Desi Say What?!

From the folks at Cherry Sky Films, here is a video for you. There’s a cameo at the end by a Desi (Neil Sehgal) (h/t to Salil).

Cringe-worthy, no doubt, this short video reflects an inter-racial sub group struggle in self-identity versus external community identity monikers. In other words, the use of the word “nigger”. I thought the video was smart in that their use of the word “ninja” as replacement word and Asians as the replacement community really shifted the perception of the use of the “N word.” Plus, the video was hella funny.

What I loved most is when a brown kid saunters up on the basketball court to a group of Asian dudes and says, “What’s up my Ninjas!” The guys look like they are confused as to whether to accept him or not. But after a quick look to each other, they give him the bro-man hug and you hear “It counts.” As a South Asian, he may not be accepted immediately, but he can be accepted into the “in” group since South Asia is kind of Asian, if you stopped to think about it. Marginalized, a little bit, he can be accepted in the end. It was a simple interaction, but reflective so much of society’s deeper of inter-racial issues I’ve seen in the Desi meets East Asian communities.

As an activist in the Asian American and Pacific Islander movement, this attitude is something I see often, though a lot less brash and satirical as seen in the video. The South Asian community is often accepted into these AAPI space as an after thought, or even worse, as a token.Sure the AAPI “community” is a political term, just the way most racial terms are political constructs. But it seems that in my personal experience in these spaces, South Asians are always fighting for a place at the AAPI table, or added as an afterthought. People accept South Asians as “Asians” only when it is convenient, not because they necessarily see that Asia is a really big continent reflecting a variety of cultures and ethnicity.

This video reminded me of a conversation I had last week. I was talking with a friend about the term “The Other Asian” which Glee fans may recognize. It’s used in an episode to describe one of the silent East Asian football players on Glee. Basically, the character is an East Asian silent diversity place holder on the Glee cast. My friend had asked me if South Asians would identity with the term “Other Asian.” I told him that though there has been self-identity “naming” changes in the past few years to our community, it was hard enough for Desis to warm up to the label of “South Asian” and that the term “Other Asian” would just be too far removed.

I am obviously over-analyzing this really funny and nuanced video. I could have left it at that. But it would be remiss to post this video and not to open up the discussion to a dialogue we often debate here on the Sepia Mutiny threads – Are South Asians really a part of the Asian American space or is it just a convenient political construct?

Also, while on the topic, though it may be “counted” when a Desi uses the term “Ninja” but what about when a Desi uses the term “Nigger”? Every time I hear it in a Desi sung rap song, it makes me cringe, just the way I cringe when non-Desi friends of mine say to me, “Desi, please.” It just ain’t right. An example…

The above song is by Bohemia “the Punjabi rapper” featuring RD. And his lyrics? An excerpt:

See I don’t smoke, but I’ll smoke a Nigga. I’m a cold hearted dude, I’ll choke a trigga. You my main target, bull’s eye bitch. I bet I leave ya eye-patched like a pirate.

Desi, puuuuuuuuhleez.

This entry was posted in Identity, Issues, Language, Musings, Video by Taz. Bookmark the permalink.

About Taz

Taz is an activist, organizer and writer based in California. She is the founder of South Asian American Voting Youth (SAAVY), curates and blogs at Follow her at

79 thoughts on “Desi Say What?!

  1. and non-chinese literally can not pronounce chinese names

    Non Indians butcher Sanskrit names all the time.. yet you don’t really see a lot of Indians using this tactic (and naming their kid Jenna:) , it IS related to westernizing themselves..

  2. Non Indians butcher Sanskrit names all the time.. yet you don’t really see a lot of Indians using this tactic (and naming their kid Jenna:) , it IS related to westernizing themselves..

    no. i make this point a thousand times, but people can’t understand this. it’s not that you butcher chinese names, it’s that the tonal aspect makes it almost impossible for many non-chinese to say these names correctly even if they try. this is what i’ve been told by chinese, even those who have chinese names among other chinese. it isn’t that you’re pronouncing the names incorrectly, it’s that you can basically change someone’s name into a totally different word, sometimes with a funny meaning. this is a qualitatively different problem than you have with japanese or indian or arab names, where you mangle them, but don’t transform them into other names.

    the japanese do not use western first names unless they’re residents of western nations, because westerners just mangle their names, they don’t transform them into something else. it’s a conventional phonetic language. by contrast, if chinese people work for a multinational, it is useful to have a western name that you can use because you don’t want people mispronuncing your name in a mixed environment where chinese speakers start giggling because non-chinese can’t help but pronounce your name in a way that makes it sound just like a piece or furniture or something more embarrassing.

    this is what i’ve been told my chinese people and chinese speakers. it could be a lie, i know, but it isn’t the same as indian names. there’s a reason people who speak non-tonal languages claim is more difficult to learn chinese than it is to learn japanese.

    (i know that some indian languages have tonal aspects, but not nearly as ubiquitous as chinese)

  3. “Some stereotypical statements i have heard: very hard-working but less smart/intelligent than Indians (that is why they do PhD not MS :D ), great silky hair & skin, flat-nose, small eyes, unclean, eats cockroaches/insects, racists & never trust them. Commonly called as ‘chinkis’

    Very interesting stereotypes: It kind of mirror how East Asian see Indian: kind of lazy (aversion of physical labor and lack of athletic prowess), also much lower intelligence than East Asian, only able do MS, not PhD, and reflected by India extremely poverty/ illiteracy, dark skin, big eyes, eat curry, very racist, fractured society(castism/Pigmentocracy), pompous, filthy (dirty cities/rivers), very opinionated, untrustworthy (more hype than substance), close-minded, lack of civic spirit, very religious but not generous, show compassion to animals but not human. Kind of like Bollywood films, there are tons of them, but don’t count for much. The above opinions are widely shared by E/SE Asian about Indian, it isn’t pretty.

    However, Asian don’t really care/know much about India/Indian, like most Indian, they care more about their everyday affairs. Those stereotypes reflected a lack of understanding about each other. BTW, the “chinkis” most Indian encounter or refer to are most likely Tibetan, SE Asian (Thai, Malays, vietnamese….). They are not exactly China allies, but this wide spread racist attitudes of Indian would more than likely turn them against India and into China hand, just like Pakistan, Bangladesh, & Sri Lanka. Indian media/government are doing their country a disservice by not informing their citizen better about E Asia without prejudice.

  4. Actually Razib, Japanese does exhibit some tonal features, though different from Mandarin. Japanese has pitch accents which can change the meaning of words depending on pronunciation. It somewhat explains the blank looks people get when attempting to communicate with native Japanese speakers.

  5. thanks koschei. my minimal experience is japanese is that i add accents/pitch when i’m supposed to be flat.

    also, i think that chinese are more open to westernization. just don’t think the name issue is the best example. i think it has to do with their lack of strong religious attachments, which south asians seem to have.

  6. I strongly agree with your theory about how lack of strong religious affiliations tend to push people towards assimilation. A trend I’ve noticed is that the more religiously inclined sub-populations (such as Korean Catholics) tends to be more segregationist from the mainstream than their co-ethnics. I believe that strong religious identification (particularly involving non English language services) provides a source of in group socialization that preserve the coherence of minority ethnic groups.

    Unfortunately for the Chinese, half of them appear to be outright atheists. Religiosity is a double edged sword though. I don’t think you’ll ever find any Chinese protesting “sacrilegious” use of the image of Buddha. Probably a good thing.

  7. @razib: I haven’t heard any pre-modern views about hair color or eye shape preferences in East Asia, but in South Asian history, fair skin was always prized, and I think it would be safe to assume that it was in East Asia too, long before any Europeans showed up. In fact, only in western culture in the past 100 years or so has tanning become popular, all the high society people before the 20th century in Europe, the Americas, and Asia preferred light skin. I don’t think this is necessarily an unconscious desire for fairer skin, but simply a universal connotation of wealth/status and skin color. Only now, when the working class works inside, out of the sun, do the rich move out into the open to gain the tan that the not to wealthy traded in when they moved from working in the fields to sitting in a cubicle/factory. In modernized regions of the world, this seems to be the prevalent attitude, and even in Japan and Korea this is changing. Only in places where the country hasn’t completely modernized (including India and China) does the preference for lighter skin seem to remain. Of course seeing as Desis are already the proper medium skin tone that tanning would achieve in white/east asian people, I guess we won’t have to tan :P & @Jenna: While Russia does take up the geographic region of north Asia, that area is sparsely populated, especially compared to European Russia–which would fall under the category or European in terms of culture and race (and that would include Georgia and Armenia, which are closer to the Middle East if anything).

  8. Regarding Korean racism, I remember reading a blog some time ago by a Black guy who taught English in Japan and then Korea. He basically said that racist ideology has permeated the culture there. Most of what is in this book regarding racial ideology about cleanliness and purity supposedly applies to South Koreans as well.

    Of course, Korea itself is a very insular and rather homogenous society that has a bit of a hangup about being assimilated by the Japanese or the Chinese so they tend to be pretty protective of their own ethnic identity. That likely partly feeds into it. Koreans I’ve met in the US who have basic exposure to other cultures have generally been pretty ok with me in my experience, although when visiting friends there are always the suspicious glances from Grandma as she keeps looking at me as if I am going to steal something.

  9. Of course seeing as Desis are already the proper medium skin tone that tanning would achieve in white/east asian people, I guess we won’t have to tan :P

    I distinctly remember going into work one Monday last summer after having spent the weekend hiking and then going to a baseball game. I was several shades darker than I normally am but didn’t think anything of it until I had a meeting and a Turkish (female) coworker said “Hey man what happened to you? You look really dark, it doesn’t look good on you.”

    Apparently in her mind skin-tone must be strictly policed. Too much time inside and one gets a little too pale. Too much time outside and one gets a little too dark. I feel like it would be a lot simpler for ethnicities that can just floor it towards one extreme. Balancing along the razor-edge isn’t easy.

    Fortunately I don’t give a damn. It’s handy.

  10. Living in New York I’ve always wondered why the Chinese and Koreans isolate them selves the most. I know we Indians have our own “Little Indias” all over the city, but it is no where close to the chinese and korean communities. The only comparison would be the hasidic jews I guess, but they are a far smaller population.

    I guess one reason may be that I am far more Bengali than Indian.

  11. @San: The first big waves of East Asian immigration came much earlier in the times of “No criminals, dogs, or Chinese allowed.” As a result they had to set up their own ethnic enclaves. As mainstream society opens up the ethnic enclaves are still here and as a result so are the old school Chinese that lived there never having learned English very well.

    Indians, on the other hand, moved here largely after the civil rights act. Most were pretty much alone upon arriving and almost everyone who lands in the States already speaks English pretty well so mingling becomes much easier and even expected.

  12. It seems like in this thread people from East Asian and South Asian communities are trying to prove which community is more racist and prejudiced. I think the bottom line is everyone has prejudices and biases.

    I agree with some comments that if a community is isolated they tend to hold on to old world views. However, it does seem the younger generation that grow ups in North America as East and South Asian youths attend school or work with other communities people are learning that other people are just people.

  13. Koreans being racist against Indians is a bit rich.

    They are a rich country. Rich people tend to look down upon poor people. Achievers upon underachievers. Hyundai sells the most cars in India after Maruti-Suzuki, a Japanese company. How do you expect to win respectability, Bollywood song and dance movies?

  14. This can never happen in South Asia, where women are considered family honour. In fact killing women in your family in order to protect their honour is the South Asian way.

    Hmmm… are you trolling, or being serious here. Half-serious?

  15. KolaNutTechie

    “They are a rich country. Rich people tend to look down upon poor people. Achievers upon underachievers. Hyundai sells the most cars in India after Maruti-Suzuki, a Japanese company. How do you expect to win respectability, Bollywood song and dance movies?”

    I wouldn’t say that is necessarily the truth, when it comes to racism/prejudice it is far more prevalent in the middle east than elsewhere in the world, without them necessarily being the richest or the highest achievers around (yes I know about the oil). That is also the region in the world where Indians are by far most discriminated against, try to get a cab in Dubai and you will know what I mean.

    I would say likewise South Korea seems more insular than other East Asian nations. History forms the culture, so I guess there are many reasons for that.

    But I agree with Orville that among the second gen those attitudes don’t seem to exist.

  16. If they had to come up with a common global Holographic data source to catalog wealth of human knowledge they would pick a terse word with a post modern zing and easy recall. ‘Razib’ would be a good candidate for the anthropomorphy, much like ‘HAL’, or ‘Gerty’ from Duncan Jones’ the Moon. Sorry for dehumanizing but I would rather have this convenient access to qualified knowledge than reading through tomes myself and being subjected subliminally to agendas. For instance where else would I have learned about why the Chinese really pick anglicized names?

  17. Yeah San. I have nothing because you got it right. Some Pashtuns can be pretty racist. Now you’ve got to ask what is that they feel so entitled to their superiority living out of mud huts? This is such a complex topic. Let us talk about the kind of power dynamics that will matter in the future, India, East Asia and the West. Arabs can be racist, they were trading black slaves a long time ago. But the Arabs are also on a one way street. Canadian and Venezualan tar sands have enough oil to belie any attempt by the middle east to be a choking point for fossil fuels in the future. Their younger generations do not seem to share the asian work ethic. After Dubai went broke the way rid down might have begun for them. The funny thing is their tallest tower was built by a Korean company. They will be needing India more than we need them and maybe if Kerala can supplement its excellent record in creating literacy, low public corrupting by creating private sector jobs (tall order in a communist state but china was a communist state) Indians won’t need to escape to the gulf to be subject to such abuse. I have heard the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis can have it pretty bad in the gulf too, so it could definitely be race related prejudice.

    The amazing thing about Korea is their remarkable ascent. They are the world’s largest shipbuilding nation. I read somewhere Samsung sells the most number of mobile phones in the world. All this for a country of 50(?) million with no oil, not even unified yet with its errant northern half. I am sure a lot of Indians would feel pretty entitled to a dizzying sense of superiority if they were as insular historically and as successful in a short span on time as the Koreans. Racism is egregious but in Korea and much of homogenous East Asia’s case national pride can easily pass as ethnic pride to an outsider and there may not be a difference. It is complex and we can only understand the truth when we interact more.

  18. KolaNutTechie

    I would even say that it is the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who get abused most, since most of those who go to the lower paid jobs are from those countries.

    I’m sure Koreans feel a sense of natural pride due to their achievements, heck I even got cousins in India who are proud of indians in the US being doctors and engineers, but I’ve tried to explain it’s because the doctors and engineers from India move to the US.

    But the Korean achievement together with their history as an underdog to the Japanese may have fueled their nationalism. Especially as the Japanese superiority was with a racial undertone much more than in colonial powers such as England and France. But racial pride seems to be even more prevalent in the north than in the south, there are even reports of forced abortions when korean women get pregnant with chinese, go figure that..

    It also seems, especially in the west that it is the less fortunate among the majority population that resort to racial pride. I guess that can be easier explained though.

  19. In Canada its kind of the other way around. There are way more of us brown people than azns here.

  20. I think this whole thing with “Indians” trying to be “Asians” thing is quite ridiculous. First of all, Indians have a hard time affiliating with each other so trying to be Asians is probably the last thing that is possible. In my personal experience, my family identifies themselves as Malayalis first and kind of Indian second. Most of my family here in America rarely interact with North Indians and don’t really fit in when they try to interact with them. During the summers they talk about considering visiting “naatu” which literally means homeland. But when a Malayali says “naatu”, he means Kerala not India.

  21. Indians don’t have to “try” to be Asian, they ARE, whether you agree with that or not.

    Would anyone actually like to address the issues presented in the actual post, all of which were quite interesting? Dropping the N-bomb? South Asian inclusion in AAPI orgs as an afterthought? Whether ninjas are scaling nearby walls as we speak? And will that other Asian guy ever get his own plot or sub-plot on Glee? Discuss. Or shuffle along, so we can close shop.

  22. White I have been one of the people in this thread talking about how close Eastern Asian and “Desi” students are in colleges and there are quite a few “Harold And Kumar” type friendships, I will say that these Asian organizations are way too broad in concept. I think countries like Iran, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore may offer some mild convergence on some common things with people from the subcontinent. When we bond with Eastern Asian friends, it’s over common demeanors and understanding of family structures and education, stuff like that. I really dont think there is a need for broad ASIAN organizations in colleges. I am comfortable with a subcontinental wide org or an eastern asian organizaiton.

  23. Try bringing a Japanese girl home to your parents (as I did) and see what will happen!

    Answer: not fun.

  24. To make the intern happy, I did read an interview with the actor who plays “Other Asian” on Glee and he is going to get more speaking parts/character development in the next season :)

    Razib – thanks for providing a possible explanation for why Chinese people working for multinationals pick a Western name for work. I was wondering if they felt pressured to do this by the company (which I think is wrong, having a “funny” name myself) and thus I was trying to figure out if I should use their actual Chinese name instead. But your explanation is more palatable to me so I can at least give my company the benefit of the doubt :D

  25. non-chinese literally can not pronounce chinese names

    It has also to do with spelling..for ex: ‘Qi’ is not ‘Q’ but ‘Chi’