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#NotYourAvgDesi: Growing up as a Non-Normative Desi

4 min read

by Raja Micheal 

In order to further the discussion of living a non-normative desi life, we’re hosting a Twitter chat tonight at 9PM EST/6PM PST. Join us @BrownGirlMag + @RajaChristina. #NotYourAvgDesi

It’s no secret that there is a lot of pressure in the desi community to be a good daughter, son, and family member. The definition of what this means can be very narrow. There is a lot of stigma around non-normative desi experiences — a stigma that is deeply rooted, but if we work together, a stigma that can be dismantled and lifted.

I worked as a counselor for many years, and through that experience, I learned something very important. Naming something, saying it out loud, speaking the truth, is very powerful. It has the ability to heal centuries of pain and trauma — yet it is not something many people are raised to do. We are more likely taught not to be genuine, not because our parents hate us, but because they want us to be able to survive in the real world.

Growing up in the South Asian diaspora, I had access to traditional American mental health practices, but they didn’t provide the help that I needed. They did not fulfill all my mental and emotional needs.

I started to explore what holds South Asians back from sharing and living our truths. This looks different for us than it does for many white Americans for many reasons. Context is everything.

[Read More: Interview with South Asian Mental Health Initiative Founders Aisha and Mahria]

My parents did not grow up with a fraction of the privilege I grew up in. They spent every second of their lives trying to give me and my sisters a better life. It’s no secret that as South Asians, we are burdened with more social and community problems than we know what to do with. People from post-colonial countries are not given the same freedom to explore and question. We have been focused on surviving, which is why my approach is not based on taking down, demonizing, or dragging. Yet, I can no longer live my life covering the dysfunction and sickness in my own life as well as the community from which I come.

However, I am working on adopting an approach based on healing, in speaking honestly and openly about what went wrong, being in awareness of the context that we’re coming from, and speaking truth and light in places of darkness.

One of the main thing that stops desi folks from sharing our non-normative desi experiences is based on an old phrase you hear aunties and uncles gossiping about in every corner of our traditional communities: The dreaded “log kya kahenge.” The pressure is real, and living your truth may not only hurt you but everyone who you love and is connected to you. Not “being from a good family” or the pressure to be “from a good family” could determine if you are accepted in society or if you will get married, find work, and if live with your head held high or low.

[Read More: Dear South Asian Parents, It’s An Illness, Not a Mindset]

The funny thing is if we were all honest and didn’t cover up and sweep our failures, imperfections, and uniqueness under the rug, how many of us could really be considered to be “from a good family?” Probably less than one percent. This idea, that as desis, we should be “from a good family” is very ethnocentric and elitist amongst many other problematic things. In addition, it is pure fantasy. The “good desi family” is as much mythology as the perfect white bread American family you saw in ’80s sitcoms.
I personally experienced being shamed and marginalized in desi community. But I also experienced being deeply loved, being cared for, being included, and community sharing and support to the extreme. I have faith that we are capable of love and empathy needed to create space for non-normative desi experiences. Because we are a community-oriented society, as much as I encourage everyone who can go to therapy to go, we cannot focus on individual healing alone. Instead, I believe we should be working towards community healing — starting with debunking the myth of the “good family.”

South Asian society is incredibly diverse, it always has been diverse, and it always will be diverse. There is no one narrative that we should all be trying to aim for. It is unfortunate that as South Asians, so many of us have been conditioned over the centuries to view ourselves as a monolith. We are not a monolith. However, our community does suffer from internalized orientalism that we need to dismantle. And the first step is talking about our non-normative experiences.

These experiences can be about hobbies and lifestyle choices such as “I am desi, and I enjoy camping like a white person”, or “I am desi, and I choose not to get married.” They can be about career choices such as “I am desi and I am a painter,” or “I am desi and I am a social worker.” Or they can be about deep pain and things we are conditioned to keep secret such as, “I am desi and I struggle with addiction,” “I am desi and I struggle with chronic unemployment,” or “I am desi and I am a survivor of childhood sexual assault.”

There is no need to share anything you are not ready to share. But the more we talk about our non-normative experiences, the more we normalize them, and the more we remove their stigma. We are a diverse, dynamic, and ever-changing community. Why shouldn’t our words match our truths?

I am going to start by sharing three of my non-normative desi truths:

I am a stand-up comic.

I have been diagnosed and medicated for ADHD and clinical depression.

I have contemplated suicide.

I invite you to join me and share your non-normative desi stories with the hashtag #notyouravgdesi. Together we can break century-old cycles that oppress us and lift the stigma of not being from “a good family.” What is your non-normative story? Whatever it is, you are accepted. You are loved. You are family.

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