The Desi, The Coconut, & The Indian

When Ms. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke of single stories I can’t help but think of the many stereotypes created about my people, some even created by one another. It’s a fundamental problem of humans to categorize each other, to try and understand someone, or even ourselves better.

 

Growing up, I always identified myself as 1/3 America, 1/3 Indian, 1/3 Sri Lankan. Obviously even back then I thought of identifying with a country’s culture meant more than the blood that ran through my veins. I wanted to share my heritage with my parents’ heritage, and the one I was experiencing within in the United States. It’s funny really, that a five year old can figure where she came from, and where she is without the labels and categories placed upon her by other people. A kids mind is so simple, never trying to over analyze, understand, or decipher subjects, which can often detract from the main purpose. A kid can look at something and draw their own conclusion from what is presented to them, not from their past experiences, prior knowledge, or anything else. It just is. And that’s why I can never really thing of myself as just America, just Indian, or just Sri Lankan. I am all three, and they each make me who I am in their own ways.

 

But there was always a term that even to this day confuses my 1/3 Indian side constantly. It is the term “Desi”. It loosely translates from Hindi to countryman or someone from the “Des”, or motherland (being India). The application of this word is always questionable, but what I have realized is that it mainly refers to people outside of India, people who come off the boat to a new country. When Ms. Adichie refers to the creation of a single story depicting a group of people a specific way I think that Americans took the chance to create a single story based off of Desis, people who came from India and had to figure out a way to assimilate to Western culture and values.

 

However, over time this label has been thrown around with different connotations, sometimes it refers to Indians that immigrate, other times it refers to first generation kids, often times it refers to the people that haven’t figured out how to assimilate to American culture, while still holding true to their own values and identity.

 

The latter definition is the one that I most understand since I hear the label thrown around so much towards people who refuse to adapt to their new lifestyle in America, they believe it means sacrificing their culture and religion when it doesn’t/. They don’t accept the American lifestyle at all, and will often say “These Americans….” And proceed to say a judgmental comment, despite them being in America for over fifteen years. This type of person also promotes competition between their kids in the American school system, wanting them to get into an Ivy League University, be Valedictorian, become President of all the clubs at school, and only focus on academics. Of course none of this is really bad, wanting your child to succeed is not a bad thing at all, but it’s the idea and requirement that all Indians kids have to do this that frustrates me.

 

For whatever reason, there is no in between when it comes to Desis and I think that is because today when people immigrate from India, they tend to join groups of other Indian immigrants that have already established. The stereotype that all Indians are nerds, or doctors, or lawyers, causes these immigrants to live up to such a high level. Of course, there could be worst stereotypes, but now you have a group of people that think the same way, wanting all their kids to be the best. Even more, they love to see how other children are doing compared to their own, they thrive off of the competitive atmosphere, especially when one child gets into one college, or has a higher SAT score than another. All parents have bragging rights, but what’s the deal with bragging about your child, and then asking another parent about their childs’ scores in order to elevate their own child. This can also be stated for the kids, who will compare GPAs, awards, and other acclimations that will possibly make them look better than someone else. They worry about everybody else, to make themselves look better.

 

I don’t really identify myself with this definition of Desi, but all the aunties, and uncles, and their children who I meet expect me to (I’m not related to any of these people). They ask “What do you want to be?”, “Where do you want to go to school?”, “What are your plans for life?”. I think I first got this question when I was in the eighth grade by someone. Like really? I haven’t even experience High School yet, and you want me to pick a career? Obviously the answers that were expected were: Doctor, Lawyer, Engineer, or Accountant.

 

When talking about a single story, this is the single story Desis have: You can never succeed without following the pathway our country men faced in America, there is no other way to survive, or live. They see one part of the story where the only true form of living comfortably and successfully is to push their kids to never let go of the values they have instilled but also to succeed at everything they do. Failure isn’t an option.

 

I think that most people in class will discuss America’s view of a single story, but for me and my life I have only ever been placed into a box of stereotypes and expectations by my own people. It’s hurtful, limiting, and frustrating. You may ask me, “Why separate yourself from your own people? Why call them Desis when you clearly are also their fellow country man? Why distinguish yourself when you can unify?”

 

My answer is simple: I am not the same. If the connotation of Desi accepted: one who can desire to be something other than cliché jobs, one who isn’t overly ambitious or competitive, one who doesn’t sit in a room and compare herself to everyone else in terms of intelligence, then yes I would be a Desi. But I’m not, I can’t be.

 

I walked around, and still walk around, for the past four years crafting a way to state my desire to become an author. At first, people would try and talk me out of it, saying I wouldn’t make much money, I wouldn’t be happy, that it wasn’t realistic. My responding thoughts are: This is America, people immigrate here for more opportunities, it’s ridiculous to think that we shouldn’t take advantage of those opportunities if they are now made available. In order to avoid such scrutiny my family and I would come up with various ways to state my ambitions. This is possibly the best way: “I want to become an author, and I will major in creative writing in my undergrad, but I will do something such as Law as my graduate degree. I will be able to pursue something I love, while making money.”

 

It’s smart way to avoid the frightened look most people have on their face when I tell them about writing. It’s a smart plan, but honestly I’m not sure if I want to do law, I want to explore my options in college for a graduate degree, but I can’t say this to my fellow country men. For them I must have a ready answer that they believe will lead to my success.

 

I know I mentioned a Coconut in the title. This blog is getting long as it is, but coconuts aren’t as complex as Desis, not quite at least. Coconuts are people that are brown on the outside, and white on the inside. They have blatant disregard for their culture, and assimilate to the American, or western culture completely, forgetting where they or their parents came from, and how they contributes to their identity. An example of this would be a Indian Hindu who comes to America and eats meat (beef specifically) because everyone else does it and they want to be accepted. But they grew up learning that cows are sacred, and to kill one anywhere and eat it is an insult to God. Why? Because once a child can no longer last upon his or her mother’s milk, the cow is the one that provides the sustenance for the baby to survive.

 

However, this is not the only example of how far Indians can assimilate, some don’t hang out with other Indians, don’t make an effort to hold onto any piece of their roots, be it religion, festivals, food, etc. Most of the people that I have met that have had this problem are kids that cannot connect with their Desi parents who want them to do their absolute best. These kids grew up in America and just want to fit in, and they feel as though in order to do that they must completely reject the values and ideas their parents have enforced into them, and go the opposite way.

 

These Indians see only one story, that in order to fit in they have to reject their background and be like every other “American”, eating meat, doing drugs, drinking alcohol, stuff they never would have done back at home. Granted its understandable, if you live in a repressed house then all you want to do is break out, but that doesn’t mean lose every value you have ever been instilled with. The urge to assimilate is powerful, but don’t lose yourself along the way by doing so. Remember what you truly hold dear to you in morals and beliefs, and just live. Experience new things, make friends, but don’t sacrifice yourself for someone else’s views and ideas, that’s the fundamental problem.

 

 

This blog isn’t stating that all Indians who come to America and have kids here think one of these two ways. Heck, my family and I are the living proof that this is not the case. There are plenty of Indians that live here and are more open minded to exploring the United States’ opportunities, but never in my life have I heard these people identify with the term “Desi”. They will call the people that I have defined above, Desis, but not themselves. Why? Because they know that they are different from Desis. To these people, and myself we call ourselves Indians. In addition to this, we never completely assimilate to the American culture, or what is believed to be the American culture. We hold true to their values, and remember who they were in their own country. We adapt, but we don’t change ourselves for others.

 

We’re grouped as one to the rest of the world, but within us we have realized that we don’t think the same, we don’t share different versions of a story. Desis believe that the road to success is through competition, full academic concentration and specific jobs. Coconuts believe that in order to survive in this country you have to sacrifice all that you believe in to become one with the western culture. And then you have Indians, the people who are in-between, who want to be successful, happy, and adaptive. There are probably many more groups and divisions within my people, but these are the three that I have encountered and have had a direct impact with me. It sounds cruel to categorize people, but it honestly is how Indians view one another. We’re all different, sure, but there are specific ideologies that separate us. We’re driven apart by our single stories.

Bottled Drinks and Their Human Counterparts

I think there’s a lot to be said about not being able to find the motivation of certain actions committed by characters in novels. Not only does it provoke a sense of ambiguity within characterization, but it also causes the reader to pay more attention to what that character signifies, and what their actions signify.

 

I’m going to ATTEMPT to try and break down the characterization of Bigger Thomas, from the novel Native Son by Richard Wright.

 

Think of the drink aisle in the grocery store, except it’s divided into three parts. The middle part is scattered with 2 L Diet Coke Bottles. They are few, and are often hidden. The other bottles in that middle section are 2 L water bottles. The other two sections that surround this middle section are bottles 2 L Minute Made Pink Lemonade.

 

Can you see it?

 

Alright, now think of all of these as people in the setting of the novel, Chicago in the 1930s. The water bottles represent black people, who are restricted to living in the confines of the middle section, or black belt, of Chicago. These people wish they could have a chance, even crave it, but they accept the situation they are in. Water is pure, and moves despite adversaries in its path. The water in these bottles reflect the feelings that these people have. They wish things could change but they also want to keep moving on in life, they just want to survive the conditions they were thrown into.

 

Now the Minute Made Pink Lemonade Bottles represent the White people of Chicago. They are quite the opposite of water. This lemonade is filled with sugar, and artificial preservatives that really aren’t good for you at all. These people are quite ignorant not only of black people, but what their actions do to black people. They’re scared, and filled with guilt for the fact that they have segregated these people, and might actually possibly wrong about what they have done. However, they don’t do enough to change the problems in American society, that works against Black people. The pink sugary drink represents this fear, guilt, and ignorance that the white people experience.

 

Lastly, we come to the Diet Coke. There aren’t many. In fact, in the case of the novel, there is only one, and he is Bigger Thomas. Why a Diet Coke bottle, you may wonder? Well, because that’s the only picture I could find of a soda bottle exploding, which conveys my metaphor.

 

We all know soda is bad for you, mainly because it is sugary, and carbonated, and serves no purpose other than it tastes good. In this case, the drink inside the bottle represents Bigger’s thoughts and emotions. Bigger isn’t very expressive, when he is not angry or scared. In fact, he’s quiet and just wants to go through life and earn money. This is similar to the Water bottle he is surrounded by, but similar to the Lemonade bottles, Bigger faces ignorance not only of the world around him, but also of understanding White People. He hates them for how they oppress him, for how he doesn’t have a chance to go and achieve distant dreams, such as becoming a pilot. This bitterness is the carbonation in the soda. It’s fizzy, this is kinda similar to the tingling one receives when they drink minute made lemonade. The light fizziness in the lemonade is the anger and guilt that the white people in the novel face, but the fizz that Bigger experiences is on a larger scale. He’s scared, upset and disappointed.

 

Now you can say that all the other Black people must feel this way as well, and yeah sure, but you forget, water is pure. They may feel upset, and they may feel anger, but they do not stop to contemplate what life could be like had they not been born into the life they were given, at least in the novel they do not. Bigger does and his refusal to see White people as anything other than an enemy is the closing of the cap on his bottle. The cap signifies Bigger not being able to understanding anything other than what he believes. He isn’t expressive, so the sugary drink, his thoughts and emotions, stay within the bottle, him.

 

Anyone know what happens to a bottle of soda when you shake it, and then you uncap it….? Well for those of you who don’t… IT EXPLODES! What might cause the shaking in this large metaphor? Well, the shaking of the bottle is the oppression that the black people face, the fact that they are stuck in one part of the city, can only obtain a certain level of education, and on and one and on. There was a limit to just about everything that they could do, and that shook them to the core. However, while all the other black people are water bottles, and don’t explode when they are opened, Bigger is a carbonated drink, who is pressured by his own thoughts and emotions, and cannot let go of his anger for the people who oppress him and his people.

 

So he snaps. The thing about Bigger is that he is not representative of all black people, especially in this novel. Mentally and emotionally he just can’t seem to express himself, and like Mr. Max says in the novel, White people are ignorant, and feel guilt and scared for what they have done to Blacks, so they channel it through anger. Bigger is similar to this, he channels all his fear and oppression he faces from white people, through anger. I think that this was what the ending of the novel met, when Max tries to convince Bigger that he committed murder because he was oppressed, because he was shaken, but if you remember Bigger was closed off, he was different, he couldn’t let go how he felt. So when he tells Max that he killed for something, and he meant to do it, he likely did.

 

All these components of Bigger come together in the novel. It’s complex, and very difficult to understand, but I hope this metaphor broke it down somewhat.

What Makes Racism and Not Equality

This is a post about the work “Letter to my Son” by Ta-Nehisi Coates and it’s relation to the book “Native Son” by Richard Wright.

Overall thoughts:

I think Ta-Nehisi Coates goes into great debts about what it meant to him growing up in a black community and how that was completely different from what it meant to grow up in a white community. The simplest difference was life or death.

Coates uses his own experiences to connect with his son, explain to him how his childhood was about his parents trying to keep him out of trouble, meaning trying to keep people (such as cops) from thinking that he himself was trouble. Coates also details ideas about how when learning about Black History month in school, students were taught about Black leaders and their movements, however he also points out that though those movements accomplished many social and political goals, the didn’t quite achieve the equality of blacks’ and whites’ opportunities.

I really like how he points this out, we study Black History month, the sacrifices and nonviolent movements that led to the end of lawful segregation and move opportunities for black people, however it stopped there. Many races and ethnicities today are confined to different parts of the country, different parts of a city, between different lines. These confining borders only serve to restrict the opportunities and experiences they face. Furthermore, Coates points out how certain communities have to face the “streets”, where drug dealers, gangs, and all forms of violence are prominent. Even if children that grow up in these areas are allowed an opportunity to get out, their community represses them with different forms of violence and death.

One of the main words that struck me was how he wrote “They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.” It’s like he is pointing out that before they was no concept of race until slavery and oppression took hold, by white people around the world. It wasn’t until that point that race had been in existence. He goes further to say, that despite separating people, Blacks rose up and were able to display that they weren’t just a race, a category of humans that were inferior, they are a group of people that have their own culture, ideas, and beliefs that make them equal to anyone else.

Coates goes further in depth about the inequality between blacks and whites economically, socially, and politically and how that affects the opportunities and the situations they face in life. He lists series of crimes committed against black people specifically for their race, and how the controversy has struck the nation.

Relating this to “Native Son” by Richard Wright

I think in many ways Coates’ words and ideas relate directly to Wright’s words in the novel. Wright presents a setting of the Black Belt of Chicago in the 1930s and how this setting limits the Black people. Wright describes how Blacks are unable to buy houses anywhere else, because they are not sold to them, in addition to this, the Blacks face higher rent that whites would. Wright speaks out about how this segregation and oppression of blacks has led to them not having a chance to achieve much in their lives, leading them to scour the streets for survival. 

I would say that Wright’s discussion of the conflicts that Black’s faced in the 1930s is what was faced before Coates’ time period right after civil rights. The presentation of how before and after the civil rights movement indicates that though things got better, the specific issue that opportunities were still limited during Coates’ childhood, during the setting of the novel, and even today indicates that this strive for racial equality is not finished. Where Coates presents his childhood to his son, and discusses the tragedies that have struck his race during his son’s childhood, he compares how things were bad during his childhood, things were worse pre-civil rights, but he also shows that things are still not where they need to be today.

When analyzing both “Native Son”, and “Letter to my Son” I think it’s important to look at the the time periods, and conditions presented in both works, and the message of how equality still has yet to be achieved. I also feel it necessary to those in the class that are neither black nor white, to look at the situations presented in both cases and think back to whether in their own history of their country or people, and whether they have faced similar problems. The issues presented by both works only detail issues of equality between Blacks and Whites, but I think in throughout the history of the world, oppression has been a major issue between groups of people, and when looking at these two works though you might not be white or black, being able to relate in another aspect makes the arguments and ideas clearer.