DESI LAND: TEEN CULTURE, CLASS, AND SUCCESS IN SILICON VALLEYby Shalini Shankar. Duke University Press, 2009. 261 pages. $22.95.

Magic happens when a work from academia transcends the straitjacket of social science jargon and floats across the page like literature: the characters are given life; the setting is vividly rendered; and the dialogue is memorably fresh. Shalini Shankar pulls her rabbit out of the Silicon Valley hat she calls Desi Land. “In one sense, Desi Land resembles Disneyland, a constructed space of imagination and wonder … On another level, Desi Land is reminiscent of Dixieland, a place of tremendous creativity and talent but also deep-seated racism and prejudice in the American South.”

Shankar’s ethnography of teenagers living in and around Fremont, Calif., is a sympathetic portrait of boys and girls attempting to construct their own reality from homes that carry forward identity expectations from India, Pakistan, Fiji, or Bangladesh. Outside these homes, she takes the reader to shopping malls where consumption defines success, and to schools that assume that all Indian students are part of an academic model minority.

“California, Here We Come, Right Back Where We Started From” is the title of the opening chapter, in which psychological, social, economic, and geographic context is established. While the hilly landscape of the Bay Area has remained constant, “over the span of a century, desis have moved up in status, from being undesirable, racially non-White immigrants to sought after residents whose ambiguous racial status skews closer to White.” In large part, this shift parallels the Valley’s transformation from the “Prune Capital” to the “High-Tech Capital.”

Many successful Northern Californians will relate to quotes such as, “It’s so cool how we live in Silicon Valley—we control the world!” But they may not be aware of class distinctions inherent in the following negotiation of rural and urban lifestyles: “On the weekends we chill with our grandparents in Yuba City, or with aunts in Sacramento, or in San Jose. We visit family a lot, I have lots of cousins, some are older and done with high school. But we all kick it together.” Regardless of whether Desi Land’s students are upper class or middle class, populars or geeks, FOBby or FOBulous, their close-knit families are foundations to which they return.

In “Living and Desiring the Desi Bling Life,” Shankar takes her anthropological eye to shopping malls such as Valley Fair, Eastridge, and Oakridge. This chapter, which “takes a closer look at how desi teens and their families define and desire aesthetic tastes through their engagement with consumption and material culture,” has an academic tone. Shankar appears to be perched on the shoulders of scholarly giants such as Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Thorstein Veblen, Pierre Bourdieu, and Arjun Appadurai; or perhaps the scholars are looking over her shoulder. As a cultural critic, Shankar seems to gently say, “tch, tch” to the status and prestige that is conferred upon owners of shiny cars and sparkling diamonds.

This disapproval is palpable in a hilarious situation where Shankar is pulled aside by two of her teen-aged students, Meru and Jasbir:

“Meru squealed, ‘Come on! You have to come with us see the new baby and CLK!’ and led me to her aunt’s house. After congratulating her aunt and uncle on their baby, I quietly admitted to Meru and Jasbir that I could not remember who CLK could be from the many Kapoor family events I had attended. Highly amused, Jasbir exclaimed, ‘Who? What are you talking about?’ Meru laughed, ‘The CLK! The Mercedes Benz CLK convertible …’ [The CLK] received nearly as much adoration and attention as the new baby who joined the family around the same time.”

The heart of the book is in the three high schools where Shankar explores “Desi Fashions of Speaking,” “Being FOBulous on Multicultural Day,” and “Remodeling the Model Minority Stereotype.” While pseudonyms are used to afford the subjects of this study some measure of privacy, Fremont’s high schools are most likely identifiable by those living in the community. This may have presented some risk to the students who were interviewed, but for the reader this risk-taking is a highly rewarding way of translating academic concepts into the real world. One understands that code-switching is alternating between different languages based on conversational setting, and code-mixing is the combination of multiple languages in one conversation. Here are two examples: Amahl comments, “I talk to my parents in Urdu, but not my brothers. I don’t really speak it with friends at school. Sometimes with cousins.” Neetu elaborates, “We put our ‘ings’ and ‘eds’ after every action—I was ‘dekhing’(looking), I was ‘sunning’ (listening).”

Desi Land goes a level deeper when it examines the consequences of speaking in languages other than English. Abhijeet’s bilingual pride is evident as he asserts, “I feel comfortable speaking in Punjabi with friends. If you want to say something behind someone’s back, it’s good for that or for joking. Some guys tease you about being a FOB or something like that, but … having a second language is cool.” However, Mr. Lopez, a school administrator, has a different response: “Because of their English, they pretty much stay by themselves, which hurts, because they speak their own language and they don’t speak in English and they don’t get any better.” These students, characterized as FOBs (“Fresh Off the Boat”), are often put into English as a Second Language classes, even if they are second- or third-generation Americans quite proficient in English. Because they don’t fit into the “model minority” stereotype of academically high-achieving and socially integrated Indian Americans, these students are marginalized. Reflecting an inherent racism, these “FOBby” individuals take a back seat to the more dominant “FOBulous” students who use their social capital to establish visibility and power.

One of the joys of reading Shankar’s book is exposure to emerging verbal practices. While younger readers may be familiar with desi teen talk, those less familiar might be surprised by the linguistic creativity of phrases that borrow freely from popular culture. Readers of all ages are sure to take pleasure in self-recognition or new-awareness of the non-English and “new-English” language: “desi” (member of South Asian diaspora), “kickin’ it” (spending time together with friends, usually apart from family), “bling” (flashy objects such as luxury cars, houses, clothing, or jewelry), “tight” (cool, hip), “geeks” (students who are academically focused, especially toward math, science, or engineering), “DL” or “Down Low” (secretly doing things), “hella bank” (lots of money), “FOBby” (unfashionable in dress, in oiled hair, or in language), “FOBulous” (urbane, sophisticated, tight).

Although Shankar, herself a desi, may not make hella bank from this book, and probably won’t be able to acquire much bling from its royalties, she sure seemed to have been kickin’ it in the open and on the DL. It’s really tight that she didn’t just write about the FOBulous kids, but also the FOBby and geeky ones.

For RCO’s children: Anupama, who studied Desi teen culture in Chicago with Professor Shankar at Northwestern; and Siddhartha, who has explored homogenization of the Indian identity across region and class at Stanford.

After a long run in the corporate world, Rajesh C. Oza now balances his life between family and friends, organizational alignment and consulting, reading and writing, India and America. He has published fiction and nonfiction and is presently writing a memoir about his childhood in India, Canada, and the United States. Raj can be reached at raj_oza@hotmail.com

Dr. Raj Oza has written or contributed to Globalization, Diaspora, and Work Transformation, Satyalogue // Truthtalk: A Gandhian Guide to (Post)Modern-Day Dilemmas, P.S., Papa’s Stories, and Living in...