Desi Land: Teen Culture, Class, and Success in Silicon Valley
By Shalini Shankar. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, November 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-8223-4300-4, $79.95; paper: ISBN 978-0-8223-4315-8, $22.95. 264 pages.
Review by Rupa Pillai, University of Oregon, Eugene
From pop stars chanting Sanskrit to individuals practicing yoga, the American public has had a fascination with South Asian culture since the Sixties. However, the exotic cachet of the subcontinent does not translate into public understanding of the growing South Asian community residing stateside. In some ways, this fascination spurs the stereotypes that simplify a diverse group of individuals. Images of engineers, doctors, and over-achieving children conjured by the label “South Asian” feed the myth of the model minority, thus silencing portions that do not adhere. And while the increasingly visibility of brown faces in the public sphere, such as Gov. Bobby Jindal and Kal Penn, are shattering these myopic perceptions, more scholarship is needed to examine the cultural, historical, and political baggage that affects the South Asian diaspora in America.
In her ethnography Desi Land: Teen Culture, Class, and Success in Silicon Valley, Shalini Shankar unpacks this baggage in connection to the South Asian teen experience. Growing up in America, South Asian teens negotiate the polarized spaces of home and school to form an identity that is informed by their heritage and the white, hegemonic reality they reside in.
Over eight chapters, Shankar dissects the hyphenated identities of these teens in pre-9/11, dot.com America. She explores how race, gender, and class affect these experiences and how language, culture, and immigration history influence one’s identity and community. With her playful use of slang, Desi Land is an insightful addition to the growing diaspora scholarship that grants the reader access to the exclusive networks inherent to all high school environments.
Inspired by the promise of the Silicon Valley, Desi Land denotes the imagined space “[which] is inflected both with a spirit of wonder and enthusiasm as well as immense obstacles of class and race for those who are not well positioned to realize their dreams” (2). Utilizing her own experience as a Desi (another term for the South Asian diaspora), Shankar navigates between the different cliques that compose the South Asian student population of three local high schools. The Desi teens in this study come from different economic backgrounds, practice different religions, aspire to different futures, but share similar experiences as members of the diaspora.
Each chapter begins with a brief profile of a Desi teen that introduces the focus of the chapter and provides a window into the student’s life. Chapter 1 briefly introduces the history of Desis in the Silicon Valley, including an account of the struggle for citizenship and the ambiguous definition of “Asian.” The author quickly dispels the stereotypes of the South Asian diaspora by discussing the waves of immigration. Shankar also discusses the transition “from being undesirable, racially non-White immigrants to sought after residents whose ambiguous racial status skews closer to White” (26). Chapter 2 describes Desi youth culture. While these youths are aware of the wider, social definition of Desi, they develop their own social categories to define themselves and their peers in high school that are influenced by race and class. Chapter 3 explores how consumption and material culture define success and the emergent practice akin to “Keeping up with the Jones,” which could be described as “Keeping up with the Patels.” Chapter 4 and 5 explore language use and the relationship between Desi youths and other racial groups in high school. Chapter 6 and 7 consider how the family and community affect the Desi teens’ actions and ability to succeed.
A key strength of this text is Shankar’s use of the inventive slang that composes the everyday lingo of the Desi teen. Instead of simply considering whether these teens speak another language, she provides informative examples of how language is used and how terms are re-appropriated. Borrowing from African-American culture and re-imagining Hindi words, these teens’ ability to code-switch and create their unique slang mirrors their hyphenated existence. For example, the acronym “FOB” meaning “fresh off the boat” is reworked to mean both cool, “FOBulous,” and its original meaning, “FOBby.” By integrating this slang into her writing, the teens’ voices reverberate off the text.
Though she addresses a spectrum of issues from community gossip to views on dating and arranged marriage, Shankar’s efforts are weakened by its silence on how non-South Asian students perceive Desis. Certain episodes provide the reader a glimpse of other racial groups’ frustrations in this context and demonstrate how this perspective could have improved Shankar’s analysis. In particular, the discussion of “Cultural Days” held in the schools to promote multiculturalism introduces the reader to the racial dynamics of the high school. The failure of these events to include and represent the student body reflects the failed concept of multiculturalism, but also alludes to underlying animosities between racial groups. Additionally, the appropriation of African-American and Latino culture poses questions for further inquiry. In particularly, how does the use of “Brown” in the Desi community challenge Latino political identity? Do Desis actually claim “Brownness,” or is this term confined to her analysis? This superb text would have been strengthened further if she explored such issues, but it does present Shankar future avenues for research.
Shankar concludes her book by briefly recounting her recent visits to the Silicon Valley. Not only providing updates of the whereabouts of participating teens, the final chapter and post-script introduces how conceptions of race, gender, and class have changed in post-9/11 America. Revisiting the teens again in this less optimistic time where economic security is fleeting and xenophobia is on the rise, Shankar is met with new issues for future investigation. This bleak conclusion serves as a call for further inquiry, which the reader, now well informed of the history and context, will be well positioned to pursue. With Desi Land, Shankar has succeeded in presenting a well-researched, well-executed ethnography that captures an American experience that will benefit Asian American Studies and beyond.