Being a Desi in America

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America has been the crucible, a veritable melting pot, of many cultures. The south Asian community – Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans – are the Desis. They pride in their spices and the Bollywood numbers. They are the math, science and the spelling bee genius breeding species. Food is their focal point, the essential soul of all get-togethers and parties. Desis are rooted to their religions – these help them form and assert their identities in a faraway land. They take their celebrations and culture very seriously. Anumita, a Desi, tells us what it means to be one, in this weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans are all Desi on the American soil. That term is self coined by us people of the south Asian subcontinent. We pride in our spices and the Bollywood numbers. Oh yes, we are the math, science and the spelling bee genius breeding species. Whole week there is work, work and more work. Weekends are either lazy-at- home or party times. It’s a gathering of more Desis with food enough to feed a garrison.


Food is our focal point, the essential soul of all get-togethers and parties. Pot lucks are in vogue and often it is well-planned by the host or the group leaders of the Desi gang. Food is cooked for us, the adults, in typical Desi flavor (spiced) and then, there are few made with less spices and some American food for our ABCDs. You must be wondering what is ABCD, I will get to that terminology soon. These ABCDs are often taught to follow tradition, be it the food, language or religion.

Desis are rooted to their religions – these help them form and assert their identities in a faraway land. They take their celebrations and culture very seriously. For the Hindu community, the temples provide space and opportunities for every puja possible in the Hindu calendar. Other than that there are Satyanaran, Lakshmi Puja, and many other Vraths (rituals and fasts) happening on auspicious days, according to the Hindu almanac, at different homes. Since food is our core, there is always a lunch or a dinner after such pujas.

I am a Bengali. As all Bengalis around the world, Durga Puja is the quintessential festival. We get extra sentimental and emotional at the mere mention of this puja. Our tradition and roots stretch way below the continent, swim through the ocean, and pierce through the next continent to reach Bengal. Most cities in the USA have Bengali associations and a weekend near the actual date of the Durga Puja is chosen. Bengalis rejoice and celebrate Durga puja zealously with great fervour. Yes, there is food. Plenty of food. And not one item is repeated in the whole weekend.

For the Muslim friends I know, they have splendid Eid celebration. Dressing up and (again) food is a huge part of such festivity. Most of the families cook huge amount of food at home. There are few caterings services, but it is a practice and pride to serve home cooked food.

We don’t mind struggling over a hot stove for two whole days to get anything between five and eight (sometimes even more) dishes cooked from the scratch. I wonder where we get this immense capacity. Guess this is what being a Desi means!

Then comes the vacations and holidays. Desis love to go on vacations. The compulsory trip to India is scheduled once in two or three years. Some zealous ones do it every year, and are envied by the rest. There is a frenzy of shopping gifts for all the aunts, uncles, cousins, munchkins and friends months before the actual visit. Big preparations on Facebook, Skype and WhatsApp take place day after day. Intricate plans of where/what to eat and where to visit are well chalked out. Once we desis are back on American soil after the vacation, there is this big hangover of missing and craving for people and the land. We return loaded with sweets, spices, sarees, dresses, etc. for our Desi friends. We don’t mind being the delivery person – well, everyone does it for each other. Once a Desi always a Desi!

A trip to Europe, Hawaii, the Bahamas, and every big city of United States is on the to-do list of most Desis. We are all great travelers. Summer time is a very important season, as tons of parents and family visit their children or siblings in America.

The parents visiting for the first time are taken to visit Niagara. It is kind of a pilgrimage for all Desi parents. The next stop is Disney. Those on the west coast visit Disneyland, while those on the east coast visit Disney World. Those who live in the central zone, practice ini-mini- myni-mo and make their choice of the coast to visit. There would be a flurry of nemontonnos (dinner/lunch invites) in honor of the visiting parents.  Feast prepared diligently by the ladies just the way the parents and the visitors like it.

The ABCDs (American born confused Desis) amongst us are the coconuts, brown on the outside and white within. This term is used for the second generations, our children. They are the ones in perfect limbo between Desis and Americans. They are the ones who eat, walk and talk in combination of these two cultures. Most of them are unique as they have the capacity to adopt and adapt. At home they are the chicken curry and rice eating humans, who can flip over to pasta and pizza in seconds flat. They are the ones who are richer in culture in some way or the other. Their life looks like a kaleidoscope with the puja celebrations by their Desi parents, aunts and uncles (that is what the friends of parents are called irrespective of their family lineage) and celebrating Easter, Halloween, Christmas and Thanksgiving.

With all our mingled and mosaic of cultures, while being Indo-Americans, we stand up for our kind and are ready to help each other in spite of all our hectic schedules in life. Am proud to be an American Desi and proud of my co-Desis on this soil.

©Anumita Chatterjee Roy

Pix by author.

Anumita Chatterjee Roy is an artist at heart. She has an eye for the unusual. Her naturescapes make her the quintessential Romantic. She paints, is passionate about photography, creates word images in her verses and loves to write. She cooks delicacies and is a foodie. Born in India, she was brought up in several countries. These strengthened the global citizen in her. She now lives in the Columbus, Ohio, with her husband and two sons.