“So on the count of three, move your hips to the left!”
Fifteen girls mimic each other’s movements while facing a studio mirror. It’s the Ezra Stiles dance room, and we are decked out in our gym shorts and old T-shirts. Bollywood music is playing. Shona Kemari is standing in front of us. She’s in charge of the freshman dance act for Roshni, the South Asian festival at Woolsey Hall on Nov. 2. She knows traditional Indian bharatanatyam dance and is also a member of the Yale Bhangra Team, an undergraduate Indian dance troupe. Currently, she’s trying hard not to laugh at us.
“Better, but you’ve got to shake your ass a bit more.”
From a distance, it looks almost routine: Indian girls dancing to Bollywood music. These Indians, however, are not from India. They’re from Louisiana and Texas and California. They are American, right down to the Exeter sweatshirt one of the girls is sporting.
Except for four girls. They resemble the rest, but they hail from exotic-sounding places: Delhi, Karachi, Lahore. They’re from the Indian subcontinent — the “real” South Asians. But one of them doesn’t know the name of the song that’s playing. The second is laughing hysterically at the dance moves being practiced. The third wasn’t even on time to this practice. And the fourth is me.
“Five, six, seven, eight, again!” Shona makes a movement that involves grinding your fist against your other palm. The girl from Delhi, Nitika, can’t take it anymore and has a fit of laughter. She turns to me: “I didn’t even dance Bollywood back in Delhi,” she says.
“Honestly,” I say, “if someone told me I’d be dancing Bollywood at Yale …”
“Do you even recognize this song?”
“Beats me,” I say. It’s not from Pakistan, my home country. “This is from your side of the border.”
We turn and join the boy from Delhi at the back. His name is Dhruv Chand Aggarwal, and he’s having trouble coordinating his feet. I ask him, “If we’re actually from South Asia, how come we’re the worst dancers in this room?” Dhruv sees right through my question and poses a bigger one. He jerks his head towards the crowd of girls in front. “How are these South Asians more South Asian than us?”
South Asia. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal — obsessed with cricket and nuclear arms, depending on the mood of the region. To a foreign ear though, it would mean a variation of what was happening in the Stiles dance room — Bollywood, colorful clothes, and spicy food. And yes, South Asia is all that too.
I’m from Karachi, Pakistan, but coming to Yale this semester as a freshman, my identity wasn’t South Asian — my identity was simply international. And so were the other freshmen I knew arriving here from South Asia. They were not, as my suitemate sometimes puts it, my “brown friends”; “brown” and “South Asian” are adjectives I never had to think about, simply because everybody else back home was brown and South Asian too. It’s at Yale that, for the first time, I’ve been put in a situation where this identity sets me apart, where it actually means something. By that, I don’t just mean my identity as a South Asian; I mean my being a South Asian born and raised in South Asia itself.
Growing up, I had heard of stereotypes for the children of South Asians who had immigrated to the U.S. We knew them rather uncharitably as ABCDs, American-Born Confused Desis. (Desi is slang for South Asian.) Their confusion, it was said, arose from being caught between competing cultural backgrounds — the traditional culture of their parents and the foreign culture they were actually living in.
I wasn’t expecting to find any confused desis at Yale. And without any conception of what being South Asian meant, I never thought I’d find any sort of differentiation in the South Asian community based on where you were born. On that count, I found I was wrong. I remember a South Asian mixer when the incoming freshmen almost subconsciously divided themselves along international and American lines. I remember, too, that at the elections for freshman peer liaisons for the South Asian Society, a South Asian junior commented on how all the Indian Americans would vote for the Indian American candidate. One South Asian American senior, upon hearing where I was from, neatly categorized me as someone interested in economics, since, as she suggested, only South Asian Americans tend to be interested in medicine.
And Dhruv’s question on who feels more South Asian — he’s on to something. Many South Asian American communities encourage a sort of engagement with traditional culture that differs dramatically from what South Asian international students experience growing up. For example, Kemari from California and Deeksha Deep from Louisiana get animated talking about Sunday Hindu school in their communities — “Oh my god, do you remember Balvihaar! And yoga, so much yoga to learn!” In contrast, Anand Khare, a sophomore from India, tells of attending a meeting of the Hindu Society at Yale and finding it “full of Indian-Americans chanting hymns I’d never even heard of.”
Of course, not all South Asian Americans are so grounded in their roots, as Kemari reminds me. In the Indian-American community, she says, “you have Indians who are raised practically white, and then you have Indians whose parents make a huge effort to preserve their culture.” And for those who do work to preserve their culture, the forms of South Asian culture they pass on might differ from what children growing up in South Asia experience today. Says Deep, “My parents moved to the States 16 years ago, so what they know is India 16 years ago.” In contrast, many of the students from South Asia come from the sorts of well-off backgrounds that seem to put less emphasis on roots and culture. “If you’re coming to Yale, and you’re from India,” says Kemari, “then you’ve got to be rich enough to afford a certain kind of education that means you can come to Yale. I guess that’s what makes them more Americanized [than we are].” By which she means more like the South Asian Americans who are raised “white.”
It’s those different attitudes towards tradition that explain why Kemari has joined Yale’s Bhangra Team, bhangra being a folk dance from Punjab in northern India, while Zubin Mittal, a freshman from Delhi, is nonplussed by the group’s existence on campus. “Like, can you imagine having bhangra teams and competitions back home?” he says to me. “No man, fuck that.”
It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m attending a barbeque thrown by a couple of Pakistani grad students. Hannia Zia, a Pakistani freshman, is eating chicken tikka when she suddenly remarks, “You know, I really like this. Like I never really thought about this back home, but I’m so glad there are other Pakistanis here.”
That’s a statement to think about — the international kid feeling homesick suddenly for a community she knows. Have I felt that as a freshman? Not at first, no, and I didn’t expect other international kids to feel homesick either. If anything, I felt a culture shock in reverse when I found out how unusually overrepresented my community and culture are at Yale. And yet even if, like Nitika when she is laughing at the dance moves, or Anand when he’s confused by the religious hymns, other internationals and I tend to find this über South Asian-ness strange, you come to realize it is possible to feel homesick, if only to find that sense of belonging and a community to fall back on.
Roshni rolled around this November and South Asians across Yale danced, sang and showed off their culture, regardless of whether they were born into it, or it was something their parents taught them. Until the last minute Shona was convinced that we freshmen would somehow become a coherent act with only a month of sporadic practice. American or not, all of us had to fix our two left feet. On stage at least, we looked routine again: a bunch of freshmen hoping to pull their act off. And for a time, it wasn’t just about being Indian or Pakistani or American, or who’s more South Asian or less. We were all just “brown,” even if our identities are so much more complicated than that.