Photo: John H. White. Courtesy of the National Archives at College Park. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
You know why they call them Indians? Because Columbus thought he was in India. They’re called Indians because some white guy got lost.
—Herb Stempel, Quiz Show
We called them American bhua and American phupher, the middle of my father’s three older sisters and her husband. As the vanguard of my family’s transplants to the U.S., they’d been assigned these honorifics by their nieces and nephews living then in England. American phupher arrived in Chicago for a temporary stay in the late fifties, then returned permanently with bhua in 1971. Together they raised three children while she labored in an electronics assembly plant, and he worked first as a diesel engineer for the Chicago Transit Authority and later in its managerial ranks. In their earliest years here, they would occasionally receive a phone call from a stranger who had just arrived at O’Hare on British Airways or Air India. The callers didn’t speak much English, and they had no friends or family in the city; they’d simply found a pay phone in the terminal, opened the directory, and dialed the number next to any name that sounded like it came from their part of the world. When these calls came in, my uncle would drive from the family’s apartment in Logan Square to the airport and collect the newcomers, whether they were Punjabi, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi, whether they were Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh, and he and my aunt would host them, sometimes for months, until they had secured employment and apartment leases.
This is a kind of generosity that has been practiced by generations of immigrants to and from every part of the world. Among South Asians, such ethnic esprit de corps is captured most succinctly by the term desi, which Vijay Prashad defines to include those of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Afghani, Sri Lankan, and Nepalese descent. It isn’t his invention. It’s commonplace enough among my family that I know it to mean one of us in a manner akin to the Italian paisan. Derived from Sanskrit, desi refers to umber skin and curried English, but—like paisan again—its application isn’t entirely seamless. Where outsiders might see homogeneity, immense internecine tensions permeate the histories of the desi peoples. Even among Indians arrived in the West from what is ostensibly a single country, there are chasms of cultural, linguistic, and religious difference that make India more like the fitful cohesion of Europe’s constituent nations than anything resembling the U.S. Uniting all our tongues, gods, cultures, and bodies under a single desi banner is tribalism elevated to a continental scale, and it doesn’t quite work.
Yet desi isn’t a wrong category for us to embrace. When you live in a place that doesn’t recognize differences between you and anyone who looks vaguely like you, you come to accept, even welcome, certain conflations. Partition isn’t much remembered. Who assassinated whose head of state and for what reason doesn’t seem to matter any longer. The cold war over Kashmir, the occupation of Amritsar, the Bangladesh Liberation War, the centuries-long history of persecution and conflict across South Asia—these are hardly known, much less understood, in the West. Here, survival matters. Wellness matters. It matters that we have each other. Growing up in Chicago in the eighties and nineties, it seemed to me that I really might be related to anyone with brown skin and a Bollywood accent. My “uncles” and “aunties” were Gujarati and Pakistani, Hindu and Muslim, Jatt Sikh and Saini. They were shopkeepers and cab drivers, laborers and tailors, professors and physicians. If it takes a village, I lived in a flourishing and richly populated one.
Still, in that village, I have long felt like a freeloader. Though I understand and speak Punjabi and can muddle through a modicum of Urdu and Hindi, though I wore kurta pajamas as a kid and can cook a few sabzis, I know little of the vastness and diversity of the desi nations. From my one visit to India, when I was four, I remember nothing but a sensation here, an image there: a water well between stalks of what might have been sugar cane, saag and corn flour roti cooking under an open sky at night, bathing in the reservoir surrounding the Golden Temple, smoke and the lingering smell of burning hanging over farm fields. This is the entirety of my firsthand reporting on a nation of more than a billion people and its sixty-five thousand years of history. Like every other child of immigrants here, first-generation or fifth-, my distance, my detachment, and my ignorance make me an American. Read More