The word is Desi

“There is something odd about this piece”, I told myself yesterday after reading a newspaper article titled “Desis Raise $2 million for Hillary Clinton“. I soon figured that it was about the D word, “Desi“. Do I recall reading that term in a mainstream Indian newspaper before? No. This was perhaps a first.

I have never liked that tag, and have wondered why most immigrant Indians – yeah, I know, South Asians, but lets keep it short here – readily embrace it? If you ask around for what that term means, most who are okay with it say it describes “Global Indians”. Classify yourself into an ethnic sounding sub-group, and yet aspire to be global, what kind of contradiction is that?

My dislike for the D word partly stems from an early experience at US. It was my second month (yeah, the FoB days) there, I landed up at that annual Halloween parade thing in New York City. Few friends and myself were witnessing the shocking costumes when a group of Indian looking folks took fancy to our presence. “Damn these ABCDs”, a friend introduced that group to me. While that loud group of teen aged kids went “hey you *beep* desis”, “go desi go” and more, (it was a harmless experience, fun for the most part of it) the D word stuck for a bit. And I was thinking, “who exactly does this tag identify or represent?”.

Well, I still don’t know. The ones who are still not integrated into their newly adopted ‘global‘ setup? A migrant citizen who wont yet call himself ‘American’, will that be a Desi? For a migrant citizen, who is an ‘American’ in whatever-sense, is “American Indian” a better phrase? And if an Indian living in America is indeed a Desi, who exactly would be a Videshi? The local Americans? Or non-immigrant Indian citizens? Or Indians living far away in their homeland!? Sorry if I have you all confused.

To me, the term is a misfit. Aspiring to be global, yet trying to bunch yourself in some ethnic fashion and that too by using a word that means “local” or “indigenous” – that is an exercise to further complicate the identity crisis Indian diaspora lives through! Few who side with me go a notch stronger and say the D word is an expression of self derogation and denigration. Hey, ooh, thats a bit strong.

You are entitled to your opinions though. Just don’t beat me up for expressing mine, thats all. Thank you!


9 Responses

  1. I echo your views. I am like the term Global Indian (that is how describe myself in my blog Views and Thoughts of a Global Indian.

    I had a quick look at this term in Wikipedia. For sure, the word Desi is a misfit.


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  2. I have had several discussions with my friends as well. To me this seems like a derogatory word. If not derogatory then at least it does not give me a positive feeling. I have felt so many times that Indians themselves dont respect other Indians when they are abroad. I dont know if you have observed that most people from other countries nod a hello in case of an eye contact whereas we Indians choose to ignore and look the other way. And its contagious. :-) Indians discriminate against each other wherever they are but back here in India, at least I dont have any special expectations from them. :-) Its great to be back home.

  3. pranav:

    “I have never liked that tag, and have wondered why most immigrant Indians – yeah, I know, South Asians, but lets keep it short here – readily embrace it?”

    me neither – at the very least it should be ‘deshi’ :-). in the beginning, it was more like i was humouring everyone around by using the term, but lately, it has been a frustrating term to use.

    – s.b.

  4. I always thought of desi as being `from the desh (India) `.
    My 2 cents on why it’s caught on:
    Desi probably sounds cooler than official terms like Indian-Americans or British-Asians.
    With one term you can identify with Bollywood and other cultural aspects of the sub-continent.
    I think the other reason it’s caught on is because a large number of non indians have embraced the term for identifying themselves on the Bollywood front.
    Especially in Britain with equal number of Indians and Pakistanis, it’s a term used to unify rather than divide.

  5. Yes, the word’s a common term. But, to use it in a newspaper? Which newspaper was this?

  6. I have heard ‘desi’ being used in both ‘cool’ and ‘derogatory’ way. In the US,
    i think it is nice way to differentiate us from the ‘American Indians’.

    Pranav, i don’t still get why you are so miffed at a newspaper using it ….
    I think ‘desi’ is cool, short and nice sounding to refer to ‘Global Indians’ ..

    I find the term ‘Bollywood’ more derogatory ….

  7. Yep, first, it should be “deshi”, not ‘desi’. Picking ‘rustic’ version of a native word adds to the ‘derogatory’ value of this term.

    This was in ToI, Tue June 26. Rediff too had the same story with D word in headline. Forget Rediff, but I definitely don’t recall mainstream media using this term before.

    Vasu, yes. “Bollywood” too isn’t a good one. Its like a low-on-confidence or a ‘wannabe’ term ! s.b. and I had agreed on this sometime ago. BTW, Amitabh Bachchan agrees as well (I remember an interview where he talked about this and the craze for Oscars).

  8. Interesting thought.

    The word for me sums up “Indian”. Prevalent usage may make it seem to mean Indian Abroad, or the Global Indian, but I think the term is much broader than that and applies to all Indians, whether in India or out. In that sense I agree with Goutham and Vasu. And it’s not really a bad term. Quite descriptive.

    Nice blog.


  9. it’s basically the N word. in a few years it will be the same as the N word.

    Kumar is behaving strangely.
    “oh hes just desi”

    Alfred is behaving strangely.
    “oh hes just a nigga”

    Before it was common in America to just have Nigger, Negro, Colored plastered all over the newspapers. On radio, tv, everything. Even blacks themselves embraced the term, just as many Indians today say that they are desi. While it is one way to identify yourself for whatever legitimate reason, in reality it depends so greatly on the context. just because they said DESI doesnt mean it’s right.

    I have been called DESI on many occasions that in contexts that are questionable, and on a number of times which are most definitely unacceptable.

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