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American Girl's doll of the year is from Metuchen

Kavi loves Bollywood and Broadway, and she's one more way Desi Americans are gaining prominence

Naya saal mubarak! Happy New Year! Last month, we focused on the South Asian Christian community and highlighted some uniquely Desi Christmas traditions. NBC also did a piece about how many non-Christians of South Asian origin have adopted Christmas traditions here in America. It's worth a read to get a sense of how Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus also find joy at this time of year that is so festive in the United States, and how some of them also wrestle with feelings of discomfort that they may be appropriating someone else's holiday.

I didn't grow up celebrating Christmas, but I do remember how left out I felt as a child when all my friends were receiving gifts and planning reunions with family. When I learned in college that many Jews "celebrated" Christmas by going out for Chinese food, since those restaurants tended to be open, I felt a bit of an opening within myself at the possibilities of how you can make a holiday your own (in the same way that our town now holds a springtime "color run" that amounts to a Holi festival-turn-5k fundraiser.) I appreciated how many Jewish families had found a way to turn a downside — the closing of nearly everything on this Christian holiday — into a tradition of its own. A Christmas dinner of steaming lo mein and eggplant with garlic sauce sounds pretty good to me!

As a parent, I have happily embraced Christmas traditions to spare my children the feeling of being left out, and we use the season as an occasion to mark the end of one year and the start of another. Indeed, in the weeks after the Christmas and Hanukkah cards have arrived from our friends who celebrate those holidays, we get a fresh batch of New Year cards from many of our Muslim friends who have found their own way to partake in the traditions of this time of year.

As I considered what family traditions we could build around this season, I challenged my Texan husband to a chili cook-off. He slow roasted a brisket and made what I think of as "cowboy chili" — no beans, topped with Fritos — while I made a sweet potato and black bean version with chipotle chilies that I felt honored my West Coast, veggie-leaning origins.

We invited over the neighbors, set out bowls of toppings and passed out the tasting cups. His was definitely the more popular chili, but I think we all won as we let the kids stay up late and toasted to a 2023 filled with many more good meals with great friends.

Gathering in community is what this newsletter is all about. I hope that we get many more opportunities to connect — in person or via inbox — in the year ahead.

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Here's what is going on in and around New Jersey this month.

Metuchen shout-out from the toy aisle: American Girl has selected a South Asian American doll to be the Girl of the Year for the first time. Her name is Kavi Sharma and her backstory, as all American Girl dolls have if you’re not familiar with the franchise, is that she “grew up with her tight-knit Indian American family in Metuchen, N.J.” Kavi retails for $115 and comes with “a vibrant Bollywood dance costume” and a dog named Scamper. Author Varsha Bajaj will release a book about the fictional character later this year called It’s Showtime, Kavi, which Bajaj says will include “slivers of Indian culture” including yoga, dance, food and Indian festivals. (Philadelphia Inquirer)

NJ sees spike in hate crimes: A feature story in NJ Monthly highlights the rise of white supremacy and hate crimes in the Garden State over the last year. The article focuses on anti-semitic incidents and attacks on Black residents, but it should also have highlighted the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans and Muslims in this state — communities that have come under fire repeatedly in recent decades.

Those incidents included an auto technician who arrived at work one day to find bacon stuffed into his work shirt, pants and boots after his boss had made jokes about Arabs blowing things up. Just a few weeks later, a woman was arrested for assaulting two Muslim teenagers at a nail salon. These pale in comparison to the very real murders and physical attacks on Asian Americans, many of them elderly, in and around New York City.

Last year, Gov. Phil Murphy held a roundtable on the dramatic increase of hate crimes against Asians in New Jersey. Anti-Chinese rhetoric and taunting of racial and sexual minorities in schools has been particularly disturbing, with Murphy remarking, “If our numbers are increasing — in part because of this willingness to step forward — that begs the question: How many previous acts have gone unreported and how many of our fellow New Jerseyans suffered silently at the hands and mouths of their tormentors?” (NJ.com)

The Desi vote matters: South Asian American voters in states like NJ shaped the results of the midterm elections in fall, according to Democratic grassroots group South Asians for America, which partnered with organizations in 11 states, including New Jersey, to mobilize voters ahead of the November election. Exit poll data found that 60% of Asian Americans backed Democrats. (The American Bazaar)

Of course, you know from reading Central Desi that South Asians also voted for Republicans in New Jersey and that the community is far from a monolith. Several of the Desi politicians who ran for office this past cycle are conservatives, and there is a battle underway in the Garden State as leaders of both parties try to win over young voters of color.

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