**IMPORTANT** To read the first installment or mention of upcoming projects by me, read the blog post below before proceeding to this one. Thanks.
The following excerpt is my ideal introduction to a story that fully encompasses my life as a Desi American. I initially imagined it being a part of the Chala Vahi Des project (more information contained in the blog post below) but now, as previously stated, I don’t really know where to fit it. It may stand as part of a completely separate project unrelated to my connection with Texas, or it may work as the introduction to my spiritual transformation growing up in this hot, humid state. Either way, the excerpt itself touches on many of the aspects of growing up Desi, or the child of an immigrant as a whole, in America. Again, some of the statements can be perceived as provocative. It feels like soon enough that’ll be my job. But if in any case this offends you, then sorry, but also please try to see it in a way that doesn’t. Enjoy!
American Desi kids were divided into 4 groups. Desi means someone whose parents are from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, or any of the related subcontinent countries. Loosely, I guess; I never really looked up the actual definition or etymology of it so that was my first instinct to go by. Anyways, the groups.
- The group of kids who studied a lot but didn’t know a whole lot. You could put these kids through Harvard and buy them $1 million worth of books and they’d get a 4.0. But put them through Harvard and ask them to experience something that broadens their cultural knowledge and they can’t make much out of it. They studied 24/7 and were expected to be the cultural, technological, and scientific leaders of their century but couldn’t tell you who the cultural, technological, and scientific leaders of any century living up to them were, let alone the ones who were still alive. I actually felt sorry for them; they bore a great deal of pressure from their peers and parents for things that wouldn’t play out in any normal person’s head. Their parents would always reiterate that they need to be close to their heritage, which to them was going to mosque or church or temple once a week without questioning or seeking the motives to do so and then studying science or engineering the rest of their life. It was a mix of material pleasure and coercion. No novel that had any cultural or religious significance was even comparable in value to an SAT textbook—at least to their parents–yet at the dinner table religion and heritage was the paramount value in life. This whole scheme confused the Group 1 kids, but they never questioned it because they did everything their parents told them to and eventually grew up to be the same as them. Another facet that seemed to inhibit their ability to develop an understanding of something other than their chemistry textbooks was their frequent avoidance of black people. Even the African and black Group 1 kids avoided the black kids. It was an irrational fear of a non-existent threat that has lived long in the Eastern mentality and kept Group 1 kids in their quiet, reserved spots. Neither their parents nor they were bad people by any means, just born into a recurring ideology that happened to breed subtle racism. I mean, I guess it got more subtle over time. However, they tended to be the most hospitable (partly because they had the nicest homes). But they were really reserved, which is why there’s not much to say about them.
- The Group 2 kids, who were considered opinion leaders, creative writers, musical aficionados, successful businessmen/women, and style icons by their white Christian friends but were considered misfits by their parents and the rest of the immigrant community. These kids were naturally intelligent but not in the way that their families would have preferred. They had insane creativity and could use it to get by in every other aspect of life. Force them or motivate them to study an amount of material that takes a normal brain 3 hours to retain and they’ll find a way to retain it in 30 minutes, but the hard part was exactly that, you had to either force them or motivate them. They were the kids that didn’t really give a damn but could be really famous and successful if they did. They understood complex ideas and structures better than anybody else. They were mostly atheists, agnostics, or loose followers of their religions but somehow understood religion and their community teachings better and in a broader scope than most of the other kids in the community who actively participated in it. They liked to think 20 years ahead and about how they can influence the world but frequently got carried away secretly partying and smoking weed while telling their parents that they were studying. Yet somehow, they tended to never fail a class, even when they got really close, happening to lower their parents’ expectations without lowering them too much so they could still pay for everything. Not that their parents wouldn’t, because their parents loved them. And the children knew it, and they loved their parents too, so they would often act out of guilt towards everything. Like doing a major they didn’t like all that much while behind the scenes they read novels until 2 in the morning or did freelance photography instead of studying. They had to compromise a lot, which is probably why they were really nice; I mean, most of the kids were nice, but the Group 2 kids were really nice. They said “yes” to a lot of requests and invites that they would’ve liked to say “no” to. Sometimes they wondered if they could get famous by compiling an anthology of all the papers they wrote for their friends, either for free or for money. They minded it a lot of times, though they said they didn’t, but at the end of the day they took everything as a learning experience. If you put them in Harvard, they’d probably barely graduate with a 2.5 but they’d learn so much through mere experience that they would eventually become the people who show up on your Facebook newsfeed in the latest TED Talk or be the sorry activist that Fox News chooses to invite on the show and belittle, because Group 2 kids were constantly defying the stereotypes of Desi children that Fox reporters worked so hard to reinforce. Any Group 2 kid would enjoy being the one belittled on Fox News because they loved the spotlight, even the humiliating one. They were quite the eccentric bunch and used their notoriety to bring something different to longstanding structures. These kids didn’t avoid the black kids, they weren’t studying science or engineering, and they didn’t have much to say about religion. So it was kind of hard to view them as normal.
- The nice kids. Yeah, the Group 2 kids were the really nice kids, but they were never considered the “nice kids,” unless they worked hard enough to get the title. The nice kids were considered the nice kids because they couldn’t be considered anything else. Their parents weren’t doctors, engineers, or any type of major opinions leaders like writers and musicians, and they didn’t care enough about living extraordinary lives, so the Group 1 & 2 kids chose to be impressed by their generosity. The nice kids would always offer support and would want everyone to fit in, including themselves. Their lives were as mundane as the next non-doctor, non-lawyer, non-Group 2 kid’s life, but they were cool with it. Sometimes a Group 3 kid would stumble into a Group 1 kid’s field. Like, for example, say a taxi driver’s kid, named Ahmed, grows up to be a doctor. They never did brag about it, but you bet everyone else did. It was a scummy class thing. All of a sudden, the taxi driver was everyone’s friend and the doctor-child would be the suburban legend, the one-who-got-out, so that if anyone ever accused the Group 1-ers of being racist or classist they could just say “but I’m friends with Ahmed and he has humble beginnings!” It was the “I have black friends” of the upper-class Desi circle, though “I have black friends” was also a frequent excuse. This never diminished the Group 3 kids’ generosity and kindness, though. Group 3 kids had adequate knowledge about things but were never interested enough to discover what the Group 2 kids sought to discover; that is, they never asked “why?”. And they thought it was cool that Group 2 kids had odd passions, so they never questioned them but never engaged in those passions either. They would show up to the weekly religious services but they’d never interject into the qudba or the sermon or the Pooja, just kind of follow it as it went. They were well-known but they weren’t notorious. They knew what they believed in and were content with not bringing it up around those who disagreed with them. Group 3 kids were the most relaxing yet most aggravating kids we’d encounter because they were so down for whatever that you questioned their motives. They would read for English class but never picked up a book when it wasn’t assigned. They would’ve only watched 3 movies ever before turning 21 years old, and they never really watched television. Not that it was a dreadful thing, it was just so weird. You never knew what their lives outside of family looked like, or if they even had one. One thing was certain, though: Group 3 kids were the most independent, besides Group 4 kids.
- The Group 4 kids were a combination of all 3 other groups with none of the aggravating or annoying characteristics associated with them. These kids were the smartest, most cunning, best-looking, most generous and humblest kids in the immigrant communities. These kids generally studied a lot and got 2400s on their SATs. The thing was, they could have gotten 2400s even if they didn’t study, and they could perform the same in any other aspect without studying, but they still did because there was no point in not. Their relationships with their families were perfect, and so were their families. Their parents were fully aware of their capabilities, so they never forced their kids to be successful viceroys of their own dreams. They paid for their children’s educations and passions without any second thought or conditions, and neither they nor their children made a big deal out of it at parties. But everyone knew that these were the kids destined for greatness; academically, intellectually, socially, and in all other aspects. They were the ones who could get through medicine, engineering, and computer science all at once with a 4.0 and become millionaires at 22 years old but instead chose to pursue public policy, or social work, or better yet, art, all of which they were incredibly proficient in as well. The thing that sucked was that they weren’t cocky about it, ever, so you couldn’t hate them even if you tried. They liked the spotlight when it was admirable to like the spotlight and kept quiet when it was admirable to keep quiet. The only resentment towards Group 4 kids that could possibly exist was envy, and even that never lasted long because Group 4 kids had the ability to make even the laziest, most unambitious scumbags feel like they were doing something with their lives. They were the holiest and most fun kids too, always the life of the party but also the voice of wisdom. No one knew what this meant for Group 4 kids, though. These perfect characteristics made the other kids blind to the burden and pressure that they bore. You never knew when they were going through shit. And when people found out that one of them was, everyone was torn to pieces. This didn’t really lift that burden off the Group 4 kids either. Imagine if someone else’s mood relies on your mood 24/7. The entirety of their lives was extremely rugged due to these sensations processing all at once. They were, it seemed, too perfect.
It wasn’t hard for these four groups to get along, since all of them were great people (some could be described as stellar, some could be described as mundane, so “great” is the most medium word to use). Some were shy while others enjoyed the spotlight but none of them shunned one another. We’d see one another at the mosque or temple or church and, when we did, all the social cliques you’d expect to exist in a group of kids disappeared. There were no lunch tables, just a bunch of people who talked about a lot of cool shit within the few hours they were together. But there were those who never showed up and never really acknowledged the large community we had. These people were the outliers.
You would seldom see the outliers at any of the community cultural events. They’d maybe come once for Eid or a few times during the year for Ramadan to eat all the free food during Ifthar. Or they’d go to a Holi celebration to bathe in colors and post a picture on Facebook and then leave again for the rest of the year. We’d never see outliers because they tended to only hang out with the white kids. They were the ones who sat in the back of geography class to avoid being asked questions about their culture by the professor when it came to the segment that discussed Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism, and again when it came to the segment discussing their parents’ South Asian home country, wherever it was. They were the ones who couldn’t care less about where they came from until it could be used as an excuse to use the “n” word a lot. The only indication of them being children of immigrants was their skin color. Otherwise, they couldn’t speak a word of Urdu or Hindi or Gujarati or Arabic. Nor did they try to make it seem like they were remotely associated with any of those languages or cultures. They changed their names to white names. Yaqub became Jacob early in his life. Nikhel became Nick, Chukandar became Chuck, Samir became Sam. And don’t get me wrong, all of us hung out with white kids, gave ourselves nicknames for people to have an easier time pronouncing it, and all the rest, but we never did so exclusively. However, the thing is, though we scoff at it now, the majority of us started out this way. “I don’t want to marry a Pakistani girl, they’re too high maintenance,” “I don’t want to eat at an Indian restaurant, we do that at home anyways,” “I hope I don’t see any brown people there, I see enough of that already,” were some of the repetitious phrases that would emanate from our mouths throughout our early lives. But most of us eventually grew out of it, because there were only so many identities we could carry without everybody telling us you aren’t this or you aren’t that. Only we knew what the are was, it was what connected us with one another. You could take us out of our cliques for years, seclude us from the other first-generation brown kids, but never stop us from picking up where we left off because there was some string of cultural identity we shared with one another that we didn’t share with anyone else. I don’t blame and can’t blame, and no one should blame the ones that stayed outliers. Our Desi communities failed us in many steps of the process and that stuck with some people. For others, it was just about balance, about not letting the parts that left us dissatisfied stick with us for the rest of our lives. Cheering for Pakistan when they play cricket but detaching from a culture of homophobia and transphobia that derived from there. We balanced a mix of South Asian and western influences, a balance that not even our parents could detect. And that mastery was what directed most of our lives of confusion: it influenced how we talked, how we made friends, how we studied, what political views we carried, and what emotions we experienced.
We became the wave of first generation kids that really dignified the term Desi or Pakistani-American or Indian-American or whatever else we called ourselves, because as we struggled to move forward and determine what ethnicity/nationality/identity we really are, we began to mend the trauma that is attached to the generations before us. I never knew why I felt such a deep connection with those who shared my experiences as a first-generation kid, but I realized it had to do with that trauma carried down to me. Whatever speck of praise I have for those who represent that trauma, for every Hassan Minhaj or Aziz Ansari or Riz Ahmed or Himanshi Suri or Zayn Malik or Maria Qamar or Swet Shop Boys or AK Paul or Dev Patel there is, it’s not expressed for the sole purpose of my ethnic pride from being represented but for a reconciliation of that trauma. We really are the first ones, at a large scale, to do this, to be a product of such a notorious diaspora that rendered our identities so flexible and unstable since before we were born. And lest I become trampled under the stampede of uncertainty, I had to reimagine what it meant when I say I am Desi, the term that hung over my head as both a beckoning and a trap for most of my childhood. It meant constantly being the river between two worlds: Pakistan and America, Pakistan and India, the east and the west, Islam and secularism, war and peace, unity and hostility, and, above all, relapse and recovery.