Shalini Shankar, an anthropologist at Northwestern University, came out with "Desi Land: Teen Culture, Class and Success in Silicon Valley" (Duke Univ. Press) several months ago. Since there's still a relatively small body of academic work on South Asian Americans, we asked her to tell us a little about her research - which involved considerable hanging-out in high schools - and share some of her findings. At the end, she's provided a very useful list of texts that deal with South Asian youth and the diaspora.
By the way, if you're an academic and have a new book with somewhat broad appeal, let us know. All we ask is that you cut down on the academese, ie., keep it simple.
Researching and writing "Desi Land," by Shalini Shankar
What does it mean to be a successful Desi? "Desi Land" is my ethnographic account of South Asian American youth culture during and after the Silicon Valley dot-com boom. I examine how Desis define and manage what it means to be successful individuals and community members, and how teenagers orient themselves to their diverse high schools and consider their lives afterwards. I conducted the majority of my research between 1999-2001, when the high tech industry peaked. I did fieldwork with Desi teens in their diverse, over-enrolled public high schools, as well as in their large, bustling communities organized along linguistic, ethnic, and religious lines. I was interested in understanding their concerns in schools and communities, and how these overlapped.
When I began research in the fall of 1999, I didn’t realize how perfect my timing was, and that I would catch the height of the dot-com boom and witness its gut-wrenching collapse in Silicon Valley. I was most interested in how families of different immigration histories and class backgrounds had migrated to Silicon Valley, and the diverse trajectories that brought them there. For instance, were they first generation immigrants from India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh who were drawn to opportunities in the high-tech field? Were they third generation immigrants from Punjab who were looking for less back-breaking work than the agricultural jobs their families had held in other regions of California? Had they moved from the UK, Africa, Fiji, or some other location in the South Asian diaspora? All of these paths interested me, because I wanted to understand how this diverse range of experiences could differently shape what it means to be “Desi” for the diverse range of teens who are grouped under this heading, and why the “Land” of Silicon Valley provided a unique and distinctive location in which to examine these questions.
Keeping up with the Kapoors
The concept “Desi community” is often used in public discourse, but what does that really look like in particular places? Over the past few decades, the surge in high-tech jobs has made Silicon Valley an attractive place for families in search of lucrative careers as well as steady, well-paying non-skilled labor positions. I sought to understand how Desi communities in Silicon Valley have grown from small, often socially isolated sets of families to dynamic, visible entities. I describe how middle-class and upper-middle-class Desis organize themselves into communities based on shared religion, language, nationality, class status, geographical proximity, and sometimes caste. From building places of religious worship to supporting one another in business, politics, and social endeavors, these Desi community networks are especially invaluable during times of economic, political, and social instability. Not surprisingly, they are also a hotbed of gossip that spans school and community settings. While class is not an openly discussed topic, I could see that it fundamentally shaped the experiences of youth and wanted to understand how this was happening. The majority of studies focus on upper-middle-class, upwardly mobile Desi youth, but I wanted to understand processes of class formation from a wide range of cases. Do Desi teens of different class backgrounds have varying academic and social experiences in school? Do differences in their parents’ occupational and educational status affect their participation in school life? How does it shape their thoughts about college and work after high school? High school, as it turned out, was a perfect place to study these things.
Staying in School
“Why do you come to school if you don’t have to?” was the astute question posed to me by a teen who was trying to make sense of my presence in his school. When I first walked onto those sprawling California high school campuses in 1999, I realized that I didn’t know a soul and everyone was over a decade younger than me. I had to question my judgment. All the social awkwardness, insecurity, and general stress associated with adolescence were now in my face again and mine to contend with. Until that point I had enjoyed teen culture like most other twenty-somethings—from my sofa, with Judd Apatow as my translator. Now I was on the frontlines, and had to quickly make sense of a world from which I felt jarringly disconnected. Much of the work on second generation immigrant youth focuses on cultural clash, conflict, and tensions between generations. I wanted to take an alternative approach and foreground what is important to them: their cultural and linguistic practices, their engagements with popular culture, how they use language, and what they want to do with their lives. Rather than focusing on points of intergeneration conflict, I conceive of Desi teen culture as a distinctive generational category with that is shaped by community values, cultural practices, language use, and material culture and practiced in both peer-exclusive and intergenerational contexts. I was aware of recent and research about Desi college students, but wanted to understand Desi youth at an earlier point in their lives, when they did not have the types of freedom generally associated with four year colleges. Beginning in college also meant overlooking those students who did not go to college—a larger portion of the students in my study than you might imagine. So, I focused on high school, and found earlier research conducted in California, as well as UK based studies on Desi teens to be excellent complements in this regard. Especially in Silicon Valley, where Desis are considered a “model minority,” I wanted to look at some of the contradictions of this term as they played out in the lives of teenagers of different class backgrounds and immigration histories. Most centrally, I wanted to capture what it meant to be a teenager from their perspective.
Not your average “ABCD”
In 2009, is “American Born Confused Desi” the best model we have for understanding second generation youth? That depends on how closely you want to look. I was interested in Desi teens’ cultural logic of how they create categories of evaluation, form social cliques, and “kick it” or spend time with one another. I talk about their school worlds as they organize themselves into social cliques—as Desi teens who are popular, those who are geeks, and those who are FOBs, or Fresh off the Boat (although these teens are not really FOBs, they are lower middle, class, socially marginal teens who speak their heritage language in school and don’t participate in school events). I also use their language, and you will hear about the way they “kick it” or hang out with their friends, whether they consider things FOBby (uncool) or tight (cool), and so on. Beyond the question of whether or not Desi teens can speak their “heritage language” or mother tongue, I was interested in how they speak it, with whom, and in what contexts. In what ways did their socioeconomic background shape their language practices, and what were the different consequences of speaking in particular ways in schools. In this sense, I looked at language use as more than a way of communicating, but how peers and school faculty use it as a basis of positive and negative social judgment.
Community life on the “DL”
Will what the aunties don’t know hurt them? Quite possibly. But in fairness to teens my study, the aunties could probably stand to loosen up a bit. One of the most important aspects of teen life in these communities is reputation. How teens negotiate rules about dating and reconcile them with their longer-term desire to become adult members of their communities, was one way I looked at this topic. Desi teens—girls especially—are subject to many social rules and restrictions imposed by their families and communities. While these rules vary according to class and religion, most Desi teens are concerned with maintaining their family’s reputation in their closely knit communities. Keeping their social life on the ‘‘dl” or ‘‘down low’’ is one tactic that teens use to avoid gossip and still date or just stay out late. Will the desire to stay in their closely knit communities compel them to stay in Silicon Valley despite this more challenging landscape? Life changed dramatically in the years after the dot com boom, and religious, ethnic, and national difference has taken on a different set of valences after 9/11.
Select Texts on Desi Youth and the South Asian Diaspora:
- Das Gupta, Monisha. 2006. Unruly Immigrants: Rights, Activism, and Transnational South Asian Politics in the United States. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
- Gillespie, Marie. 1995. Television, Ethnicity, and Cultural Change. London: Routledge.
- Hall, Kathleen. 2002. Lives in Translation: Sikh Youth as British Citizens. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Leonard, Karen. 1992. Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
- Maira, Sunaina. 2002. Desis in the House: Indian American Youth Culture in New York City. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
- Prashad, Vijay. 2000. The Karma of Brown Folk. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Rudrappa, Sharmilla. 2004. Ethnic Routes to Becoming American: Indian Immigrants and the Cultures of Citizenship. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.