* Note: There are many reasons why Desi may not be the most perfect term- those voices and stories are also powerful, and must be heard. What is most important is that we have clarity and agency around how we name ourselves, how we honor our stories and sacrifice, how we tell them, and how we create space for others to do the same.
When Juhi challenged us to write about our relationship to the term Desi, and what it meant to be #HigherEdDesi, I had no idea how much I carried in my heart. Preparing for this blog post required meditation, thumbing through college pictures, scanning books that shaped my consciousness, and more. Since so many of my friends ask me why I prefer Desi to the term South Asian, I hope this reflection offers insight.
The sole reason my parents moved to the United States was to have a different opportunity than their own. When I look at their stories- I see a constellation of sacrifices. For a long time, I only focused on the sacrifices that involved my parents, siblings, and me. Both of my parents were born in pre-partition India (modern day Pakistan), and both of them had their partition stories- my mother’s when she was a toddler at age 4, and my father at age 9. Aside from knowing that this was a part of their life- I never realized that for them (and for all people affected- the Muslim families who had to leave India, and the Hindu families who had to leave Pakistan as well as Sikhs and Christians), the profound impact this experience had on their lives. During a visit to India 15 years ago, I was able to hear my grandmother share her story- how they travelled by ship, lived in refugee camps, before they eventually settled. I still don’t know their full story.
My husband’s family’s story is a very different constellation of sacrifices. A Catholic family with strong roots to the origins of Christianity and Catholicism in India (no, they were not converted by the British or the Portuguese), Jos’ mother left her 5 children and husband behind, and with the support of the Catholic Church, found her way to Canton, Ohio, where she completed her nursing training, and managed to raise money to bring her family to the US, over a year later. His family also has a history of military service- his grandfather and granduncle having served in the British armed forces during World War I.
Our stories are important. The imprints that these sacrifices have made on our families are important. The impact of imperialism and colonial rule on the trajectories of our stories matter. I am not a fancy historian, and I don’t have big words. I DO have cultural intuition. That intuition comes from wisdom that is documented through the constellation of sacrifices of my families.
This intuition is especially important because I grew up in a time and space where I was taught to erase that intuition- the price we pay to become ‘American.’ And that price comes with violence to one’s soul. Thankfully I did have spaces and places where we engaged in ritual, and festival, and food and dance- and while those moments may seem superficial, they helped me hold onto that intuition until I could develop a more informed and critical lens.
Those spaces and places were Desi. Not Indian. Not South Asian. DESI. My grandfather left during partition, and his closest Muslim friends gave him traditional Muslim clothing so he would not get attacked as he traveled to India. Not South Asian. DESI. My father feels more at home with Pakistani Sindhis- who share language and food traditions akin to his own upbringing. Not South Asian. DESI. My parents’ close friends when they moved to the US were from Guyana. Not South Asian. DESI. Being in Mauritius (or Trinidad, or Fiji, or South Africa) with people of the diaspora having lived there since the 19th century. Not South Asian. DESI. My support system when I was falling apart in college, where I had a place to hold on, because of my friends of the diaspora, from Kenya, the UK, Malaysia, and beyond… and our regular Antaakshri sing-offs in the Texas Union. Not South Asian. DESI. My desi friends. Home. The stories of my heart. The stories of sacrifices and triumph are DESI.
I hold other identities in solidarity- Asian American, person of color, etc. But let me clear. I AM DESI. Desi means a lot of things. For me- it means home. It is a personal definition, one that means I don’t have to explain or justify my story or connection to other people that have similarly nonsimilar stories that somehow bind us. They bind us, not because of the limited geography that is vaguely and problematically described and drawn by ‘South Asian’… but because of the tears, sweat, blood, and dreams of generations before us that come from and have transcended the colonization of that geography- that, is Desi.
As an educator- I think about this identity all of the time- because it is who I am. When I was younger, one of my mentors suggested that I call myself ‘South Asian.’ I thought to myself- what is that? And, why does someone else get to decide what to call me, when I know exactly who I am? South Asian bumps up against my cultural intuition. It colonizes it, much like the Europeans colonized our collective peoples. It was like the first time I mispronounced my name so as to not inconvenience others about the complexity and richness of my story.
When I worked in Multicultural Affairs, I had a mixed race colleague of color, who challenged the use of the term Desi, when we were designing an invitation for graduating students of color. Her critique was that we couldn’t put everyone’s ‘subethnicities’ on an invitation like that. Funny, if it were one of her identities, and I had chosen ‘Hispanic’ instead of Latinx/Xicanx my critique would not have been acceptable, yet somehow, she held this right to define me, and the Desi student population. But this is what colonization does. It strips us of our cultural intuition- hers, and mine. When we cannot name that colonization, we cannot build bridges beyond it. When we cannot build those bridges beyond it- we run the risk of letting it happen again. It is why terms like Desi, Xicanx, and other terms like this exist- they connect our stories, honor our sacrifices, and are a reminder that our very existence is one of postcolonial struggle-triumph.
My womanhood is Desi. In colonial India (and pretty much every colonized part of the world), British women were too fragile to handle the ‘harsh’ conditions of India. They relied on their Desi women servants for everything- cooking, cleaning, childcare, etc. Called ‘ammahs’ or ‘ayahs’- these wet nurses and nannies breastfed and cared for the children of their colonizers- nursing them to life, health, and wholeness. Many of these women did so, at the expense of their own families and livelihoods. When I hear stories of women of color today- that story is not so different. We find ourselves, metaphorically suckling our white colleagues, and our Desi men and other men of color, in community, for the greater good, for their well-being- at the expense of our own humanity. So- we are all still bound together by our shared history of colonization- practicing the same rituals of existence, and though they are metaphoric rituals now, they play out in very real ways. (side note- don’t get me started on ‘feminism’, since my role is often always that of an ayah to my white feminist colleagues, and particularly self-defined allies). It is the life force of Desi women (and other women of color) that sustained descendants of European colonization and the survival of the global Desi diaspora– and South Asian does not honor that story. So- I unapologetically claim Desi- it is the superwoman cape passed down to me from many generations of women before me.
My daughter will grow up in a spiritual/culturally-religious Malayalee-Sindhi-Sikh-Hindu-Catholic-American home where these stories are distant, and the details blurry. But her existence is part of a shared hope that transcends geography, even without her attachment or awareness to the original roots of that hope. And yet she is a product of it, and has a duty toward it. South Asian erases the sacrifices of her great grandmother’s refugee story, her grandmothers’ immigration stories, and her mother’s Asian American story. South Asian erases the triumph and the hope, one removed generation at a time. It is the sanitized story that, for me, leaves out the complexities of our intertwined polycultural, Desi, narratives.
This post is the first in a series of three by Mamta Accapadi…stay tuned!
This post is part of our #HigherEdDesi series, which aims to share the stories of what it means to identify as “Desi” and working in higher ed. We hope to provide a context of how we came into Higher Education and what that journey looked like for each one of us. For more information, please see Juhi Bhatt’s intro post. Be sure to check out other posts in this series!
> BONUS <