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.