Jun 25, 2020 in Exploratory

The Desis

For those people who live, or were born, far from their ethnic motherland, learning and complying with culture and tradition is a way out from complete assimilation. Such people who immigrated but retained their Southern Asian culture are called “desi” which means a “person of the soil”. This term means that an individual does her best to fit into society and assimilate yet she remembers about her roots and celebrates it in religion, food, cultural norms, language, etc. In the article “The Complicated Identity of South Asians,” Siva Vaidhyanathan informs about Vijay Prashad’s views on the desiness in his book The Karma of Brown Folk and says that “desiness holds people together with a common sense of history and anticolonial mission, a love of fluid cultural forms, and a respect for desis who speak different languages, wear different clothes, eat different foods, and attend different religious services”. Ultimately desiness means that people embrace both their differences and their similarities and different ethnicities, such as Indian, Pakistani, Sri-Lanka, etc., can unite for the sake of their shared concerns. Language accents, family interactions, and gender roles of subculture are specific to the desis yet at the same time they can be observed in other subcultures as well. 

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Since the desis live outside of India, they have to get accustomed to the country where they had immigrated and accommodate to different realities somehow and the language is one of the most visible, or audible, means to do it. All Asian ethnicities used to be lumped into one category; later South Asians were singled out and it was a kind of breakthrough because now Indians, Pakistani, Sri-Lankan, Iranians, Nepalese, Bangladeshi, and Maldivians could be acknowledged as distinct ethnicities. Among their other traits, South Asians are distinguished by their characteristic accent called “brown voice”. A peculiarity of the South Asian accent is “its pattern of word stress [when] Indians tend to stress different syllables” and it affects intelligibility; at the same time, “brown voice” implies culture and education because Indians are stereotyped as a model minority who are well-educated, industrious, and hardworking. By its sound “brown voice” resembles the accent of a foreigner who is not very fluent in English whereas in fact Indian accent can be regarded as native-speaking as British accent, American accent, Australian accent, or Black English accent.


Inasmuch as Indians are a model minority and overall Indian culture has been gaining popularity during many decades, the Indian accent has become a fad. It is not politically incorrect to joke in brown voice and it informs “the kind of poshness associated with education”. That is how a cartoon character Apu appeared in The Simpsons a decade ago and this character is rather nuanced and complex, which has been the only personification of South Asians on the modern TV. However, slowly but steadily South Asians get into mass media. Jaffar Mahmood’s Shades of Ray tells a story of Ray who is half-Pakistani and half-white and has a range of typically South Asian experiences. He is constantly confused with Indians; he is expected to be as brainy as it is commonly believed about South Asians; he rejects a steady occupation of investment banker. Ray is a struggling actor who is a frequent visitor of various castings and there he is constantly typecasted as a Pakistani shop owner or a terrorist. Ray has black hair, dark eyes, and almost as white as any other American yet he is pigeonholed into stereotypical roles. Furthermore, as a natural born citizen Ray is fluent in English and speaks with no accent but he is constantly asked at castings to speak with a Pakistani accent. At first, Ray is taken aback and cannot imitate the accent properly. The white casting director guides him into the intricacies of a proper “brown voice” and by the end of the movie Ray is quite fluent in the Indian accent. 

Given the fact that Apu is voiced over by Hank Azaria, a white American of Greek origin, it becomes obvious that brown voice is a somewhat artificial construct. Indeed Indians, Pakistani and other South Asians have similarities in their accents and their word stress is different from native speakers but their accents are versatile whereas brown voice is often done by white Americans and is often humorous. Personally I can say that Korean have similar experience in being addressed as a model minority for our hard-working qualities and perseverance and similarly we are lumped in the same group as Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese. My friend told me a story how she was approached by a white American gas station owner and asked where she was from. She said that she was from Korea and the shop owner replied that he knows where it was and his father went to war there, clearly referring to the Vietnam War. When she corrected him, he said he confused these countries. Therefore, I know that for the majority of Americans Koreans hardly look any different from other Asians and their accents sound similarly the same. 

Another part of a subculture specific to the desis is family and gender roles. Family is important in all patriarchal traditions and Indian culture is no exception. Indian culture require the subordination between children and parents: parents take care of children until they grow up and children respect and obey parents and take care of them when they get old. At that, the father is the head of the family and everyone should obey his word. House chores and care for children and elderly is the responsibility of the wife and women of the family, whereas the husband is a breadwinner and in charge of financial matters of the family. However, the desis experience the conflict between the tradition and modernity. Outside of India they are affected by Western culture and young generations sometimes have troubles complying with the tradition. It results in relaxation of the demands of the tradition to some extent. For example, parents agree with children that arranged marriages can be annulled in favor of the children’s choice of the spouse. In Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, the head of the family, Yash Raichand, was stubborn in this regard and alienated his elder son who had rejected his father’s choice of a fiancé and had gotten married against his father’s will. However, after ten years of separation and suffering Raichand made peace with his son, accepted his wife, and the family reunited (“Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham”). Even though at the crucial moments, such as a wedding and marriage, Indian characters usually make choice in favor of the Indian traditions, modern Indian films indicate a clear direction toward liberalization of some norms and customs. 

As for my country and our tradition, I can see that we observe very similar trends. Korea is a patriarchal country as well. And men are believed to be superior, they make decisions and women have to obey and be quite – similar to the scene in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, when Raichand reduces his wife to ashes with his stare to show that she is in no position to question his decisions. I know that my grandparents live this way. Yet my parents are different and their parents are aware of it and do not openly disapprove it. They have the same situation with arranged marriages. My grandparents were married by their parents, whereas my parents were not forced to accept the assigned partners and got married because they fell in love. 

Thus, language accents, gender roles and family interactions are specific to the desis yet they can be observed in Korean culture as well. Even though Indian accents are as numerous as, for example, language variations in the UK, brown voice is associated with Indians and all South Asians are believe to speak this way. Similarly, Northeast Asians are also lumped into one category that has similar accent, look, and demeanor. Family values and gender roles are inherent to all patriarchal cultures and get somewhat relaxed under the influence of Westernization.

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