Your Customs Is Foreign To Us

for Aseem Chhabra and my fellow travelers

Something Aseem Chhabra said this weekend made me think of this.

Several months ago, I was detained at the Michigan-Canadian border because I had loose, unlabeled spices from Toronto, which the Lords of U.S. Customs did not recognize and needed to submit to agricultural inspection, a request I did not consider unreasonable until I saw how it was to be done. We were removed from our vehicle and did not have even visual contact with our property while they searched it.

(Who will inspect the inspection? They could take something! I said.

They could PLANT something, said someone else.)

As far I could tell, the only person of color in the office where we waited was Barack Obama. I found his picture on the wall comforting.

Our vehicle when we returned to it looked ransacked, but to the best of our knowledge, they took (and planted) nothing. Still, I have learned to prefer the airport. Or the New York border, where my loose Sri Lankan spices flummox no one.

Had a customs experience you loved? Hated? Share below. Continue reading

The coming decade for South Asians

For the past week, in addition to creating a list of modest New Year’s resolutions (oh how I miss the days when my resolutions were wildly ambitious!), I have been thinking about how the “South Asian American experience” will change and evolve during this decade. For instance, in 2004 when we started this blog, South Asian Americans were still “outsiders” in many respects. Now, we’ve given up noting much of what was quite notable back then (e.g., every actor, politician, musicians). So here is my list of top 10 predictions involving South Asian American society for the next 10 years:

1) The United States will have its first South Asian senator

2) Entrepreneurs will be the new doctors in terms of finding a respectable marriage match (e.g., “oh you should meet their son Ravi, he is having new start-up company”)

3) South Asian reporters on the scene will replace Asian reporters on the scene

4) Every other instance of a NYTimes wedding announcement featuring a South Asian person will be in the context of an interracial couple

5) Movies directed by M. Night Shyamalan will no longer mention the director as part of the movie ad campaign.

6) All South Asian American bloggers will go the way of the Dodo.

7) Slumdog Millionaire will be derided for having won best picture (e.g., really, we thought that was best picture that year?)

8) Americans in the media will pronounce South Asian names correctly…well almost. Much much better at least.

9) Yoga will be the new Starbucks

10) A South Asian American author will write an amazing work of fiction (maybe even one that will be turned into a movie) with almost no hint of any South Asian themes

11) There will be a headline grabbing sex scandal involving a South Asian American

Ok so there are 11 not 10. But only because I believe one of these won’t happen.

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Why Desi Mothers are Superior (Or Not)

If you haven’t already, I suggest you take a good, long look at the article “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” which appeared last Sunday in the WSJ by Amy Chua, a Yale Law School professor. The piece, an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir, describes Chinese parenting techniques in relation to those of “Western parents.” Chua cites her personal experiences with her two daughters, Sophia and Louisa, and all the activities she doesn’t allow them to do– like “have a playdate” or “choose their own extracurricular activities.” Sound familiar? If you grew up in a desi household, it probably does. And Chua’s recollection of a particular situation, where her seven-year old daughter Lulu had trouble learning a difficult piano piece, may also strike a chord, no pun intended:

I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong, I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic.

I rolled up my sleeves and went back to Lulu. I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling, but still there seemed to be only negative progress, and even I began to have doubts.

Now, I consider my own mother to be a very good mother. Edit. I consider my mother to be an excellent mother. As a childhood elementary education major, my mother could be quite rigid when it came to rules, but she gave us siblings room to pursue our own interests. As long as I pulled in semi-respectable grades, I was free to audition for the school play, write for the school paper, etc. Continue reading

Letter to a Young Islamophobe

Ayaan Hirsi AliAP061001023052-thumb-400xauto-4681.jpg Dear Young Islamophobe:

You will do well to start with any of the books written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Her best-known work is Infidel. Her latest book is Nomad. She has also written a few other things. Anything written by Hirsi Ali will do; they all say the same things about the terror of Islam.

I read Nomad recently. It is littered with stories like the following: “In February 2009 in Buffalo, New York, a forty-seven-year-old Muslim businessman who had set up a cable TV station to ‘promote more favorable views of Muslims,’ beheaded his wife, who was seeking to divorce him.”

This is a short short-story. You can narrate it at parties. Imagine the shock (but perhaps not the silence, because these days everyone, it seems, has a story to tell about Islam). But you should also learn from Hirsi Ali’s style of writing. Continue reading

Musings on Mistaken Identity

kalyan.penn.jpg Actor Adhir Kalyan was on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and shared a story of being mistaken for Kal Penn when he was visiting a beach in California. I don’t feel there’s too much similarity in their looks, and they sound completely different because Kalyan has a British accent. But hey, I know being mistaken for another desi happens from time to time, even to us non-celebrities who aren’t getting screen time during prime time or in theaters across America.

Example #1: At one summer job, I was one of four interns in a small office with less than ten staff members. Occasionally, throughout the summer the Executive Director and one or two other staff members would call me Ritu, the name of another intern. She was desi, had straight hair (of a different length) and wore glasses like me, but that’s where the similarities ended. Continue reading

Tyler, Dharun and Molly: One Life Lost, Two Lives Ruined

Ravi Wei.jpg

Police believe they may have found the body of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who jumped to his death after a roommate spied on him having gay sex. Meanwhile, some Rutgers students are saying Clementi’s roommate’s actions were misinterpreted.

Tyler’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, turned on his computer’s webcam and apparently spied on Clementi while he was hooking up with another man. After Clementi found out, he ended up throwing himself off the George Washington bridge. [gawker]

Do you remember what it was like to be 18? Most of us consider ourselves much wiser than we were back then; many of us would cringe at what we thought and the asinine shit we did. The problem with being 18, if I may be so blunt, is that most 18-year olds are stupid. Yes, we are brown; we get near-perfect scores on the SAT and take so many AP classes, we can skip our Freshman year of college. Big deal. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about emotional intelligence. Compassion. Wisdom. That last trait isn’t gifted to a teenager because it’s a consolation prize for approaching middle age, for suddenly possessing an underperforming metabolism, greying temples and baggage “life experiences”. Continue reading

Let it Bhi (Part I)

I’m changing it up a bit for this week’s post, Mutineers, and setting aside the wax gems for flesh-and-blood. I think auntie netta is getting to my head-a, cuz I’ve got Jaffna on my mind. I’d like to focus on a certain young, hot, and hip Tamil artist with politically charged lyrics, plenty of street cred, and an original and inimitable sound. If you are expecting to see gaudy glasses, gold tights, or…whatever this is, well, you are wrong. This Sri Lankan sensation unpretentiously rocks wire frames, loose jeans, and a 5 o’ clock shadow that magically morphs into an uncle-ji stache. I’d like to introduce to the Mutiny my favorite discovery of 2010 and your new folk hero, Bhi Bhiman.


Behind that deceptively handsome mug is a booming voice backed by a powerful wit, perhaps the deadliest combination since butter met scotch. You don’t have to take my word for it: he’s already garnering critical praise after only doing the coffee-house circuit for a short while. Here’s probably the best assessment of Bhi and his music I’ve come across yet:

“It only makes good sense that the next great American folk hero/political voice is a very un-white, first-generation Sri-Lankan American. Bhi Bhiman (bee-bee-man) is arguably the wittiest and angriest person to pick up a guitar in the last 30 years and wield it like an aural hatchet aimed at chopping the head off all that’s wrong in the world.”

-Local IQ (Albuquerque)

Aside from the questionably colorist “very un-white” comment, I could not have said it better myself. Bhi is a star in the making. He’s the closest we have to a brown Randy Newman (except topical and funny) and/or a brown Bob Dylan (except modest and intelligible). Just like Abhi made the bold prediction that Das Racist would be the hottest, brownest thing of 2009, I’m sayin’ that Bhi is going to do to wannabe fakers just like the release of Nevermind did to 80′s butt-rock: render them irrelevant with the strumming of a single chord. Continue reading

Friday Find – The King of Pop

I have a lot of records.

Not more than the KGB of course, (that nonsensical distinction is for MIA alone to lay claim to) but enough to have seriously impacted my pocketbook, personal life, and also to provide me with an escape when pressures of living with wackily overbearing desi parents prove to be a bit much.

I started collecting in 2000, a year before the first generation iPod was first released (partially designed by my friend’s dad while we were still in high school, no less). Since then, I’ve accumulated probably close to 1000 records but, to this day, my audiophilia never translated into me owning an iPod or any other personal mp3 player. The reason is simple- those devices offer the exact opposite experience to that of the LP. The record is a tactile medium and it is almost not possible for the music to be seen and felt as much as heard, a reality totally lost with the iPod. The mp3 player certainly provides incredible convenience and portability for those who want hours of tunes at their disposal without a wheel-barrow to schlep it around in, but I’ve found that it deracinates and decontextualizes the music from the interesting history and processes that helped created it. It’s in the spirit of this obsessive nerdery that I came across, via reading the miscellanea on my record sleeves, the subjects of tonight’s post and the nuggets I’ll be sharing every Friday with all ye Mutiny Faithful.

Pensive after reading Anna’s tribute to Michael Jackson last month, I remembered that I had seen something completely unexpected while scanning the sleeve of his single for The Way You Make Me Feel: the familiar “P-word.” I knew I was onto something big. Continue reading

Saturday Sounds – Indian Summer

This week’s nugget is a soon-to-be-legendary gem of a track that I’ve spent over 3 years trying to dig up before finally tracking down a copy in a warehouse in Delhi. It was mine (and mine alone!) to enjoy until I foolishly informed Manish of this magical slice of audio heaven at a party last March. I guess if I’m going to have to share it with him, I might as well introduce you guys to your new favorite summer jam.

What was that insufferable science-fiction movie that came out a few years ago, set in an improbable parallel universe where a wisecracking 16 year-old could simultaneously make superfluous references to Soupy Sales and nonchalantly decide the future of her unplanned fetus all in the same hamburger-phone call? It doesn’t matter, as the only interesting part of that unbearable film was the unearthing, for the masses, of Sonic Youth’s cover of Superstar. Eerie, with equal parts irony and insanity, the Thurston Moore-led reworking revived interest in the track that helped define the careers of both Bette Midler and The Carpenters and introduced his art-rock band for another generation of smarmy hipsters. Now, imagine the inevitable Bollywood remake and that scene, where little Jaanu slow dances with the Uncleji vying for the child inside her womb- what uberhip, obscure cover song by a brown artist could match Superstar’s cool cred and lilt ominously from the record player? Glad you asked. Continue reading

Desi-spotting by decade

If you spotted a desi in America in…

…the 1960s: Well, you probably did not spot all that many but did some jumping around with a few “yahoos” thrown in if you did.

…the 1970s: You became their best friend and quite possibly moved in with them for at least a few months.

…the 1980s: “Mom. Dad. Look another Indian/Desi person.” Followed by a big smile.

…the 1990s: (more discreetly) “Mom. Dad. Look another Indian/Desi person.” Followed by an attempt to hide a smile.

…the 2000s: Dude, there is a desi person on that television show! No way! We have to watch.

…this decade: Dude, there is yet another desi person on television (yawn)…but without an “obviously desi” name:

Principal Figgins of Glee

Jai Wilcox of Covert Affairs (whose father apparently led the National Clandestine Service. Right. Must be adopted).

Tom Haverford of Parks and Rec (and yes I know his real name is Darwish Sabir Ismael Gani )

Jonathan of 30 Rock

Additional examples? Future predictions?

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