Desi! Desi! Desi!


A friend of mind who lives in NYC has written a novel that’s going to be made into a feature film. We’ve never met face to face, but we’ve talked on the phone, emailed, and he was also a guest on a public affairs show I host on the station I work for. He’s quite a mover and shaker, and he amazes me with his tireless networking and promotion of his talents. It’s paid dividends in terms of his career advancing and he’s inching closer and closer to realizing his dreams of being a film director.

Oh, and he’s Asian Indian.

But since he’s absorbed so much of the larger American culture, he’s what is now being called a “Desi.” Guess what? I’m a Desi, too. I had no idea what the hell that meant until I was contacted by a web-based publication (can you call it a “publication” when there’s no hard copy? Hmm…), called “Desi Connect.” They want to do a profile on me and my careers in academia and the media. Guess who forwarded my name to this publication? Yep, my tireless networking fellow “Desi.”

I thought I would look into this world that I’ve suddenly found myself a part of. Did you know MTV launched a “Desi” channel? Did you know that there’s a club in New York that’s celebrating its 10th anniversary by playing “Basement Banghra” to young Desis? According to an AP story, over half of all motels in the U.S. are owned by Asian Indians. Over 2.3 million Americans are from Asian Indian decent. There are political action committees, professional associations, and the like that signal that Asian Indians and their “Desi” offspring (a term that describes individuals who have absorbed both the larger American culture and Indian cultures into their lives) are becoming a cultural and political influence.

It’s difficult for me to feel connected to this “community.” My family was one of the “first wave” Indian immigrants to California, but our cultural traditions were Guyanese. Try and explain that to people who were constantly trying to figure out what the hell you were. Even Indians from India couldn’t quite fathom our background. When it was my turn to try and explain why I’m Indian, but not from India, I would often get a quizzical look and a furrowed brow because I didn’t tell them exactly what part of India I was from.

And then a couple of years ago I was reading in the New York Times about the Indo-Guyanese communities in Queens. A few paragraphs into the article, I found this explanation pretty handy when it came to answering the question “Where are you from?”

“Most Guyanese, and the smaller number of Trinidadians in Richmond Hill, are descendants of Indians who were brought over to the Caribbean starting in 1838 as contract laborers on sugar plantations after slavery was outlawed in the region’s British colonies. The influx of indentured laborers continued into the first decades of the 20th century, and Indians eventually formed a majority of the population in Guyana, the former British Guiana, and they became 40 percent of the population of what is now the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.

In the political or economic upheavals of the 1970’s and 1980’s, Indo-Caribbeans began leaving for the United States, where Indian professionals from Asia had already settled more than a decade before.

For Guyanese, even those who grew up with Indian grandparents who had been indentured servants, the passage of time has worn away much of their Indian cultural character. For many, it has erased their fluency with Hindi or other South Asian languages and given their English a singsong lilt and Creole dialect.

So, does this mean I’m still a Desi?

–PK

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