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.