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American Born Converted Desis (ABCD)

posted Oct 23, 2010, 1:55 AM by Diana Rohini LaVigne   [ updated Oct 23, 2010, 1:56 AM ]

American Born Converted Desis:  Mainstream Americans who choose Indian way of life say attraction to culture is intangible

At a time when being westernized is the desired goal of most, some are turning away from it to seek out a more traditional way of life.

For every Indian-American teenager that refuses to wear a salwar kameez, for young professionals who don't see the point of learning Hindi, and for those who feel 'out of place' acting too Indian, "American Born Converted Desis," are here to embrace those very traditions.

Caucasians, African-Americas, Latinos and Native Americans are becoming part of this movement quickly gaining popularity nationwide.

The new ABCD has willingly accepted his or her role as a member of the Indian community and adopted a new way of life. From a doctor in Boston to a textiles specialist in Cambridge, Mass., culturally Indian minded people are becoming increasingly commonplace each day. What makes them tick? As we look into their lives, one finds there isn't just one answer to this question. 

Who Are They?

They typically don't look Indian. Racially different, these men and women tend to stand in contrast to their "desi" counterparts. But in some instances they have made such a dramatic transition that they start to look Indian with their hair dyed with henna and traditional salwar kameez suits. Every imaginable hair, eye and skin tone, every race, religion and family upbringing and every range of occupation from homemaker to chief executive officers of companies, have joined the ranks of the new ABCD group. 

Where Does The Transition Begin?

In most cases, the transition from a Western to a more Indian lifestyle starts in their very own community. Either at a satsang, a local Punjabi dance event or through music lessons, a transition sometime takes place through another Indian's efforts to keep culture alive in America. The transition might start in the United States but intensifies immensely as soon as the person visits India. Some begin the transistion through marriage to an Indian but many begin without an influence at all.

When Does the Transition Happen?

The transition doesn't happen overnight and there isn't any one time period in one's life that best suits this transition. These individuals profiled here all seemed to have made the transition through a series of experiences that exposed them to Indian culture. Over time they increasingly adopted Indian traditions and continue to do so even today. Instead of being made to feel unwelcome in their new environment, each person reports an unusually easy transition and acceptance within the Indian community.

Why Have They Become So Indian?

From spiritual enrichment to a strong sense of community, there are various reasons for the new ABCDs. They include a need to enjoy the richness of the Indian culture, to be part of its tightly knit community, to embrace its family values and to live a more simple yet deeply satisfying lifestyle.

The New ABCD Doctor

Dubbed the "obesity warrior" by Time Magazine, Dr. David S. Ludwig is the director of the Obesity Program at Boston's Children's Hospital and an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. This doctor's professional life combines cutting edge technology, scientific research and a lot of brain power. Yet this accomplished seemingly typical Caucasian medical professional leads a different way of life. Ludwig's introduction to Indian culture was through a Hindu spiritual teacher, Sant Keshavadas. Ludwig began to attend satsangs and then embarked on a pilgrimage to India with his teacher. 

"I returned from India transformed by the experience, with a deep sense of connection to the culture, people and spiritual traditions," he says. "For whatever reason, I continue to feel drawn to Indian culture and spiritual practice."

"I came to sense that India and America need each other: in the West we have such abundance of material wealth, yet far too often, life can be empty. Many in India seem to find profound meaning in life, even though very poor. Yet extreme poverty causes great suffering in India, impacting the young with particular severity," Ludwig adds.

The demands of medical school and residency are never easy to juggle but Ludwig admits he is ready to make the next big move in his life. He dreams about a wife and family some day soon and says an Indian woman who bridges the Western and Eastern cultural traditions would be a dream come true. 

The New ABCD Tabla Player 

Marilyn Gilbert, the founder of "Caring Canines Visiting Therapy Dogs," and might not seem like a likely person you would see in a crowd of Indians. But to many she is 100 percent desi. Gilbert, is married and a former student of Eastern philosophy. The Winchester, Mass. resident became enchanted first by tabla music. In 1991, she started lessons with tabla guru, Shashi Nayak.

She has an ongoing interest in North Indian classical music and ghazals. At 59, she is learning Hindi and admits can read and write the language a lot better than she can speak it. She recently joined an online Hindi speaking community and loves it. 

A mother of three, she has visited India several times and looks forward to the next trip. Gilbert enjoys attending Indian concerts, mostly of classical music, but confesses she also has tickets for an upcoming Adnan Sami concert. Her closet is full of salwar kameez suits which she enjoys wearing and she can't seem to consume enough Indian food to satisfy her appetite.

Gilbert feels Indian and has always felt fully integrated and accepted within the New England community. 

The New ABCD Indian Handicrafts Expert

Cambridge, Mass. resident, Joellen Secondo has turned her passion for India and its rich textile history, into her work as a textiles gallery manger for an Indian company. She began by working with an artisans' cooperative in Gujarat and recently, she started on a project to support stray street animals in India. She recently met with Maneka Gandhi in India about volunteering for an organization run by Gandhi, "People for Animals." Secondo works for a gallery that sells high-quality textiles from India. 

"I can see myself living part of the year in India. Whatever I do, it will involve studying and promoting the traditional handicrafts of India," she says.

She has incorporated India into her hobbies too. As a dancer for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's bhangra team, Secondo has performed this traditional Punjabi dance for several years and plans on continuing for many years to come. Secondo is surrounded by Indian culture at work, home and at play and has found her place in the desi world.

New ABCDs Are Here To Stay

Although many might think these individuals are just going through a phase, they aren't. They sincerely believe this affinity towards Indian culture will last a lifetime. 

There is no one adequate explanation for why they choose to live this way. Something deep inside their souls drives them to seek out this lifestyle out but the motivation is often quite intangible. As Gilbert explains the attraction, "Kaun janta hai. I simply feel like an ant following a trail of sugar grains."