Three Questions People Need to Stop Asking Desis

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I am very proud of my identity. I am proud to talk about my culture and my traditions. But, like everyone, I have a limit to how much I can actually talk about it and how I respond to certain questions.

Western assumptions about South Asia, and specifically, South Asian people, are usually misinformed. Growing up, there weren’t a lot of South Asians in my schools, and people were all too curious about what it was like to be one. I’ve been hearing the same questions since I was very young, and I’m sure other Desis have too. Though are a lot of questions that test my patience, the following three are ones I hope I never have to be asked again.

1. "Do you have to get an arranged marriage?"

This is the question I get asked most often, and it’s exhausting. I know why people ask me. Arranged marriage doesn’t really exist in the U.S., but it’s a very common practice in South Asia. I understand that you may be curious about the illustrious practice of arranged marriage or you might think it’s barbaric and want a first hand account about it, but it’s actually a very personal question.

Would you ask someone you just met if they know who they are going to marry? I know I wouldn’t, but I’ve had it happen to me a lot. People always want a definitive answer, but for me, the only thing I can say is that I have no idea. I don’t expect others to know who they are going to marry or when they are getting married, so I don’t see why I and other Desi girls have to know.

I think out of all the questions, this is my least favorite because the people that ask this question just want to know my answers; they don’t want to understand the concept of arranged marriage. There is a common stereotype is that arranged marriage is when a young, innocent girl is pawned off to an older, mean man, but in most cases that is far from the truth.

It’s okay to ask this question because it’s something that a lot of people are curious about. But, it is best to ask this question to someone you have known for a while who is comfortable talking to you about their life and their traditions.

 

2. "Are you Indian?"

I don’t know how many more times I have to say this: India is not the only country in South Asia. Asking every South Asian person you meet if they are from India is like asking every American if they are from New York. Not every American is from New York, and likewise, not every South Asian is from India.

Like I said before, I’m from Bangladesh, and I have had so many people think I’m Indian. Bangladesh is not India nor is it in India, and I’ve had people insist that they are the same thing. Though Indians and Bengalis look and dress very similarly because they are from the same region of the world, it is not okay to assume that they are one and the same. Saying things like “well they’re basically the same” is diminishing my culture and my heritage and lumping it with a different culture so it’s easier for you to remember where I’m from.

That is not okay. I understand that you want to know where I’m from because maybe it’s a place that you’ve never heard of or you don’t know anyone else from there, but you don’t always need to ask someone where they are from in order to have conversation with them. I’ll take “How are you?” over “Are you Indian” any day.

 

 

3. "Do you speak [South Asian language]? Say something in it for me!"

This question always turned into an awkward conversation. Well, it’s not so much the question as it is the “say something in it” part. 

I don’t mind being asked about my language, but do I mind being asked to put on a show. My language is not for show and tell. It’s a part of my life and my culture; it’s not here so you can hear “cool sounds.” Wanting to know more about South Asian people and their language is great, but don’t do it at the expense of their comfort.

I don’t want to give off the impression that I hate talking about my heritage, culture, language, or upbringing. I am more than happy to talk about my life and experiences with people who want to know. But these questions are not the way to facilitate that kind of conversation. They make me uncomfortable, and I’m sure they make others uncomfortable as well.

 

With such a violent political climate, it’s incredibly important to be an ally during this time. I hope these questions can help you start to navigate how to do that.

About The Author

Ila Mostafa is currently a Neuroscience major at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. Reading and writing are two of her greatest loves, along with ice cream and red lipstick. When she's not writing or studying, Ila is usually watching TV or voicing her disdain for water chestnuts and the patriarchy.