June 29, 2012
A Call to Abandon the Word ‘Desi’
BY ARJUNE RAMA Merriam-Webster defines desi as, “a person of Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi birth or descent who lives abroad.” Common uses include calling someone a desi or describing something like Indian cuisine by calling it “desi food.” Etymologically, this word has had a long journey. It began in centuries-old Sanskrit, traveled into Hindi and recently percolated into Indian-American English slang. Overall, I have heard desi used in a positive way to imply ethnic kinship. At worst I have heard it used to poke fun at some benign Indian stereotypes such as frugality with gratuity at restaurants, et cetera. However, despite the generally positive usages of this word, I reject it entirely. Considering the largely benign use of the term, perhaps it is surprising I wish it to be struck from the Indian-American lexicon. I take umbrage with the word primarily due to its generalizing effect. Given the increasingly expanding Indian Diaspora, I feel that we will better retain our par-
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ticularly Indian cultural roots by using more specific descriptors for each other rather than broad South Asian grouping-words like desi. In order to appreciate the potential negative effects such generalizing words can have, let’s consider examples from world history. Notably, peoples hailing from the multiple countries and ethnic enclaves of the entire African continent have long been reduced to the word black in the eyes of the non-African world. I fear similar blind clustering of Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis without respect or regard for the important distinctions in culture of these vastly different countries. Even more problematically, unlike the antiquated words oriental or chinaman bestowed upon East Asians from without to culturally aggregate them, desi traveled via our own languages and places of origin to culturally aggregate us from within. In a sense we created and embraced a term that serves to blur the lines of our cultural uniqueness. I am concerned that the rest of the English-speaking world will
Pradeep Sulhan, P.C.
see our creation and usage of the term as an endorsement of cultural homogeny within South Asia. My request is this: let us use descriptive language as our cultural sword. Let’s defend the nuances of our heritage with this blade rather than slice Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi cultures into homogenized bits via basic broad words like desi. While I have not yet heard desi used to indiscriminately group descendants of these countries, I believe we need to avoid the possibility by dismissing the term even from our own usage. By our consistent use of this simplistic generalizing term, the rest of the world could see us as a single blurry brown collage indistinct from the other South Asian countries. Instead, let us bring our identities into sharp focus. Let us let our spoken word respect and reflect our specifically Indian roots as we carry out our lives in the United States. Let us not call each other desis, let us call each other what we truly are: IndianAmericans.
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