To Be or Not to Be “Desi” That is the Question…

I’m trying to think back to the first time I heard the word “desi” (aside from I Love Lucy, with her husband Desi Arnaz… okay, not related to the topic at all, moving on…) I’m not sure if I heard the word much in college. Many of my friends were Nepali, although there were other South Asians around… a Sri Lankan girl, a Pakistani guy, a few Indians, and later on a Bangladeshi. I can’t distinctly remember them referring to themselves as “desi” although it is entirely possible that I might have never noticed.

I’m sure I must have heard it while studying in India, although mention of the word doesn’t really stick out in my mind until I met another fellow American student with a different perspective.

During a long weekend I decided to travel by train from Jaipur to the old desert outpost of Jaisalmer. While on the train I bumped into a few students from another study abroad program also stationed in Jaipur, and we decided to connect and travel together.

Traveling with the students was a girl whose parents were originally from Chennai in South India. During the long train ride she talked about being an “ABCD” in India, and how everyone wanted to talk to her in Hindi and expected her to translate because she looked Indian. “I wanted to come to north India to get a different experience from visiting family in Chennai, but my family speaks Tamil so people have an unrealistic expectation of my abilities just because of how I look. It can be really frustrating!” she lamented.

“ABCD? What is that?” I asked.

“American Born Confused Desi” she explained.

“Desi?”

“You know, desi… ‘Indian.’”

According to Wikionary, “Essentially ‘Desi’ comes from the word – Des or Desh, which means Country in Hindi or Sanskrit. Thus, a ‘desi’ is ‘a person from or originally belonging to’ ‘Des’. Since almost all the South Asian nations (along with their thousands of dialects) can somehow relate to the word ‘Des’, I call all South Asians as ‘Desis’ – Venkat Manda.”

Then Wikipedia says… hey, wait. Wikipedia… you changed your entry on me! It didn’t say this before! I swear… (I guess that’s why it is a “wiki”-pedia… meaning “a website that allows the easy creation and editing of any number of interlinked Web pages”).

Anyway the newly updated Wikipedia entry says, “When referring to culture or ethnic background, the term includes any person of South Asian heritage with ancestry from India, Pakistan, Maldives, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. While this term is popular in all these countries, Nepal being in South Asia does not familiarize itself with it. In other words Nepalese think this word is specially for the people of greater India at the time of British rule as Nepal was never ruled by Britain.”

What it used to say was something like, “ desi refers to the peoples, cultures and products of South Asia including India, Pakistan, Maldives, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.”

Woah… now this takes me in a whole different direction… and also kinda answers my question a bit…

The point of the matter is, I didn’t learn “desi” from my Nepali friends. It wasn’t until I started reading a lot of intercultural blogs on western/South Asian relationships about a year and a half ago that I noticed a lot of the writers would throw around the term “desi” usually (in my opinion) as a blanket term for South Asian (or at least to mean Indian/Pakistani). As I noted before, I never ran into this term with the Nepalis I knew, and only rarely heard it in general, and now I felt like I hear it all the time. (It’s the same with the term “gori” — I hadn’t heard that term before until I started reading blogs! I guess my identity has always been “American” or “Amreekan” in South Asia… Although I just checked with  a friend, and I guess “gore” might be used, but Amreekan is more common for “foreigner” in Nepal anyway).

So I started asking around. Did my Nepali friends consider themselves “desis”?

Sign from a "Desi" grocery store

One Nepali friend after another said that no, they wouldn’t refer to themselves as “desi” and they wouldn’t really have thought to do it before. There was nothing hostile about it, it was more like, “doesn’t that mean ‘Indian’?”

Likewise, I don’t remember them ever saying anything like, “I feel like eating desi food tonight” or “let’s go to the desi grocery store” or “I’m in the mood for some desi music” or “you have to dress in desi clothes for the party.” But no one really explained why Nepalis didn’t use the term desi.

Now Wikipedia tells me it has something to do with Nepali impressions from British colonialism. Does anyone out there agree? Can anyone shed some light on this for me? Other Nepali readers?

Meanwhile how can I write about “desi” and not link to the song “Desi Girl” from the Bollywood movie Dostana? The song is really catchy and fun to dance too… but I don’t know how I feel about all the blonde white people in the background dancing around during the movie clip of the song… it seems to be a bit… awkward?

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25 responses to “To Be or Not to Be “Desi” That is the Question…

  1. Does Nepali not have word ‘Desh’ for country? If it does then Nepalis are Desis. Or may be Desi should only be used to Hindi/Urdu folks as we are the one who have been using it since centuries for native things/people.
    BTW What do you call clarified butter in Nepali?

    • The Nepali word for country is “desh” but Nepalis (in general) don’t seem to label themselves desis even if the etymology of the word makes sense. I just don’t hear my Nepali friends using the word like I do other South Asians. That just seems to be my impression. If there are Nepalis out there that want to weigh in on the discussion, I definitely encourage you.

      Meanwhile the Nepali word for clarified butter is ghew.

      • Well i will be surprised if ‘Desi’ is not used for ‘native things’ in nepali like clearified butter, In Hindi/Urdu its called ‘desi ghee’.

  2. That’ really interesting to know. Sometimes the lines of what’s shared between different South Asian cultures as opposed to where the divergences are can difficult to discern for me, since I only have the one perspective. I’ve never traveled in India, and only have a few Bangladeshi friends. Yours in the first I’ve read about Nepalese culture outside of a class in college.

    Also, I was thinking the same thing about the clarified butter. In Urdu/Hindi it’s “ghee” and it’s sold in stores in America as “Desi Ghee.” I was like “Doesn’t she buy Desi Ghee at least?”

    • I’m sure we have products in our apartment that have “desi” written on them… in fact the “ghew” probably does ;) I’m not opposed to its usage, I just find it interesting that there seems to be this distinction.

      Having grown up close to Canada, I sometimes think of the Nepal/India relationship as a bit similar to the Canada/US relationship. The US is Canada’s massive neighbor to the south (much like India to Nepal)… the US has a lot of cultural, political and economic power in the region (much like India to Nepal), because of this Canadians are often more well versed on American information than Americans are of Canadians (same thing happens in Nepal/India), and Canadians can often be mistaken as Americans abroad (or even in the US), much like many Nepalis are often assumed to be Indian.

      Its like the older sibling that is impossible to outshine!

      I guess that is one reason I like writing this blog… to gently remind people not to generalize about all of South Asia :)

  3. I generally use desi for objects rather than people (similar to the word ‘oriental’). Many South Asians, however, love to refer to themselves as Desi. I too have never heard Nepalese refer to themselves desi….same with Bhutanese and Afghans (although both have related cultures).

  4. Nepali born American Raised

    No I do not consider myself a Desi. My forefathers didn’t die face down in the muck fighting the British colonials just so I be called an Indian, Desi, whatever. :)

  5. Most NRIs detest the South Asian and Desi label
    Many prefer Indian American or Hindu American

    The South Asian / Desi label is used by a coalition of non-Hindus and deracinated leftist Hindus, to socially embrace the Bangladeshis and Pakistanis

    Hence strongly culturally rooted Hindu-Buddhist Nepalese, Bhutanese and Sri Lankans dont fit under the Desi Label

    Tellingly the Bhutan Nepalese refugee relief is done by Hindu American Charities

  6. Well being a Nepali, I never associated the word ‘Desi’ with being Nepali; however, since I interact with a lot of South Asians in the United States, I don’t mind being lumped into the category called ‘Desi’ people. I, personally, do not use the word often but I don’t mind being associated with it. ‘Desh’ means a country and ‘Deshi’ means something from that country. Yes ‘Desi’ is a term more frequently used amongst South Asians other than Nepalis but I guess when you are in a foreign country, you don’t mind being associated with the bigger group.

  7. I was in high school before I ever heard the term ‘desi’ used, and I had to ask my parents what it meant (I was like, “countryman?”) and–they hadn’t heard it either. Maybe we lived in a little bubble, but I find it to be kind of a newer thing in general. I only just started using the term desi, but I use it as a synonym to Indo-Pak, which seems to be a term that’s fallen out of favor.

  8. South Asian / Desi is Indo-pak by the back door

    The desi people detest Indian classical languages like Sanskrit and Tamil,
    Spout Urdu , and speak of composite culture
    with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, and glorify Sufi Dargahs and Bollywood

    There is far more common culture between Indians and Nepalis but that doesnt enter the mind of these Desis

    These deracinated Desis dislike Hindu festivals like
    Bhai Tikka ( Raksha Bandhan ),
    Teej ( fasting ) and Bratabandha ( upanayanam )

  9. desi ghee, desi anDa, desi murghi: here desi means domestic, kind of like pure and organic, made at home, and unadulterated.

    I don’t think that people within India and Pakistani used desi to denote all South Asians until recently and that particular usage of desi has come back from the diaspora. I think before it meant simply nation, or one’s own region (even one’s own village), as well as domestic.

    Out in the diaspora the word makes more sense since the South Asian people who fall under the umbrella of “desis” do have some cultural cohesiveness that distinguishes them for everyone from other parts of the world. Daal chaawal and ghee being examples. But within South Asia, as you know, even within a small area, people are very diverse and extremely attached to their ethnic group identity, religious distinctions, caste groups, class, language etc., and it really is such an extremely diverse place that even with a small region in India two different groups might scoff at the idea that they have much in common.

    The word makes a lot of sense in the diaspora only.

    It is very handy to say “Are you wearing desi clothes to the party?” to a friend instead of “Are you wearing Bangladeshi/Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi/Sri Lankan clothes to the party? When you mean a saree, but maybe you are Pakistani and the person you are asking is Bangladeshi but the saree was bought at an Indian store and is from India. Too much of a mouthful. Just say desi.

    In my observation, Nepalese seem very culturally desi with the exception of the main Buddhist groups who share a lot culturally with Tibetans. I don’t know much about Bhutanese, but they do seem more like Tibetans, too.

    • This is pretty much my understanding/usage of the word “desi” – a short-hand to refer to things that are common to all of the South Asian culture. ‘Cause four letters is shorter than typing out two words. :-)

  10. Oh, about the desi ghee thing, when you attach the desi part to that you are assuring the quality/purity of the ghee (like banaspati). Normally, one would just say ghee.

  11. In India ghee is called ghee
    No such thing as desi ghee

    Desh means the same in Nepal
    The slogan for the Nepal army under the Monarchy was
    ‘Desh and Naresh’
    ‘Country and God-King”

    This desi identity is pushed by Indian Punjabis and Bengalis who think they have more in common with their linguistic cousins across the border from whom they fled in 1947, than their co-religionists

    In the diaspora, in UK, the word Asian is used to
    denote South Asians and Indians in UK detest it since every week an ‘Asian’ ( Pakistanir or Bangladeshi ) is arrested for terrorism and they dont to be tarred by being associated with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis
    In addition, UK Indians are far above whites in education and wealth while UK Pakistanis and UK Bangladeshis are at Afro-caribbean levels
    and dont want to be associated with these
    UK Indians are trying to push for the UK Hindu identity

    Same applies in USA too
    Per 2007 US preliminary census
    College rate and Median Family Income

    Indians = 70%, $93K
    Pakistanis = 54%, $54K
    Bangladeshis = 40%, $40K

    Socio-economically in the US too, Indian immigrants have nothing in common with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis except for some Indian commies trying for coalitions of colored people against so called white privilege

  12. Americanepali: Do you have a comment moderation policy?

  13. Ok. C’s question still seems unanswered. “Are Nepali’s Desies or why are Nepali’s not called Desi?” I’m from Nepal and I lived there for 18 years. There is a difference in the way Nepali’s think about themselves and the way Indian/pakistanis think abot them. Just like C gave the analogy of Canada-America, Nepal has a lot of influence from India. And most Nepalis hate this. And Desi is a actually refered to Indians as a derogatory word in Nepal. We used to tease Indian looking (Bihari looking) friends in high school as Desis. Desi more or less means Indian in Nepal and mostly in a derogatory way.

    In the US many of my Indian/Pakistani friends refer to me as Desi so often and it basically means to me as “we are brothers.” So I don’t say don’t tell me Desi to them. But obviously they don’t know I don’t refer to myself as Desi.

  14. I, being bangladeshi, found Shyamsunder’s comment a bit offensive. However, I really liked the issue raised in this post. The term “desi” was always used around my household to describe objects not people. Such as desi ghee…in this case adding authenticity to the ghee that it is pure and from the “homeland”. Once I started high school (and university) and started making a lot of “desi” friends (Indian, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani) the term “desi” was used to describe people and actions. Such as she is very desi or that was a desi thing for you to do. I feel like the term “desi” is used by people to identity themselves as “desi” (ingroup) rather than outsiders labeling them as “desi” (outgroup).

  15. I have heard Indians refer to themselves as desis here in the US. However, being a nepali that I am, it doesn’t ring any bell for me. I don’t feel comfortable in identifying myself as a desi, even though “desh” is very much a Nepali word too. It could be due to a simple fact that I wasn’t familiar with the usage of this term when I was growing up in Nepal. It wasn’t heard of or used, at least not in my world. I can only speak for myself but I would always like to be introduced as Nepali first.

  16. Like rest of the world in Nepal desi generally refers to Indian/pakistani/sri lanka. Bhutan, Nepal and afghanistan although being a part of south asia isn’t generally considered to be Desi. Although Nepal shares border with India and we have huge huge Indian influence there’s so many things in which Nepalese find themselves different form Indian especially in the way we think.

  17. Do Napali’s consider themselves brown?

  18. Desi doesn’t refer to all South Asian countries because Nepali and Bhutanese don’t consider themselves desi. I’m Nepali and I have many Nepali friends and none of us consider each other desi.

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