Nanni, Zikomo, & Thank You

Enter alt text
By Phoebe Kurien
May 30, 2020

I wasn’t always proud of my heritage; it took me some time to feel comfortable identifying as Desi and Indian-American.

I was born in Mumbai, India to a Malayalee family who chose to immigrate to the United States when I was young. Growing up, I often felt out of place because I wanted to fit completely into a single culture. It was challenging at first to have two sets of ideas, traditions, social norms, behaviors, languages, and cuisines in my life. However, I eventually found a way to incorporate my Indian roots and American citizenship into a blended identity that gave me confidence and a sense of belonging.

Enter alt text
Celebrating Thanksgiving with family and friends

People who originate from the Indian sub-continent often affectionately refer to themselves as Desi. Derived from the Sanskrit word desa, which means ‘of the land,’ the Desi label encompasses not only the people but the culture and products that originate from South Asian countries. My childhood friends with similar backgrounds sometimes joke that we are not fully Desi and are instead ‘brownish’ since we celebrate a combination of both American and Desi culture. Being an immigrant, we found a family within the Desi community in the US since many of our biological family members live far away. I love celebrating both cultures’ holidays and traditions and have fond memories of celebrations at Diwali, Thanksgiving, Onam, and Christmas. I appreciate that I am able to celebrate the best aspects of both of these identities.

Enter alt text
Excited to join Peace Corps Malawi

When I decided to apply to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, I received a bit of opposition from my Indian family. Desi culture places a high priority on furthering your education and family. My family’s support is so important, and I needed their blessing if I wanted to fully commit to Peace Corps. By joining Peace Corps and deciding to move to Malawi for twenty-seven months, I was making a big commitment that many people in my family felt would take too much time away from school and, in a way, pause my life. Before leaving for Malawi, I found it important to have a discussion with my family all of my reasons for wanting to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer. In the end, they were able to understand the commitment I was making and support my decision.

What surprised me when I arrived in Malawi was the sizeable Desi population, particularly in urban areas. In some ways, this helped me to feel at home almost instantly because there was an echo of familiarity. Knowing that I could buy my favorite spices and lentils brought me a lot of comfort. Sometimes, I would hear Bollywood music playing on local barbershop radios that would make me want to dance along (and many times I did)!

Enter alt text
Peace Corps service often involves collaborating with local chiefs

A difference however, was that these people were Indian and Desi, not Indian-American. Many Malawians that I interacted with were familiar with people of South Asian descent but did not know much about immigrant culture. While my relatives in India knew that I expressed myself in a collective way that incorporated both of my cultural experiences, Malawians were often confused as to how I could be considered “American.” Often times when I would introduce myself, people would not believe that I was American because I do not fit the stereotype of an American with which they are familiar. Peace Corps promotes world peace and friendship through cultural exchange, with one of the goals being to provide a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served. As challenging as it was at times to be continually questioned about my roots, I appreciated being able to initiate a conversation about how Americans can be from cultures around the world. Many were shocked at the diversity in the United States. Overall, I feel privileged to have been able to share my unique identity with my community.

Enter alt text
Winnie, Phoebe, and friends

I have many beautiful memories about how I shared my heritage with my Malawian friends, one memory that I hold close to my heart was during my first week in my community. I was spending time with a new friend, Winnie. She told me that her mother wanted to gift me a chicken to cook. Winnie asked me if I needed help preparing it, which I definitely did. I had never slaughtered or plucked a chicken before. Winnie was kind enough to help by killing it and then showing me how to boil and pluck the feathers.

After preparing the chicken, I asked her if I could show her how my family sometimes likes to cook chicken. She looked at me skeptically, probably assuming that because I didn’t know how to butcher the chicken, that I also didn’t know how to cook it. My family expresses love through food, and my grandmother, who I affectionally call Ammachi (grandmother in Malayalam), taught me recipes that were passed down from generation to generation. I did my very best to make a nadan chicken curry like my Ammachi’s (although it probably would have been much better if she were cooking). I remember being so excited to share this food from my home with her and was even more thrilled that she actually liked it!

Enter alt text
Phoebe with Volunteers in her cohort at Swear In

This experience, among many others, reminded me of how much I enjoy celebrating and sharing my cultural background. I loved showing my community that the two cultures with which I identify are not mutually exclusive and that I carry stories from each with me. During the ten months I was fortunate to spend in Malawi, I shared these two cultures with my host family with whom I stayed during PST, the community where I lived and served as a Health Volunteer for eight months, and with fellow Peace Corps Volunteers and friends. From sharing stories about India and dancing to Bollywood music to sharing with community members that I am indeed American and represent a subculture of the population, I found ways to share the duality of my heritage.

Nanni, zikomo, thank you, Malawi for the incredible opportunity to share this with you.

Phoebe smiling with a fellow Volunteer