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.