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Entries in desi (5)


Whenever I'm Asked About Slumdog Millionaire...

(Or Monsoon Wedding...)

(Or told how much someone likes daal...)

(Or hear how magnificent the Taj Mahal is...)

I think of this.

(Language and content not suitable for work)


The Help... in Mississippi or in Pakistan

I finally read (and watched) The Help a few days ago, and I liked it.  Sue me. Because, apparently, the movie and book are, according to some, racist and condescending in its portrayal of African American women of the 1950s.

Our own sensibilities regarding discrimination are certainly highly informed by, if not limited to, our own experience. I may perceive something as Islamophobic whereas you might feel I'm grabbing at straws.  To deny that our identities do not play a crucial factor in that disagreement feels naive to me.

I am not an African American, I did not live through Jim Crow or the "civil rights era," so I'm not comfortable dismissing the opinions of those who find fault with this book's treatment of those subjects. Except. I do have a very unexpected and highly personal experience with one important facet that's portrayed in this book.

I spent most of my summers in Pakistan when I was growing up.  I have memories of family, laughter, lush gardens, and great food. I also have very distinct memories of the help.

From cooking food to the basics of rearing children, young women and sometimes young boys participate in the management of Pakistani homes to the extent that daily life for the families who inhabit those homes would be near impossible without these individuals.  By my last count, my paternal home in Pakistan had about twelve "domestics" working in it.  These people clean the house, cook the food, buy the groceries, do the laundry, and tend the gardens. As much as my own family, these people are an intrinsic part of what I associate with Pakistan.

There is a scene in The Help where Minnie, a woman incidentally deemed a neo-Mammy character, is reminding her daughter that as a domestic in a white household that she should quickly establish a cupboard with her own plate, cup and silverware.  As I watched that scene in the movie, a long forgotten memory that took place in a humid Pakistani kitchen nearly sixteen years ago rushed to the forefront of my mind.

It was a hot summer day, and I was thirsty. One of my favorite things about drinking water in the subcontinent is that when folks want to be real casual, they use cups made of polished steel.  There's something about grabbing that shiny cup and filling it with cold water that acts as a sensory appetizer to the refreshment that will soon be eradicating the dry, dusty feeling that only a Lahori summer seems to be able to infuse into your bones.

I grabbed a steel glass on top of the fridge, poured out cool water from the fridge into the glass and relished the coolness on my fingertips as I slowly drew the steel to my mouth. And then I heard my aunt scream like someone had pulled out a gun, "Noooo!! Not that one!!"

My older cousin was also in the kitchen and immediately solved the problem.  She grabbed the glass from my hand.  "That's Tahira's glass....  don't use that one."

"No, I'm fine. I like drinking out of steel." I thought they were trying to tell me it was gauche to drink from a steel cup or something. I think I assumed they thought I was American and somehow I should drink out of glass instead.

My cousin took the steel cup from my hand and replaced it with a glass of water.  Then without the slightest hint of subtlety, I looked directly at Tahira, a girl three maybe four years younger than me, and mumbled, "Oh, unless, I'm sorry, do you mind, Tahira... I didn't mean..."

I thought maybe she was one of those people that are particular about who drinks out of their special glass or something. Yes, people like that exist.  I happen to be married to one. Tahira just smiled sheepishly at me and looked away.

My cousin who is an extremely intelligent and astute young woman approached me later to discuss the incident. "See, Faiqa," she looked into my eyes earnestly , "I know it's different in America, but you don't know about these people that work in our homes.  They have different personal habits than us, it's better that they use their own glasses and such."

I wasn't sure how to respond, but I will tell you this: I was not angered by this when it was explained to me.  Maybe it was because I was only 19.  Maybe it was because the young woman who was explaining it to me was a person I loved and a person who I have seen engage in some of the kindest acts that I have ever seen human beings perform. Maybe because the way it was explained to me was with such a sense of certainty.

I watched that "neo-Mammy" remind her daughter about having her own glass and plate and I began to remember more things.

I remember one of the girls being sent home because her clothes looked like they hadn't been washed properly, and I distinctly remember the look in her eye right before she walked out.  I remember the woman who gave her baby up to American missionaries so that he would have a chance to become educated. I remember being told to lock my things away when a servant who had worked in a home for over twelve years cleaned my room.

I remember not feeling right about these things.

And, yes, I remember these people having their own bathrooms in homes wealthy enough to accommodate that.

Up until that scene, I basked in the righteous indignation that many of us whose parents were not born here feel when we watch these movies about racism and injustice.  As if this is something that is exclusive to the history of the new land that we inhabit and that our pasts are somehow unsullied by the extreme unpleasantness of it all.

In my family's defense, they are not the exception -- they are most definitely the rule in this part of the world.  As a matter of fact, servants in our home are treated so well, that some of them have been with the family for decades, and, again, I would not presume to postulate on the emotions between African American maids in the 50s and the women they served.  However, I do remember that when I got married, Tahira, the little girl who stood in that kitchen years ago hugged me the day I got married and asked me to please not forget to come back to Pakistan.

Maybe the book "The Help" is racist and condescending.  I have no idea.  All I know is that as I read that book, I walked away from it understanding that discrimination does not only victimize the people who are on its receiving end.

There is a price that your soul pays, I think, for believing that because someone is poor, black, whatever that somehow they are unclean, untrustworthy or unable to take care of themselves. There is something very sad about observing people who have read many books, have been afforded so many opportunities and possess such goodness in their hearts as they lie to themselves about the fact that things are the way they are because this is the way they have always been.

Books and movies are valuable for many reasons, and while I appreciate the criticisms of this book as valid identity based positions, I am grateful for what the book taught me about my own.

Photo Credit

Eid-ul-Fitr 2011! Or is It? Yes, it Is. Or it Was.

Eid Mubarak from your friendly Internet neighborhood Muslims.

Just look at those smiles.


So, yesterday was Eid-ul-Fitr, unanimously agreed amongst Muslims as the biggest day of the year.  The significance of the day is simply the end of Ramadan, the month in which we fast for various reasons.

Eid-ul-Fitr basically means "Festival of the Fast."  It falls on the first day of Shawwal, the month after Ramadan, both of which are months in the Islamic lunar calendar.  Like Eid ul Adha, Eid actually begins after sunset because it depends on the moon.

More on that in a minute.

We celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr by doing the things most other religious communities do when they have a holiday... eat food, visit family, eat more food, visit more family... and give gifts.




Anyway.  Back to multicultural education.

The funny thing about Eid-ul-Fitr is that it's always kind of a guessing game.  See, the end of the lunar month for Muslims depends on the sighting of a new moon.

And this is where it gets confusing.

What, in 2011, constitutes a "moon sighting"?

Furthermore, with the advent of connectivity all over the world, do you celebrate when the moon is sighted in your country, in Mecca (the spiritual epicenter of Islam), or anywhere on Earth?

And, wow, if we end up populating Mars, what would Muslims who live THERE do ...

Some Islamic scholars, particularly those in Saudi Arabia, insist that the sighting must be an actual sighting with the naked eye while others are okay with using a telescope.  Either way, a person has to actually see the new moon for it to be Eid.

Others, specifically associations in North America, have postulated that since a new moon can be scientifically calculated, we can determine the occurrence of Eid-ul-Fitr through that.

And then in South Asia, they generally celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr a day later than whenever Saudi does because... honestly, I don't know why.

Something about geographic location and the sighting being off due to that.  Or just being ornery.  And also because desis are always late to everything.  I made that last part up, but it's highly logical if you think about it.

And THEN there are people all over the world that don't care whether they see the moon in their country or not, only if people in Saudi Arabia were able to see the moon and they celebrate when Saudis celebrate.

The point being that not every Muslim in the world celebrates Eid-ul-Fitr on the same day and that the reasons for that are different.

That's because we are a diverse community.  With different opinions.

Who knew?  Apparently, less people than I wish.

I only tell you all this to illustrate one point.

You know how people think "we" are trying to take over in some secret Muslim ninja plot to institute Sharia Law in the United States?

People, we can't even seem to figure out how to celebrate Eid, a holiday that has been around since the inception of our religion, on the same day as each other.

I don't think you have anything to worry about, Ms. Coulter.


I bet you want to know when I celebrated Eid.

Of course you do.

I, personally, don't think there's anything wrong with the scientific calculation.


I happen to be part of a local community that follows when Eid occurs in Saudi Arabia.  So we celebrate, as a family, when they celebrate in Saudi.

So, anyway, Tuesday was Eid-ul-Fitr.

For me.

In India and Pakistan, it's today.

I think.


Eid Mubarak!

(Belated for North America & the Middle East).

I Call Someone A Bad Mother For the First Time EVER.

Let me jump on a bandwagon of the flagrant attempt to get people to buy copies of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother or the discussions surrounding "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior." I certainly bear the distinct qualification to pontificate on this matter being not only a mother of Asian origin herself, but a child who was, in fact, raised by an Asian mother.

Amy Chua lists a bunch of little items in her WSJ article that she prohibits her children from doing.

I lived with many of those prohibitions.

I definitely never had a "play date", I was not allowed to sleep over at friends' houses (with the exception of a handful of times), and though I was steadfast in my insistence to participate, I was highly discouraged from participating in school plays.  In fact, the first time I did participate in a school play, it was not known to my parents and wholly attributed to the fact that I could forge my mother's signature.

My brother and I used to participate in a lot of academic competitions, though.  That was completely okay.

Social studies, foreign language, theater, science fairs, etc.  I think I was in the seventh grade when all that started.  In ninth grade, I got second place in the science fair.  I remember my parents reaction vividly.

It was not elation.

They asked me who got first.  They told me not to worry, and that I would do better next time.  I never forgot that.  From that moment on, no matter what, if I competed in something, I was getting first.  I would bring home blue.

I remember getting a "red" (second place) in some competition during my senior year of high school.  I came home hoping that my parents would be too busy to ask me about the competition.  Luckily, they were.  I unpacked my bag and stuffed that red ribbon down at the bottom of the garbage can.  It meant nothing to me because I knew it would mean nothing to them.

I took that lesson with me into adulthood, too.  For a long time, I believed that if you weren't the best at something, you simply didn't matter.  For some people, that works.  That gets them into Harvard, I guess.  For other people, people like me, that makes you feel like everything is pointless.  I gave up on doing a lot of stuff in my twenties because I didn't think I could be the best at it.

I'm not trying to make anyone feel bad for me here.  I am a well adjusted, fairly happy adult who does all sorts of stuff that I'm just mediocre at, now.  Like, you know, writing this blog.

I'm also not saying that my parents were awful.  I love them.  I know they were doing their best.  Everything is fine.

But, I will say this, I don't think this is an ideal way to parent.

I don't think, in fact, that today it is even an acceptable way to parent.

In my parents' defense, I think they didn't know any better.

I really believe that.

They grew up in a country where this was the most acceptable, mostly widely practiced and largely unquestioned style of parenting because it was the only style.  Love and honor are intricately bound... there is relatively no distinguishing between them.  You are honored to be the child of your parents, and you honor them by, well, bringing in more honor.  Love?  Well, duh.  Of course, we all love each other.  Of course, we do.  Don't we... whye arrre you beeing so eemotional, bete*?

But Amy Chua did not grow up where my parents grew up.

In fact, given that Amy Chua grew up here in the United States, I'm kind of offended for my Asian parents that she has tried to categorize herself with them.  I don't know if this will make sense, but I feel as though Amy Chua has taken something that my parents did out of pure innocence and made it into something horrible.  Kind of like what Coca Cola did with "New Coke" back in the 80s.

Anyway, yes, in this instance, I am saying that the mother described in Amy Chua's article is not being the best mother she can be.  I don't think I've ever said that before.  I make it a point not to say bad things about the parenting of others because I have this pesky habit of being a decent person and all.

Really, I know it's awful.  It feels awful to say it, but hear me out.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I take issue with this depiction of "Chinese" mothers (Chua does actually cite that Indian mothers are similar) because I beleive her focus distracts from the real issues and causes of alienation that occur between Asian immigrants and their American children.

The disconnect is not a result of the prohibitive ways that children are raised in this environment.

While I don't agree with making a kid practice violin for two hours, I don't think that is "bad" parenting.  I think it's fine to value ambition, achievement and success.  I don't put the same premium on those values, but, lucky for my kids and their grandchildren's trust funds, my husband does.

I think it's the issue of love that bothers me here.

Love is the problem here.  How it is being used, what she thinks it means and what she is doing with it.

It is my belief that all that children want from their parents is love.  Not even "acceptance." I think they just want to be loved.  And I think the kind of parent that Amy Chua has described uses this intense and singular desire for love as a tool to motivate, shame or punish a child.  I am more than uneasy with that, I find it horrifying.

I cannot begin to imagine how calling your child garbage is (a) something to brag about or (b) even remotely acceptable as a form of motivation or discipline.

I just don't think dangling love in front of your child in order to make them jump through metaphorical hoops of your own values and ambition is a Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, or a whatever Asian country whose kids are the best at math right now way.

I simply think that it's the wrong way.

I'm a disciplinarian with my children.  Probably more so than my non-Asian origin peers, maybe even more than my Asian American peers.  I very strictly limit television, emphasize academics (yes, even with a 5 and 1 year old), and plan on "making" them take music lessons until they are just on the verge of hating me.  I also plan on stressing the importance of getting the absolute best grades they can attain.

But I also plan on communicating with them.

On listening to them... finding out what they like, who they are... who they want to be.

On letting them know that I love them... yes, no matter what.  No.matter.WHAT.

Because, in the end, what they achieve will not belong to me.  It will belong to them.

I don't think the last few lines are special, "above and beyond," or a reflection of parenting choices.

I think they're just part of the "being a good mommy" code.

*bete is a term of endearment which translates to "child"

ABCD & FOB / Really You're Not That Different To Me...

I got an interesting e-mail from a reader the other day.  "N.A." is a Bangladeshi American and somehow we arrived on the topic of marriage.  I gather that, like me, N.A. is married to someone who didn't grow up here.  She writes:
There is one thing that I think desi people don't really talk about. It's how abcds (I know it's not the best term:)) feel about fobs. ... I really wish people would just understand that we are all human.

It's like they think they are better than those who are immigrating from the subcontinent. The first thing the girls ask when trying to find a suitor is whether or not they grew up here. I understand that people feel that if both people grow up in the states they will have a better understanding of each other. That doesn't mean that people from India/Pakistan/Bangladesh are unmarriageable.

If you don't know what "desi" means or "ABCD," feel free to read this post to catch up.

When I was growing up, I knew one thing: I would never, ever marry an immigrant from the subcontinent.

Seriously, it's true.

I think I felt that way because there were so many times in my life when my parents treated my American-ness as a liability.  We will ignore the irony, for the sake of discussion, that they traveled thousands of miles from their homes to get to America and then spent the next several decades worrying that their kids might actually turn out, gasp, American.

I guess they saw my brother's and my growing up here as a direct obstacle to their ability to transmit their values and heritage.  As if somehow eating peanut butter and watching MTV were in complete opposition to Pakistani values.

Maybe my parents were motivated by a deep fear that on one of our many visits to Pakistan, we'd get off the plane smacking our gum too loud, wearing a pair of ripped jeans and a T Shirt that read, "Shit Happens," and thrust an open palm in the faces of one of our grandparents and and say, "How's it hangin', Gramps?"

All that fear of us being too American translated into me thinking that "desis," a term used for people from the Asian subcontinent, were totally lame.  It's true.  I'm not embarrassed to admit it.

Okay, I'm a little embarrassed to admit it.

I think I felt that way because the only way "desi" culture was presented to me was in the context of superiority.  See, we're family oriented, our parents would say... we have better morals, we have better manners, we work harder, we are less entitled... and, we definitely have better food.

It wasn't a deep love for all things American that prompted me to reject immigrants as social peers or potential spouses when I was younger, either.  It was that I hated that thing... that thing where you make someone else's stuff look bad in order to make yourself look good.  I imagined being married to some desi guy and having him drone on about... "Well, in Pakistan it's like this and that's so much better because..."

Of course, the central part of becoming an adult is realizing what a moron you were when you were a kid.

Also, for me at least, it was realizing the ugly truth that most people do that thing... the thing where they make other people's choices and values bad in order to make themselves look good.  You know and I know that my parents weren't alone.  I'd say, in fact, that they're representative of most people who are placed in cross cultural situations.

Just think about the last time you spoke with someone who visited a foreign country.  My favorite example is the one about my friend who visited Paris and all she could come up with was how much it smelled, how stupid it was that they asked whether you wanted your water with gas or not and how much NOT like New York City it was.  Hello.  It's Paris, not New York City.  Interestingly, I believe that's why they, in fact, call it "Paris" and not "New York City."

So here I am, well into my thirties, and married to an immigrant from the subcontinent.

To a fob.

And, he, too, is married to an ABCD.

A hyphen.

He could probably write a post similar to this if he was so inclined.  Something about how he never thought he would marry one of those girls who grew up in America, smacking their gum, wearing T shirts, faintly smelling of peanut butter and constantly high five-ing at the most inappropriate of times.

I think deep down, it's not about being an immigrant or not, about being born here or being born there.  It's about who you are, as a person.

Are you the kind of person who knows that there is value to be found in everyone, in every place or in every culture?  And are you willing to see that value?

Or are you a person who is so afraid of "different" that you would close yourself off from other people in order to preserve a sense of security about how you think the world is?

I know lots of people who have been all over the world, yet because of their way of thinking, they have never really left home.  They experience the world and the people in it within a very narrow and specific frame of reference.  They never let go enough of what they think the world should be like or what people should be like.  As a result, they will never experience the pleasure of being proven so entirely wrong that they find themselves head over heels in love with the very thing they thought they would never want any part of.  This is not the domain of immigrants or natives, it is simply the domain of people who are unwilling to see past their own noses.

So, N.A., what do I think of "ABCDs" who don't want anything to do with "fobs"?

I think they're not much different than most people who have resigned themselves to never wanting to find out what else is out there.

I think they suffer from the worst kind of limitations that any human can suffer... the ones we impose on ourselves.