Call us desi if you want to. We have big hearts and a lot of candy for Halloween

First, the desi story: Who is a desi (pronounced they-see)?

In the Canadian colloquial use, the word desi has come to denote, one of South Asian-heritage.

Literally, desi, a Hindi/Punjabi word means an indigenous person. In the Canadian context, since people of South Asian heritage are not indigenous, the word loses its real meaning.

But in the context of South Asian Diaspora in Canada, des means native land and a person from native land is called a desi. But this definition doesn’t cut for everyone. If the word is used in South Asia, it denotes someone who is uncouth – someone who needs to learn the ways of the society. By society, I mean society in general, irrespective of rural or urban background.

Apart from the context and meaning, it is the usage I find disturbing. More and more people are using the word in a derogatory sense to mock Canadians of South Asian heritage. Recently, I read a post that mocked desi mannerism in the backdrop of trick or treat at Halloween. The post ridiculed certain mannerism and tried to create a negative stereotype of the community.

Here are my stereotype-busters on how to spot a “desi” home if you are out to trick or treat this Halloween:

Negative stereotype 1: Canadian homes of South Asian heritage “smell” of tadka: Tadka means tempering, typically prepared from onions and garlic, a primary base for most South Asian dishes.

I agree: the smell can be strong but only if there isn’t proper ventilation. In Canadian winters, it can be a challenge to leave the windows and doors open during cooking time, but most try and leave the kitchen window open during tempering time. As a practicing Yogi, I don’t use onions and garlic in my cooking, but I know the drill. And I know many other friends of South Asian heritage who use the same technique and there is no lingering smell in their driveway.

Stereotype-buster 1: Here is a home where people cook every day. In today’s age of frozen and fast food grocery aisles catering to overtired, working couples, struggling to raise kids in ever rising inflation, here is a desi home for you where food is prepared daily – from scratch. Even if it means you have to smell onions and garlic for a few lingering moments – a smell that will soon be overtaken by fresh aroma of vegetables and spices. And wait a minute, how about cooking at other Canadian houses? No lingering smells there? Hmm…

Negative stereotype 2: Canadian homes of South Asian heritage have a lot of vehicles: This one beats me. If a South Asian home has at least four vehicles parked in the driveway, how is that something to be mocked at?

Stereotype-buster: 2 It’s a hard working household and most likely a joint family lives there. And yes, we love to celebrate our faith – we love to put little symbols in our vehicles to remind us of the faith that guides us at every step. That is why it is called dharm (dharma), which is larger than religion – it is a code of conduct for us.

Negative stereotype 3: Canadian homes of South Asian heritage don’t decorate for Halloween: I live on a quiet street where there is a good mix of people from different cultural/racial backgrounds. My front yard has Halloween decorations but the three non-South Asian homes opposite to mine don’t.

Stereotype-buster: 3 Probably my friendly non-South Asian neighbours don’t like the gory Halloween decorations. I myself settled on cute scarecrows and pumpkins, no plastic dead bodies and fake blood in my front yard, please! Probably my neighbours don’t believe in the festival, or probably that is not their way of celebrating, but who am I to judge? But if a Canadian home (where people of South Asian heritage live) doesn’t have the decorations, it has to be judged.

Negative stereotype 4: Canadian homes of South Asian heritage are hooked to Indian TV shows: Most of the South Asian community is a first-generation immigrant, and like all first-generation immigrants from all countries, they feel drawn to shows they have been watching in India or probably live their memories through such shows, just like the Chinese or Korean or English community.

Stereotype-buster 4: The last time I checked, all households, South Asian or otherwise, immigrant or born-raised, watch television programming that include shows of all genre. Wait, isn’t that the reason television industry is so huge?

Negative stereotype 5: Canadians of South Asian heritage are overly friendly and look for a “connection” with fellow South Asians: The older South Asian generation that immigrated to Canada in their later years grew up with a real sense of community in their native lands. People knew other people thoroughly – names of parents, clan and villages. These connections helped them take care of one another in bad times and celebrate in good times.

Stereotype-buster 5: Isn’t that what we, the modernists, do on social media? Find common connections, interests and “friend” people virtually? Here is a household, who is extending warmth by finding out the real connection as opposed to a virtual. Why “like” virtual and “mock” reality?

Negative stereotype 6: Canadians of South Asian heritage are not sensitive to dietary restriction: Most stores have Halloween-related stuff in seasonal areas that include big boxes of candy – all kinds. There are no separate aisles for peanut and peanut-free candies.

Stereotype-buster 6: Is every non-South Asian fully aware of nut allergies, lactose and gluten intolerance? If a South Asian heritage Canadian hands out candies that include peanuts, how does it imply they are insensitive to someone who has an allergy to nuts? Instead, look at the gesture. Here’s this Canadian of South Asian heritage who doesn’t fully understand what Halloween means but still goes out and buys candy to hand out on Halloween night. That’s a gesture of integration. And the last I checked, buying candy with peanuts is not a crime in Canada; I guess that is why the stores openly sell them at comparable prices. Anyone in innocence can end up buying either.

I am fully sympathetic to children with allergies. I am sure their parents are extra careful and sort the candy before handing out to them.

Negative stereotype 7: Canadians of South Asian heritage love free stuff: Apparently, older kids from South Asian homes also go for trick-or-treat rounds as South Asians love free stuff.

Stereotype-buster 7: Are faces in front of the long lines the night before Boxing Day of South Asian-heritage? In this materialistic world, every person, irrespective of heritage, loves free stuff but here is a big stereotype-buster for you: South Asian community is probably the only community in Canada that hands out free food on a regular basis in their place of worship and they don’t even have to wait for special occasions to do that. Free Halloween candy? It cannot even be calculated as a fraction of what the community just doles out on a daily basis. And don’t even get me started on the Vaisakhi parade.

Negative stereotype 8: Kids of Canadians of South Asian heritage don’t wear store-bought costumes: Children of Canadians of South Asian heritage are, hold you breath, encouraged to take things from home and make their own costumes. Since such parents think buying costumes at the local drug store are a waste of money, they make costumes for their kids. Gulp!

Stereotype-buster 8: Uh my goodness! So here is a community that is teaching its kids to be creative, resourceful, recycle and be friendly to the environment and here we are, mocking them! Uh give me a break.

Here’s another piece of news: The Globe and Mail in a recent picture article, “honoured” parents who make homemade costumes. Kudos to the Globe for such a brilliant piece! In the words of Amberly McAteer, the author of the article: “Sure, it’s easy and convenient to buy Buzz Lightyear or Power Ranger costumes from a drugstore. But this year, we’re honouring the parents who cater to those truly unique kid requests, the parents who stay up all night or dedicate full days to sewing, gluing, sparkling, stuffing – whatever it takes to get the job done.”

And here we are ridiculing these parents for the same effort just because they happen to be of South Asian heritage! This leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Negative stereotype 9: Candy at homes of Canadians of South Asian heritage run out soon.

Negative stereotype 10: Canadians of South Asian heritage buy leftover candy the Halloween evening: Apparently candy at a South Asian heritage home in Canada finishes sooner than at the houses of Canadians of other heritages. Then they make a dash to the stores to get Halloween candy at a discount.

Stereotype-buster 9 and 10 (as one leads to the next): What? A household runs out of candy and the house owners make a dash to get more, so kids don’t leave disappointed from their door is funny?

End remark: Go trick or treating at a Canadian house. Don’t judge people by the colour of the skin but by their behaviour and their warm gestures. They could be of any lineage – South Asian, European, Chinese, Korean or others. And yes, do check the packaging for not only peanuts but also for any loose wrapper or suspicious looking candy – irrespective of the colour of the hand that gave it to you. Evil has no race or culture. Happy Halloween!

Categories: Canadian Identity

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10 replies

  1. Ma’am, excellent article.

  2. I wasn’t even aware these stereotypes existed…? Maybe there aren’t a lot of Canadians of South Asian heritage around where I live. Sorry if you’ve had to come up against racism and stereotypes. I generally find these things are born out of ignorance

  3. A very good debunking Anu. Stereotyping is done by people out of ignorance,a subconscious tendency to find reasons to dislike others and promote self. But let me also tell you two things. First, there is no fume without fire. When a stereotype is actually not a stereotype and it is in fact a fact ? When is a gross generalization actually just not a mere gross generalization but actually a factual habit of a community. When it is done by 70% of people ? 60% 50%? Before we play the victim card and pat on our back for educating the “mainstream” community, we need to do more introspection on our own families. While not all do, some of the points above mentioned are very much prevalent in lot of ‘desi’ families. There are all kind of people in our community. Modern, orthodox and ultra orthodox . We can not put all of them in this together but a sizeable majority are.
    Second point. We, South asian, ourselves are biggest users of stereotyping others. I dont even want to start how we gross generalize people of different communities, castes, religion and on many things. I request you debunk these stereotypes some day. And I agree we need to engage in a dialogue not in argument.

    • Thanks for the read and the comments Sandeep. I just want to clarify, I am not playing the “victim” card. No, and I am not crying racism. All I am saying through this blog post is: there is always a story behind a behaviour. As more and more communities from different nationalities, cultures come together to live in Canada, we need to engage more and more to understand the stories behind behaviours. Stereotyping is in bad taste. You have a solid point but that’s exactly my point in another way – we all need to wake up and get involved. Otherwise there will be chaos one day – one fine day… maybe in our lifetimes or maybe in the lifetimes of our children.
      Also, stay connected through my FB page: SandhuBhamra.

      • Agreed, Sure there is a chance of erupting a chaos if we become cultural fundamentalists as an over reaction to a few close minded people behaving childishly. We are definitely standing at a crossroad where we can very elegantly define the next identity of what being Canadian is or make a whole mess out of it. Multiculturalism is like having lots of colours in your hand, you can either make a rainbow off it or a muddle. If we expect others to change, we need to look at our behaviour too. Cheers.

  4. When I read the original post that you are referring to, I was actually angry, and the reason wasn’t just the stereotyping – it was the internal prejudice. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t stand it when someone from inside the community mocks the community as a whole.

    I agree with all of your points Anu, and in particular the one about “tadka”. Every culture has certain foods that have certain aromas, so what? I love that our families are still cooking daily and meeting around the dinner table – it’s a part of who we are. I also look forward to seeing the Uncles, and Aunties giving out peanuts and caramel candies at Halloween. In my mind, I’ve always thought that it was a nod to the treats we give out on Lohri (gur and moonfali) – what a beautiful fusion of traditions.

    Finally – I live in a cul-de-sac full of Indian families, and yes it smells like tadkha, almost every car has a khanda or a ganpati on the rear view mirror, and people keep their Christmas (well actually Diwali) lights up all year, but it’s a beautiful community of families. When my kids play outside, I feel a sense of safety and security. I like stopping on my way back from the kids school to chat with the Aunty next door, and I really love the smell when my neighbours are cooking makki di roti and saag because it takes me right back to my mom’s kitchen when I was a kid.

    Thank you for being the kind of “desi voice” our community actually needs!


  5. Sadly the internal prejudice stems more from our colonial “heritage” – read “baggage” rather than internally created. It’s a very tricky subject to draw in arguments – in the dialogue between one kind of desi and the other kind, we lose track of the real culprit – the destruction of “culture” by endless invasions and colonialism. I struggle myself to direct the conversation there, because that is something we all need to start talking about. Only then can we liberate ourselves from the shackles of colonial shadows.

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