American desi: mother tongues firmly in cheek

The link with the homeland is maintained foremost in the upkeep of languages and food

M.J. Warsi**
 Published on 14th November, 2005, in Hindustan Times

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I AM not White. I am not Black. I am not Yellow. I am Asian, but I am rarely classified as one. I am Indian, but barely recognised as one. I dress in jeans and tees, eat at the local McDonald's, watch Will and Grace with religious fervour, and I listen to Justin Timberlake on my iPod when I am walking to class. But on the flip side, I also have read the Quran in Arabic, I fast every year during Ramadan, I love watching Indian movies, and I sing songs by Junoon when I'm cleaning the house.
Does this sound like an identity crisis? I speak both English, Hindi and Urdu fluently and `feel comfortable with both parts of myself '. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many young south Asians in the US today. Lack of resources, dozens of questions regarding identity, insecurity about being labelled less than a patriot, and a plethora of other issues play into the difficulties faced by children and adults alike. It interferes, at a basic level, when there's desire to learn heritage languages and there's difficulty in doing so.

The term `ABCD' which means American Born Confused Desi has been used in a comic way for many south Asian Americans describing their identity crisis. There are two sets of South Asian communities in the US. First, the generations that have completely lost their identity as South Asians and are completely `Americanised'. The other maintains its link with all things south Asian -- foremost among this the upkeep of their languages and food habits.

The bond of a common language, fundamental to cultural identity, helps south Asians to construct, redefine and assert their ethnic and personal identities. But at times, it is the language that first falls prey to the attempt at `uniformity'. The vocabulary of a language represents cultural norms and values. For instance, there is a host of words in Urdu for respect and politeness. These words are generally used with people who are older in age. Exposure to these words point to the ethos of south Asian cultural norms. Festivals, from Id to Diwali are celebrated in a grand way. And of course, Christmas is big for all of us, in the company of our fellow American friends. A family in Los Angeles attends the Eid prayer every year followed by visiting family and friends. Some time soon after that, the kids go out to celebrate Halloween, complete with trick-or-treat routine.

Bollywood movies have influenced local culture to an appreciable extent. There are three major theatres in California that play south Asian movies and these are attended by other ethnic groups too. I know of an African American senior who did not even know where Pakistan was. But watching Hindi movies, he became interested, and even took up learning Hindi/Urdu at school level.

Within multilingual societies, the maintenance of the languages of ethnic and cultural groups is critical for the preservation of cultural heritage and identity. Using the mother tongue at home is creating a bridge that makes it easier for children to be comfortable with their own cultural identity.

**The writer teaches at University of California, Berkeley


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