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.
“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”?
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?