Rise up, Desis of New Jersey!
Let's take a moment to explain why we're here....
Welcome to the inaugural issue of Central Desi, a monthly newsletter by and about South Asians in New Jersey. I'm Ambreen Ali, a longtime political and business journalist as well as a West Coast native who never expected to land here. Now, I'm raising three Jersey kids on lots of pizza in Mercer County, and I'm trying to teach them about a thing or two about their heritage along the way.
The one thing I knew about New Jersey long before moving here was that it was home to lots of Desis. Some might call it "Desi Central."
When I lived in DC, my friends and I would be so excited about the opportunity to stop in Edison on road trips to New York. We'd gorge on samosas and gawk at all the sari shops on Oak Tree Road — a very visible marker of the way our community was reshaping America.
Yet living here, I am constantly surprised by how little people who are not Desi know about the vibrant South Asian culture in the state. As a journalist covering local news in New Jersey, I've noticed a gap as wide as Route 1 in the current media landscape: the absence of well-told, nuanced stories about us.
Did you know that a 2019 report found that leaders in our community say that we are invisible? This is despite the fact that Asian Americans are the fastest growing demographic in New Jersey. This state has the highest percentages of Hindu and Muslim residents in the nation. The community is predominantly Indian, but the NYC metro area is also home to the some of the largest communities of Bangladeshis, Nepalis, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans in the US.
Many of us are now children of immigrants, and we are reshaping the state as we shape our hyphenated identities. This project is my attempt to tell that story. I developed it with the help of the CUNY J-School, and you can read more about that on their blog.
In this newsletter, I will explore the many aspects of this experience — from the political to the personal. We'll tackle a different topic each month, and I will put on my reporter's hat to bring you well-researched stories and voices from within the community. Below you'll see our first story, a lighthearted one about "Ms. Marvel" and the cultural moment it represents, as well as an interview with a community leader.
As we move forward, I want to hear from you. Hit reply and send me a quick note about yourself and what matters most to you about this community. What topics do you want to see covered? I'll read every email, and I look forward to being in conversation about how to lift each other up.
TAAZI KHABAR: 'Ms. Marvel' celebrates a different Jersey
Photo by Daniel McFadden. ©Marvel Studios 2022
Never in a million years would I have thought that Marvel Studios would be the one to teach my kids about Partition, that wound inflicted upon South Asia as Indians marched towards independence from British rule in 1947. (That's not really a spoiler, but feel free to skip reading this until you've watched the series.)
The division of the Indian subcontinent into the nation state of India, flanked on either side by a portion of Pakistan, has had devastating consequences — the senseless killing of 1 million people, the displacement of many fold more and numerous subsequent wars that have left the region divided. The Partition has divided our community, in South Asia and abroad, in seemingly irreconcilable ways.
In "Ms. Marvel," Kamala Khan is a comics-obsessed high school kid from Jersey City whose dreams come true when she gains superpowers. She slowly realizes that the trauma of her family's migration during Partition continues to haunt them even in America. The show skillfully connects the lines between then and now.
Its depictions of South Asian American life are just as groundbreaking. Desi viewers will find themselves relishing in the one-liners ("You want to go to a party, at night? Is this a joke," Kamala's mother asks her 16-year-old daughter at one point) and quirky subplots (Nakia's designer shoes being stolen at the mosque) that serve as a head nod to our lived experience.
As I've watched the episodes with my kids, here are my favorite references to brown Jersey life in the show:
The Gyro King: Najaf is a hustler of the best kind, a self-proclaimed king of halal food trucks. The scenes of Kamala and Bruno hanging around the food cart are so NJ/NY. It's particularly hilarious when Najaf negotiates exclusive catering rights to masjid events in exchange for his board election vote. We're rooting for his success!
That wedding scene: Desi weddings are big everywhere, and New Jersey is no exception. The Corinthian-esque columns in the lobby where the final fight scene takes place in Episode 3 are very Jersey Desi wedding, though. In the Garden State, many wedding venues celebrate the Old World architecture of Europe, a result of the other immigrant communities that have preceded us here. (The exterior shots and lobby scene were actually filmed at a ballroom in Georgia, and you probably won't be surprised at all to know that the wedding hall itself was in a Marriott Marquis.)
The Eid mela: How cute is it that Bruno wears shalwar kameez to celebrate Eid with his bestie in Episode 2? The mosque's celebration, which really looks like an outdoors farmer's market in a parking lot, is a quintessential Eid festival: street vendors, carnival games, gossiping aunties and, of course, a party that doesn't stop until well past dark. Kamala tells us it's the "lesser one," so we know it's Eid-ul-Adha, which comes just two months after the bigger Eid, but that isn't stopping this community from going hard. Yup, that sounds like us.
GUP SHUP: Hinna Scully, brown mommy extraordinaire
Courtesy of Hinna Scully
If you're a Desi mom, chances are you've come across Central Jersey Brown Mommies Unite. The Facebook Group has more than 9,200 members, and it serves as a safe space to ask questions about parenting, relationships, jobs, babysitters and basically anything else. Recent posts ranged from an emergency request for a DJ in East Brunswick to advice on whether a secretly rekindled friendship is breaking marital trust.
The woman behind the group is Hinna Scully, a Jersey girl who launched the Facebook group in 2014 after leaving an arranged marriage. She felt the cultural taboo of divorce and went hunting for a support system online. When she came up empty, she decided to create one. The group had 1,000 members within a year and has kept growing since, with members from the tri-state region and beyond. Hinna keeps the definitions of "brown" and "mommy" loose, welcoming anyone who connects with those labels. Here's more from our recent chat:
Why do you think the group has been so successful?H: It was really formed out of a gap in my own life. I was in a bubble of lonesomeness after my divorce and was having trouble making adult friendships like many people do. The group provides people a place to get advice, whether it's a review of a local doctor or dilemmas at home that are culturally specific. But even more than that, it's a place to receive warm and empathetic responses to your problems.
What is the hardest part of being the moderator?H: Sometimes people are just not nice and patient, and they get awfully rude. Other than that, the group seems to run itself. There was a time when I felt like I had to answer every question, and that took a lot more time.
What has been most rewarding about it?H: It’s been so rewarding to see the beauty and support. When one person struggles and another offers support, that’s the real reward. I hope we keep showing up for others with kindness and an open mind and heart. Before COVID, we had in-person meetups and that is something I hope we can do again. We have all connected online, but it's definitely a different vibe when you meet in person. You can see friendships forming before your eyes. It's such a gift for the community.
The anonymous posts can be so harrowing at times, with women sharing difficult situations with in-laws or serious challenges in their marriage. How do you cope with hearing those stories?H: Sometimes we think we're crazy because we are going through something, or we feel guilt. We've all been in some situation or another that an anonymous mom has posted. Hearing somebody say they went through the same creates camaraderie. The group is so beautifully empowering, because often the responses to those posts start with hugs. I've been through it myself. People will PM saying, "I'll talk to you. Let's get coffee." The fact that the group is geographically inclined helps people connect more face to face as situations allow and give you that outlet.
While I have you, what's your favorite Desi restaurant in Central Jersey?My favorite thing that I actually get at the fanciest restaurants is daal chawal. It's hard to choose just one place, but I'd recommend the maash ki daal at Chai Chenak, tadka daal at Good Food by Uzma, and daal soup at Bollywood Tadka.
Thank you, Hinna, for speaking with us and kicking off our community conversation series!
That's it for this month! If you enjoyed this newsletter, please forward it to every brown person in your inbox and tell them to subscribe. For this to be an inclusive space, I have to reach beyond my own personal network. Let's make this a place for all Desis regardless of background, class or creed.
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