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A Former Coconut’s Guide to Getting Cultured

Coconut: [noun] brown on the outside, white on the inside. The majority of desis use this term to describe those who have little or no appreciation of South Asian culture. These people would blend in easier with those who have lost track of their ancestry than with desis who still celebrate their traditions.

Retaining and honoring our native culture is one of the toughest aspects of growing up as an immigrant or child of an immigrant in the United States or any other non-South Asian nation. Some of us grow up with limited exposure to the motherland culture (think Sheboygan, WI) and may become isolated from its traditions and customs. Others may grow up with over-exposure to the culture (think Jackson Heights, NY), which can lead to a backlash against all things associated with the motherland.

The high water mark for diversity in my school district was most likely two or three families (including mine) from the entire continent of Asia. There were no other South Asian families. During my senior year in high school, a Korean family moved into the district. Needless to say, I found this to be very exciting news. It wasn’t that I didn’t grow up entirely without Bangladeshi or South Asian friends. However, my cultural exposure was sporadic at best and often felt forced. I would have much rather watched football or gone to the Christmas dance with that cute African-American girl. I did not disrespect my culture, but it wasn’t something that was of utmost importance to me. It wasn’t until college that I began to feel any connection to my culture.

My muse for shedding the Coconut-ness was a girl (and to my friends, no not because of that one). One of the major reasons that I joined the Indian Subcontinent Association of my university was because I saw a desi girl in the library one night and nearly walked into a wall because I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I stayed involved because I began to learn that there is a balance to be maintained between how we conduct ourselves as Americans and how we represent ourselves to the rest of the world as Desis or South Asians. There are many identities we can claim but our cultural identity is just as important as anything else.

There are a number of aspects of the culture that you will benefit from learning if you wish to balance your life culturally.


Language is the gateway, the heart and soul of the cultures and societies of South Asia. The very states of India are divided along linguistic lines, which delineate the sub-cultures within the greater moniker of being South Asian. Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan because the Bangladeshi people refused to let their language be subjugated. Pakistani’s are rightfully proud of their languages, Sindhi, Baluchi, Pashtun and Urdu.

If you speak your parents’ native language, you’re ahead of the curve. My nieces in Bangladesh once asked me to speak English with them rather than Bangla. My Bangla is passable but I’ve labored over the years to improve my proficiency. It’s brought me closer to my culture and my relatives back in the motherland, even though they still can’t help but laugh when I trip over the language.


The most visible films coming out of South Asia are from Bollywood, the prolific Hindi film industry of Bombay. Bollywood films are sometimes called masala movies because they mix a number of different elements, song & dance numbers, random scene and costume changes, formulaic plots, star-crossed lovers, big fight scenes, and most notably, a lot of melodrama. Bollywood films are sometimes moralistic in tone, they stress communal & religious harmony and the paramount importance of the Indian family.

The important thing to do when learning how to deal with Bollywood movies is to leave all sense of pretension at the door. Quite often, these movies are simple entertainment with little or no social or political pretext, with nothing deep to think about. Just relax, bite back the cringes, and enjoy them on a surface level.

If you can’t get past the melodrama of Bollywood, there are serious films coming out of the subcontinent. Directors such as Mira Nair, Tareque Masud and Deepa Mehta have recently made critically acclaimed movies that deal seriously with caste, homosexuality, women’s rights, religious conflict, child abuse, and the balance of tradition versus progress in the lives of young South Asians. Likewise, films produced in Bengali, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu offer an alternative to Bollywood.


Bhangra is a popular form of music and dance from the Punjab regions of India and Pakistan. It is a combination of dance, singing, and beat of a drum (dhol), along with a single stringed instrument called the iktar (ektara), and other assorted instruments. Bhangra songs and dances largely deal with love, patriotism, and celebrating the harvest.

These days, Bhangra is remixed with reggae, hip hop, techno, house, and other electronic forms of music. Traditional Bhangra (like the songs & dances of Bollywood) will tend to look overdramatic and exaggerated for those who are unfamiliar with its conventions. I don’t particularly understand the reasons behind the hand movements and poses in Bhangra. It is an experience unique to South Asian culture.

The music of Bollywood movies (called filmi songs) is the other popular form of music from the subcontinent. Filmi songs are often about love, longing, or mourning. They are the most melodramatic and fanciful element of Bollywood movies.

Traditional South Asian music is often serious and solemn. It can be enjoyed at face value but is still arguably the most difficult part of the culture to appreciate. Apprentices study the sitar and tabla for years to be proficient in their uses. Traditional music deals with every conceivable theme from religion and spirituality to nature, from nationalism and patriotism to issues of love and loss.


Let’s face it, this should be easiest part of South Asian culture to learn and appreciate. We just look good in desi clothes. Traditional elements for men include punjabi’s, kurta’s, and sherwani’s. These are elegant, simple pieces that are easy to wear and maintain. Women have a greater range of fashions to choose from – salwar kameez, lehenga’s, and sari’s being the most prominent examples. South Asian fashions are easily mixed with casual western styles. It wouldn’t look unwieldy to wear a punjabi with jeans.


Easily the most universally accessible aspect of South Asian culture is literature. From the early writings of Rabindranath Tagore and Sarat Chandra Chatterjee to modern writers such as Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Monica Ali, South Asian writers deal with a great breadth of topics. Roy’s acclaimed is a triumph of prose which feels like poetry. Lahiri may best speak for the coconut in us all with her stories of the cultural struggles of South Asian immigrant families, while Ali’s debut Brick Lane is a commentary on the issues of assimilation and identity faced by immigrants in England.

The vedic literatures of Hinduism such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads trace the spiritual underpinnings of all South Asian culture and are available in a variety of translations. The subcontinent is also the birthplace of Buddhism and its major writings, notably the Dhammapada.

My journey started with nearly walking into a wall because of that girl in the library, but it continued because I love history and began to learn everything I could about the history of the subcontinent. Ultimately, there is no substitute for having good South Asian friends, regardless of sub-ethnicity or nationality. My best friends are Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Indian: Bengali, Kannadiga, Punjabi, Sindhi, and Gujrati. They understand the pull of the homeland and the “amrikan” world as well as any. It’s not impossible to find among our ranks those who will cringe as much at Hindi films as you do, love football, or had almost shoulder length hair in high school.

There are many aspects of our culture that you can become familiar with, that will enable you to carve out your own niche, your own balance. It’s a long and ultimately rewarding journey, depending on what path you choose. As a wise man once said, Tradition lives because young people come along who capture it and add new glories to it. – MAHER HOQUE

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