Desi Diaries: Community conversations for South Asian students at SFU
A peer support group is helping South Asian SFU students navigate life’s challenges together.
Navigating questions around mental health, relationships, and life, in general, can be a challenge. But it’s often much easier when you know you’re not alone.
That’s the rationale behind the Desi Diaries, a peer support group helping South Asian students at Simon Fraser University tackle life’s challenges in a communal, conversational fashion.
The initiative is led in part by Shereen Khan, a registered clinical counsellor at SFU. Having worked from Abu Dhabi to the Lower Mainland for nearly 20 years, Khan has a breadth of experience in clinical counselling and navigating life as a South Asian person.
Khan recently came in to help facilitate the program, which was inspired by a workshop series last year to help South Asian students with their mental health.
After students gave feedback on the initial pilot project, Khan and Desi Diaries co-creator Harp Shergill learned that students were looking for a more conversational space to discuss their perspectives.
“I think students wanted the space to be more about themselves talking, rather than [being given] a lecture on mental health,” said Khan. “That’s all great, individualistic one-on-one sessions, but there needs to be an outlet or space for people to be able to come together.”
Khan and Shergill created Desi Diaries to be more of a conversational space, and included discussion sessions centred around various topics, from mental health to building healthy relationships, and embracing one’s identity.
While many of these discussions include challenges faced by more than just South Asian students, Khan says it’s important to have spaces to discuss questions like these since they often play out differently in a non-Western cultural context—for example, when it comes to parental expectations.
“It’s pretty common where the norm is to stay at home until you move or get married… whereas the norms of other families are, when you’re done high school, to start paying rent or move out,” said Khan.
“[So] living at home was one of the topics we had where people knew, ‘OK, this is something that impacts me, and that’s when I’m going to drop in and gain some insight.’”
Many of the students attending the workshops are first or second generation immigrants navigating a Canadian cultural context alongside their own cultural background. Khan says it can be a tricky thing to make sense of your identity in this way, especially when it leads to a clash between generations.
But despite the challenge, or perhaps because of it, Khan says the Desi Diaries conversations can offer a surprising level of insight, which in turn helps students make sense of their identity on an even deeper level.
“What parts of your identity do you choose to embrace? What parts of your identity do you try to keep concealed? We all have this internalized prejudice and [we’re] able to talk about that. It’s really interesting because there’s a lot of post-colonial thinking that you get into [about] what influences our perception of ourselves,” said Khan.
Khan says that conversations on topics like mental health or gender and sexuality can sometimes be more challenging within a South Asian context. But she offers a wrinkle in Western narratives about why that is really the case.
Khan notes that Western culture is often more individualistic, while family and community ties are often stronger for non-Western individuals. Not only does this lead to different expectations around things like family responsibilities, it can also add a layer of complexity to conversations that are taboo for Western and Desi communities alike.
“I don’t want to sound like it’s only Eastern culture: In the majority of the Western culture mental health is still stigmatized. But it’s a little bit more pronounced because it’s such a collectivist culture,” said Khan. “So if something happens to one individual, let’s say stigma or shame, then it impacts everybody else.
“Even if someone is to seek help, they have to think about, ‘If I were to get found out, what would the impact be on my family? What would the impact be on my siblings?’”
When it comes to managing relationships and expectations, one of the most consistent pieces of advice she’s been able to give is that affirming your needs doesn’t make a person any less Desi.
“‘Boundaries’ is not a bad word,” said Khan. “Oftentimes there is this perception that if we have to uphold boundaries or if we have to ask for our needs, we are being too individualistic and going against our culture. It’s actually not true: You can do both. You can have a voice and still be part of your family and your culture.
“People tend to do this black-and-white thinking where it’s either my way or it’s my parents’ way. And oftentimes it’s really a negotiation, in any relationship.”
For Khan, it’s the communitary approach students have pushed for that makes Desi Diaries such an effective program. As a lifelong counsellor, Khan knows the value of the traditional one-on-one approach to dealing with life’s challenges, but says there’s so much value in using community conversations to tackle life’s challenges.
She said it helps people learn what’s normal in family relationships and what isn’t, and it allows students to bounce ideas off each other on how to handle difficult conversations, as well as helping them develop an even greater understanding of their culture and community.
“They wouldn’t know if it’s a problem if they didn’t know what the norms are,” said Khan. “And if we’re all living in silos and not sharing, especially the difference between what we think the stereotype is for a South Asian family culture versus what people’s lived experiences are… This is where that space [is] to actually explore that.”