Gender & Identity, Life

I’m South Indian, but my Desi friends think it’s okay to make fun of that

“Yaar, we mostly get those dirty South Indians shopping around here. Always talking so loudly.”

I can speak broken Hindi and understand the majority of it, thanks to hours of Bollywood stars crooning ballads in the language. I hear Urdu, a very similar language, spoken around me at my mosque.

They’re pretty languages, but they’re not my language.

I grew up speaking Malayalam, a Dravidian language primarily spoken in Kerala, a state in South India. It’s a language of “r”s and “nj”s, loopy letters that curl around one other.

[bctt tweet=”They’re pretty languages, but they’re not my language.” username=”wearethetempest”]

The word Malayalam itself is a palindrome. It’s hard for others to pronounce out loud, but it comes easily to my tongue. I was born in Kerala, and practically my entire lineage can be traced to the state. One of the prettiest states in India, it is known for the beautiful coconut trees and riverboats, and the highest literacy rate of the country.

America is a land far, far away to the people there, so when my family moved to the United States, we were initially ecstatic to find quite a prominent South Asian community in the city we relocated to.

But I soon realized that much of the time, “South Asian” ignores South Indians.

Even as a young girl, I understood that there was little to no South Indian representation or recognition in the American media. If a beauty magazine was graced with a South Asian model, or if a film or television show featured a “token brown guy,” it was almost certainly a North Indian or a Pakistani.

[bctt tweet=”In elementary school, I learned the stereotypes people associated with South India.” username=”wearethetempest”]

In elementary school, I first learned the ugly stereotypes people associated with South India.

My first encounter with such a stereotype was shopping with my mother at an exhibition for South Asian clothing. A vendor smiled at my mother and chatted away as we rifled through the racks of shalwar kameez. When my mother asked how the business was, the vendor let her true colors show.

Yaar, we mostly get those dirty South Indians shopping around here. Always talking so loudly.”

In a quick glance, she had assumed that my mother’s hijab denoted that we were North Indians or Pakistanis and made the rude comment. My mouth dropped open, but my mother silently continued to look through the rack.

Such experiences were common. Among members of our mosque, the signs were more subtle but unmistakable. It’s a very friendly community of (mostly Pakistani) people who were largely genuinely welcoming- yet there were still those who turned their noses up a little or colored their sentences with a tone of slight dislike. Maybe subconsciously, but still.

People didn’t believe I was Muslim because I was South Indian. A Pakistani friend asked me if we had access to air conditioning, and whether we took showers. And I felt powerless in the midst of such stereotypes and cruel jokes because there was so little representation out there.

[bctt tweet=”It’s not okay for you to make fun of South Indian culture, even if you’re from South Asia.” username=”wearethetempest”]

That powerlessness, the thoughtless question by the vendor, the subtle looks and jokes: those are why it’s not okay for you to make fun of South Indian culture, even if you are from another part of South Asia. Sure, we might be able to bathe in the intensity of Hrithik Roshan’s smolders or sing along to Shah Rukh Khan classics together because we are both South Asian, but a handful of shared experiences don’t make it okay for you to assume you can mock the cadence of Malayalam or wrinkle your nose at the smell of my food.

And us South Indians? We have unique shared experiences. There’s a biting sense of humor that only my Malayali friends understand, and there’s delicacies that only other South Indian friends appreciate. I still can’t say Malayalam without bewildered looks from white people, and I don’t have the popularity of Bollywood to reference, but out of all the places in South Asia, I would still choose Kerala again, and again, and again.

This year, I vow to watch more movies in Malayalam and maybe bring in some baked South Indian goods to school. The first step starts with me, after all.