of view and my handling of issues. Still, many of my co-workers don’t know how many languages I speak, and don’t really know that though I grew up in a Judeochristian community and understand it, it’s not completely my world. Just because I have no accent and say “ain’t,” and cuss like a sailor and generally act more like a midwestern, teenage boy than I do Aishwarya Rai doesn’t mean I am not an Other.
So, what’s a good, young, hip desi these days? Someone who friends everyone brown on facebook or MySpace? Someone who wears desi pride t-shirts or goes to the South Asian Film Festival? Someone who goes to Bhangra parties and writes for South Asian magazines? Does it come in a package deal with med school or your college Indian Students Association and the yearly group dance for Diwali? I don’t know.
I have no answers. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve successfully integrated the Amrikan side and the Bangali side that were always at war when I was a kid, but I’m no less conflicted. I’m still an American Born Confused Desi despite all efforts to find a little bit of clarity and a place where I fully belong.