My Journey: From Desi ‘Ghee(butter)’ to a Desi ‘Me’

‘Ewee what’s that smell?!’ A familiar outrage when our mothers or grandmothers cooked in Desi ghee (clarified butter). Those were fleeting interactions with the word ‘desi’ in my childhood. As I grew older, doctors began piping the benefits of eating pure and unadulterated food, so Desi (organic) chickens and eggs were now the rave.

After moving to Canada, I realized that Desi wasn’t just about food. Desi could have as many interpretations as the fight against terrorism. Chickens were not the only ones upholding the prestigious title. I was a desi too.

Desi (Brown-skinned) – anthesis of the word Gora (white-skinned)

When you look up Desi in the dictionary it says: South Asian, esp. Indian. People from the Pakistani, Indian, Sri-Lankan and Bangladeshi descent have simultaneously been whipped into a multi-layer Desi cake. Our accents and languages, skin color, food, clothes,culture and beliefs are conveniently defined under the word, Desi. This is sort of like how we call all white-skinned folk of the world as ‘Goras’ – natives of US, UK, Australia etc.

If you are from South Asia/subcontinent region, the confusion is paramount. Especially since Pakistan and India originated from the same womb and separated at birth. Like how people of Hong-Kong or China can get mixed up.

Mississauga – The city oozing with ‘Desi’s’

I live in Mississauga-Toronto where Desis ooze out like maple syrup. Pakistanis represent a large part of the desi pie-chart. There are plenty of Pakistani stores that have everything laden from Tibet snow(ancient beauty cream) to Chawnsa Mangoes. So Pakistani culture is not akin to an alien controversy of Area 59. It is seen tiptoeing between latest trends of shalwar kameez, naashta (breakfast) joints with halwa puri and channay, Pakistan day events at the Celebration Square, Pakistani weddings, smell of our masalas wafting in the hallways of condos and Mosques bustling with activity on EID – you get the picture. It is all quite welcoming.

Contempt associated with Desis

A strange thing I’ve noticed here is the not-so subtle contempt associated with the word desi. And strangely enough, the disdain doesn’t come from ‘others’. It comes from us. It’s like we want to prove a point here. But what exactly? Perhaps nothing more than a hasty generalization.

If we catch a traditionally dressed ‘desi’ woman at the grocery store, we think to ourselves, ‘Uff, look at her dressing sense!’ Or if some driver breaks a traffic rule, our knee-jerk reaction is, “That must be a desi!” Almost like how back home every traffic violation was the doing of a woman (another topic for another time). Litter found on the road usually means that some desi did it. I once wore shalwar kameez to school to pick up my son and he said, “Mama! Why are you all desi today?” Imagine my embarrassment. First at my clothes. And then at what my son just said. It suddenly dawned on me.

My son was gradually becoming ‘anti-desi.’ I did not like it one bit.

The confusion

My tenant told me how she loved our Indian food. I kept saying, ‘Yes, you mean Pakistani food.’ She didn’t notice the difference because of similar ingredients and method. The end-product is still different. Indian food is delicious in its own place, but for many like me, Pakistani food is like mom’s cooking, closer to home and the heart. It’s like asking for Chinese food and getting Japanese in return. It’s not just the food. Our identity is a complete hodgepodge.

Despite our thriving representation in places like Toronto etc., why isn’t our Pakistani identity more comprehensible? This is not as much of a complaint as it is a confused query.

It. Is. Our. Fault. Period. 

Sometimes it’s like we are built that way – inherently confused desis, embarrassed Pakistanis and bewildered Canadians. Everything about us appears less worthy once we move to a foreign land. Many of us think that we have to let go of everything old to submerge into a new culture. The unending sequel to East meets West continues.

In my short time here, I’ve seen young Pakistani-Canadians feeling embarrassed for wearing their desi garb in public or in speaking their native languages. I don’t give my son kebab sandwiches in school because he’d smell like Pakistani food. Some people here don’t take the day off from work or school for Eid (religious holiday).

These trivial examples are relative to the priorities we hold dear. But what never changes is our desire for others to respect us.

Irony is, whatever roots we cut off, we are always DESI and BROWN in other people’s eyes. In our minds, we are not even that. So who are we really?

Finding my way

I am a confused-desi-immigrant trying to become a focused-proud-desi-Pakistani-Canadian. How hard can that be?

I love pancakes, but desi Parathas on a sunday morning are luxury. I love the contagious joy of christmas, but EID will always be my holiday. I love jeans but dressing up in shalwar kameez for a Pakistani wedding is precious. I love latte but a daily cup of bubbling hot Chaye (tea) will always calm my frenzied nerves. I love pasta and pizza, but the scintillating aroma of chicken karahi always means that much more. I enjoy Ellen Degeneres and Madam Secretary, but once in a while, some lighthearted ramblings of a Pakistani morning show or family quibbles in a drama are just what I need. I love the high quality of life here, but sometimes I miss not having a horde of people at arm’s length back home who’d need our help.

I love the big hearts of people here in Canada, and that is why I need to show a Pakistani’s simple heart to the world.

Rock the desi in you

I am no traditionalist. But this need to mummify my origin seems more important now than ever. I can’t expect my children to feel the way I do about Pakistan, but I can keep their association and interest alive.

More than anything else, this is a reminder to myself and my family. Be it a Pakistani desi, an Indian desi or a desi chicken, to us Desi should be the new Black, or Pink, or whatever is in fashion. How do you become a loyal and responsible Canadian citizen without understanding your complex and colorful origin. We will always be different here no matter how much we mingle. Why not put that to good use by balancing the best of both worlds? Not easy, but doable. I’m definitely up for the challenge.

Two generations from now, even if my children’s children are  immersed in their new environment, their parents and grandparents were still Desi’s. How do you ignore what’s in your blood? You don’t.

You accept it and let your roots give comfort when needed, like an old song you once loved, lost and then rediscovered.

And now you just can’t stop humming its tune.

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23 thoughts on “My Journey: From Desi ‘Ghee(butter)’ to a Desi ‘Me’

  1. A nerve touching read, and a well needed desi dose of all that’s good from back home on a lost Friday night.

    And as your son might, am sure, correct you if he read this, Ellen Degeneres*. Love reading your thoughts, always kinda smell of home.

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    1. Thank you for the read! Well put. These lost friday nights tend to repeat often in dreary winters. And thanks for the correction:)! (as generous as she is, maybe she should consider the spelling change herself).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very well written. Here in US people call children who are growing up here are called (ABCD) American born confused desi. Well sometimes I think that these children are not ABCD rather we the first generation immigrants are ABCD. But this is what it is 🙂

    By the way the chai/tea part was awesome. Keep it up.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. awesome…a thoroughly enjoyable read with my morning chai. I’m actually a second generation canadianized desi, like your son will be, but this chai and stuffed paratha i’m having right now, are indeed the old songs constantly playing in the background. Love it!

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    1. Thank you Ayesha Waheed :D. You actually have first hand knowledge and experience of all this desi-ness. And I love the balance that you have struck with your family etc. I can definitely take some pointers 🙂

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  4. Enjoyed your write up Nida Khan that is multifaceted; best being presenting serious issues of cultural adjustment and identity crises in light and absorbing manner. Look forward to seeing you write frequently. Manzoor Iqbal Awan

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  5. NS. Desi in the Americas; Paki in UK / Europe. Everything comes at a cost. Migrating abroad costs you your identity and guess what? Why don’t so many of the older generation whose children are well settled abroad choose not to relocate? Not hard to fathom; it is their identity that is dear to them. They opt to live in this chaotic country with power and gas outages and streets and even cities shut down almost daily, poor governance, rife with corruption for no other reason but because this is their identity. They belong here. For you and those like you, this desi tag is forever! Live it and enjoy it; even make fun of it. It will make you feel better. And BTW your children will probably not even know what it means – or maybe they will; if they see their mum make a fuss about it.
    Loved the piece though.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great post. Thought provoking and just plain interesting. I have never heard the word ‘desi’ so you opened up a whole window for me. Sadly, I know of all sorts of cultural stigmas and things, so once explained about desi it wasn’t hard to follow the discrimination, etc. that you also described. Thank you for expanding my world…sometimes the Internet is pretty fabulous.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow thank you so much:). I am glad I made SOME sense. haha. And it really is amazing. Sharing such varied perspectives, cultures etc. with fellow bloggers. I suppose social and cultural stigmas remain essentially the same throughout the world. That could be an interesting idea for a series of posts eh:)?

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  7. Your post resonated with me because I’m an “immigrant” as well 🙂

    @ Everything about us appears less worthy once we move to a foreign land. Many of us think that we have to let go of everything old to submerge into a new culture.

    No doubt about it, you lose some of you- you have to, to adapt. But you can keep some traditions of your original culture, if you want. To cook my traditional foods, I have to go to special shops on the other side of the city. Many times the hassle is too much and I improvise with the ingredients from my local supermarkets, or just eat.

    Here in The Netherlands, we are made to undergo “inburgering” an acculturalisation integration programme, which ensures we can fit into the new society- some may call it a kind of brain washing lol XD

    I’ve noticed that 1st generation immigrants don’t really integrate, their kids do a better job. But their kids still have some ‘root’ being brought up in homes where the original language is spoken, traditional dishes eaten, and traditional customs followed.

    1st generation immigrants tend to live in clusters that reinforce some of the original traditions. Do you have a specific part of Mississauga-Toronto where Desis ooze out like maple syrup, a mini-Pakistan as it were?

    I wrote a post about immigrating to a foreign country, where like you, I say that I marry (the best, at least in my estimation), of both cultures. I’m richer, perhaps, better for it. I write, “I am a first-generation immigrant caught in a clash of cultures but I do not wallow in identity crisis. Although I know where I come from, the pieces of the puzzle that spell out where I am going are the hardest to find.”

    Oh oh, Nida, this one made me write another blog post. Sorry! 🙂

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    1. You nailed it Timmi. First generation immigrants usually don’t integrate as nicely as the younger folk do. I guess it has a lot to do with age and the adaptability factor. Also like you said, it’s most important not to “wallow in an identity crisis.” Figuring out a way from the best of both worlds is usually the safest bet. Though it’s all relative, but still. And we do have areas with Pakistani concentration. I have not visited them but have heard stories. Theres is an entirely different world. It’s like they cut up a little piece of how and where they lived back home and glued it right here in Canada. Immigrant copy-pasting so to speak.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Nida ,

    I have enjoyed this read, very thoughtful, especially , old songs rediscovery, really it is true.
    Desi ghee parathas , and Karak chai , sitting on a peereeh near ammi’s cooking place.
    You make us so happy with your articles ,

    Liked by 1 person

  9. It takes time I think for most people to be ‘proud’ of their heritage while trying to adapt to ways of a new land. I couldn’t even think about taking daal chawal to school when young but now as a more mature (albeit slightly more so) adult, I have no issues with my workplace kitchen reeking of it since the place smells of chinese food often- being brought in by Chinese and non-Chinese alike.

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  10. I so appreciate this post, Nida. It speaks to immigrants the world over:

    “Everything about us appears less worthy once we move to a foreign land.” You could’ve easily replaced color and food to speak of the spectrum of Asians all over the Western parts. I love the traditions, clothes, food you name that you embrace in different ways while naming proudly which ones hold your heart and memory. I love “rock the desi in you.” Ha ha. The whole post speaks to my bicultural experiences. You go, girl. (And you’re close to 600!!)

    Love,
    Diana

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t think this would resonate with other cultures and immigrants. Thanks for the input:D. I guess some aspects are timeless and spaceless. We are all in this multicultural-immigrant boat, with different shores, but almost a similar process of getting there. I suppose RESPECT plays an important role here. Respect for every culture and nationality makes the process easier. When you don’t have contempt for either – what you’ve left behind and what you’ve entered into.

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  11. Exceptional piece of writing 🙂 absolutely love it .can so relate to this as I myself am a desi in USA and think often how to find the right balance between both cultures .I love how you make the connection between desi Ghi and us being called desis and also how you end the article ( simply beautiful ).your article makes me feel I can make this work too for me and for my kids hopefully .keep on writing 🙂 You are blessed mashallah 🙂 tc

    Like

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