And then I got roped into Nazar in my second semester. It turned out to be a full-blown relationship with a, yes, South Asian organization that, in fact, garnered me most of my friends who are, indeed, desi.
For the past four years, I could count on perhaps three fingers the number of friends I had who were non-South Asian. I realize I sound like a paranoid–and quite frankly desperate–anti-racist. But this is the United States of America, the melting pot to rival a fondue fanatic’s fantasy. Wasn’t I supposed to have a rainbow-colored collection of friends?
There was also the fact that in Singapore, which is nearly as staunchly multicultural as the US, all my close friends are Indian. I certainly didn’t choose them for their Indian-ness, but it made me wonder if I had some sort of inherent, unconscious barrier against making friends with non-desis (i.e. was I racist?)
To be honest, my majors don’t quite afford me the chance to meet non-Indians. Throw a flash drive in any direction and you’ll hit a desi square in the eye in the engineering buildings. The real minority are the Caucasians.
And because engineering is the sort of major that affords rather less sleeping and eating time than many others, encounters with fellow Plan II students are rare outside of class.
The am-I-racist thing is really just one part of the equation, really — it was more to do with belonging. Why, in my extended sojourns in two multi-ethnic societies, had I never had a glimpse into the way the rest of the country lived and thought and spoke? And my American-born Indian friends seemed to mix so easily, so casually, with their non-Indian friends. Was it some sort of inherent American-ness that smoothed over any differences? And where could I get some of that?
But things began changing once I started work at the Undergraduate Writing Center this semester. In order to work as an undergraduate consultant, I had to take a preparatory internship course, and nearly all my classmates became my colleagues.
In between consultations, we’d hang out in the break room, cheerfully insulting other people’s grammar and talking about Internet memes, favorite books, the most boring American cities to live in, and other such random nonsense. It took me a while, but I finally caught on: I could have fascinating conversations with these people even if none of them were Indian.
I could have slapped myself. Well, duh. Perhaps I’d been deluded by Nazar itself — long, rambling post-meeting conversations over Asian food were almost always over South Asian music, South Asian politics, South Asian movies and issues. These were the things I’d grown up with, the things I’d become the most comfortable hearing or talking about over the years.
But I have other fascinations as well — grammar (more an obsession than an interest, to be honest), jazz, science and science fiction, English literature — that my desi friends aren’t always interested in*. And it makes sense that I’d take to friends who shared those other interests.
Sometimes, I think, the simplest things are the hardest to learn.
A lot is being said these days about how race and racism can be treated in dialogues. Talk about the differences, researchers are saying. Identify the things that make us different so we don’t have to tiptoe around them — and then accept them.
But there’s also something to be said about emphasizing similarities. Not just the truism of “we’re all the same”, but the reminder that you don’t have to be white to appreciate dead male English authors, or black to like rap, or desi to like Bollywood.
*This is not to say that desis only talk about desi things, obviously. Lately there’s been a K- and J-pop revolution within Nazar, where half the table is discussing very pretty East Asian boys and the other half of the table is smoking metaphorical cigars and talking politics.