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Book Explores South Asian American Teen Culture

May 19, 2009 | by Wendy Leopold
EVANSTON, Ill. --- The Desi Land envisioned by author Shalini Shankar is located geographically in Silicon Valley. But the hearts and minds of the South Asian American teenagers who inhabit it may be found somewhere between Disneyland and Dixieland.

In "Desi Land: Teen Culture, Class and Success in Silicon Valley," the Northwestern University assistant professor of anthropology and Asian American Studies draws parallels between Desi Land and Disneyland. Both are constructed spaces of imagination and wonder.

The young Desis (pronounced THEY-sees) -- South Asians living outside of the Indian subcontinent -- live their dream of a success dangled within their reach by high technology in the late 1990s, in the midst of the dot-com boom.

But a Dixieland comparison also is appropriate. Reflecting the racism of the American South, immigrants from India were labeled "Hindoos" and denied citizenship early in the 20th century, and other types of inequality persist in present day Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley Desis, however, have benefited greatly from postwar immigration laws that recruited well-educated professionals.

As a "model minority," much is expected of these young Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Sikhs, who include first- to fourth-generation immigrants whose parents vary from assembly-line workers to engineers and CEOs.

"The ways Desi teens relate to these narratives of success, how they craft their own meanings of what it means to be successful, and how they aim to achieve their goals in Silicon Valley are the core concerns of this book," Shankar writes in the introduction of her vibrant ethnographic study.

A second-generation Desi who speaks Hindi, Tamil and a little Punjabi, Shankar is more familiar with Asian immigrants in the New York City area, and originally considered studying and writing about them.

"But because earlier ethnic groups settled the New York region and Asian immigration was fairly new in Silicon Valley, I could observe the process of community formation," Shankar said in an interview. "And, at the time, the high-tech scene was much more dynamic than that of New York City and its suburbs."

To distinguish what is fashionable and what is not among their peers, Desis use the terms "tight" and "FOBby," derived from "Fresh Off the Boat."

Shankar identifies the teens as either middle class or upper middle class according to the type of work their parents do, whether both parents work, and the parents' level of education, English proficiency, neighborhood, home, cars and lifestyle.

The Northwestern professor spent many months between 1999 and 2001 "kickin' it" with Desi teenagers at three Silicon Valley high schools.

She was intimidated by the thought of approaching their tight-knit groups, well aware of the insecurity and fear of rejection that permeate high school culture. The teens stopped talking and stared at her as she drew near, knowing she was violating some sort of code by doing what they would never do -- walking up to a crowd of strangers.

But Shankar was delighted to discover she had mistaken the teens' cliquishness, and that they were not aloof in interacting with her. "The vast majority were open once they learned I was not affiliated with some disciplinary arm of the school," she said.

"They turned out to be very nice and extremely welcoming. I wasn't looking to belong -- I didn't want to be their friend per se -- but they couldn't slot me into a group. I could talk to people they didn't like and they would still talk to me at the end of the day."

Chatting with kids on the grounds after school, at picnic tables in the courtyard or at their homes -- with girls in their bedrooms, boys in their living rooms -- Shankar interviewed 60 to 70 teens, "although I knew many more than that."

She observed that lower-middle class kids viewed success as getting a job better than their parents, who typically worked on assembly lines; making it into a two- or four-year college, becoming the first in their families to do so, and earning enough money to buy a nice car.

Upper-middle class teens sought to attend a four-year college and graduate school.

Both groups placed great importance on community values -- not doing things to bring disrespect to their families and toeing the line on dress, dating and sexual activities.

"Every family I talked to was enmeshed in a tight community network," Shankar said. "Opinions and judgments mattered, and also shaped what it meant to be successful."

Shankar's current research is on diversity and representation in advertising. She is looking at how advertisers talk about diversity, especially with regard to Asian Americans, and how language, nationality and other cultural markers are used to appeal to consumers.

"Desi Land" is published by Duke University Press.
Topics: Research