COLUMN: Language isn’t everything

By Kaavya Butaney, Staff Writer

“Vāyai mūṭu!” my cousin yelled at me. This phrase means “shut up” in Tamil, but three months ago, I had no idea what it meant. 

When my cousin realized that I hadn’t understood him, he called me a “typical American.” Although I shrugged it off at the time, the comment has stuck with me since. And believe me, the sentiment has been echoed a thousand times. Many people have called me something of the sort.

When I was younger, not being able to speak an Indian language was acceptable. I was too young to realize it could be an insult. But as a teenager, my Desi identity is constantly under attack—judgemental acquaintances and relatives call me a “coconut,” “bad Indian,” “fake Indian” and a thousand other variants. The judge, jury and executioner of scathing spectators decided that, because I can’t speak any Indian language, I’m not actually Desi-American—that I’m just a coconut—brown on the outside and white on the inside.

To be fair, it’s easy to call me uncultured, if you don’t know me all that well. After all, I grew up in an English-speaking country and never learned more than a couple of words in Hindi. As a kid, I didn’t even notice that being Indian set me apart from others—that taking off my shoes or referring to food in Hindi wasn’t “normal.” But as I grew older, I began to weigh where I stood between these seemingly polar cultures.

Over time, as I matured and met more Desis, all with varying backgrounds, I discovered that I could strike a balance between the two: I could bond with someone over alu jeera (an Indian dish made of potato and cumin) on my right and complain about “Of Mice and Men ” with someone on my left. 

However, despite embracing Desi-American culture in my different facets of my life, many still consider me a shell of a Desi-American, a coconut who can’t even speak her mother tongue, often making me doubt my identity. How can I be Desi-American if I don’t speak a single Desi language? How can I claim to embody Desi culture when I can’t fold my tongue into a single sentence of Hindi?

But eventually, I realized that it doesn’t matter. Language isn’t the end-all-be-all of my Desi-ness; culture isn’t just language, it’s also art, literature, food and clothing. Those are the things that will stay with me for my entire life.

If I ever have children, they’ll probably call me “Amma,” not “Mom.” When I learn to cook, I’ll learn sambhar before spaghetti and meatballs and palak paneer before mac ‘n’ cheese. I can’t erase the brown of my skin, and I can’t erase Desi culture from my life. I can’t erase American culture from it either.

But maybe that’s okay. As much as I resent people who say I’m a fake Desi, there’s no real way to prove I’m Desi because there’s no objective metric. It’s up to me to decide who I am. And, there’s no dilemma, because I can be both. I will be both.