Saturday, March 12, 2011

"Bringing FOBby Back"

In her article “Speaking like a Model Minority: “FOB” Styles, Gender, and Racial Meanings among Desi Teens in Silicon Valley” Shalini Shankar analyzes the implications of class, race, and gender associated with “FOB” styles at Greene High School in Silicon Valley. The term FOB was originally coined to classify a group of individuals who emigrated to the U.S., typically from South East Asia, and came to embody a certain stereotype.  In her article, Shankar identifies the concept of a “model minority” and examines the complex layers of how the FOB identity is constructed. She identifies FOB attributes, different attitudes that Desi teens have towards FOB practices, and demonstrates how the “popular” Desi teens tend to control their use of certain linguistic and behavioral practices to align themselves with the more normative standard of the white upper class.

Shankar addresses certain attributes that characterize the FOB stereotype as well as differences between the male and female Desi teens that differentiate the different levels of FOB. In introducing this distinction she writes: “FOB styles index class-based values that divide the seemingly homogenous category of “Desi” into “model” and “nonmodel” speakers. In this sense, FOB styles are not simply nonnormative; rather they are central to how Desis are ascribed racial status in Silicon Valley (269).” Certain attributes she associates with the marginalized FOB style include coming from the middle class, where the students generally have more exposure to family who speak Punjabi at home, and thus infrequently speak English at home, as compared to upper middle-class families where the parents immigrated as professionals and English is the largely dominant language at home. The linguistic markedness of Desi teens at school includes speaking Punjabi at school, generally speaking it in “private settings,” using Desi-American English for comical purposes, as well as California and Latino slang in addition to incorporating hip-hop lexicon.  All of these characteristics combine to classify the stereotypical Desi FOB. Popular Desi teens on the other hand control the degree to which they exhibit cultural facets and can, thus, manipulate the way they are perceived with regards to ethnicity and tend to conform to monolingual standards.

Additionally, Shankar highlights the linguistic differences between the male and female Desi teens whom she recorded in her case study. The main difference resides in the fact that, as in most cultures, there are different behavioral standards for males and females. There is a modest image that females are expected to embody as conservative religious observers. In the study the Desi teen girls censored themselves far more than their male peers and were only found to break the linguistic code, or “code switch” in small groups of friends where there was no outside party to pass judgment. Shankar notes: “For Desi teenage girls, using profane language is linked to improper comportment and even being sexually active in a cultural context where chastity is valued. They are subject to scrutiny from school faculty as well as peer policing. (278) Additionally, the girls code switched far less in more “public” settings where they were in spaces not confined to their friends. The popular Desi girls spoke closer to the normative standard, minimizing their use of Punjabi.

Desi teen boys on the other hand are not subject to the same standards and are far less conservative in their discourse. The students in the study had no problem swearing or making sexual references in a more public setting.  Although the negative FOB judgments tended to when Desi students would code switch loudly in a public setting, Shankar noticed that the Sikh Punjabi male students in particular were decidedly proud of their identity, and in fact believe that “Sikh Punjabi is more desirable than being from any other ethnicity (279).” Thus, although there is a degree of censorship on the female end, there still exists an element of cultural pride despite being associated with FOB stereotypes.

The FOB style as well as this gendered distinction can be seen in a music video made by male Desi college students who embrace the Desi FOB style by taking Justin Timberlake’s hit, “Sexy Back,” and altering the title to “FOBby Back.” ( oGf9U ) The title of the song, in addition to the modified lyrics, demonstrate the students’ knowledge of the Desi stereotypes, as well as demonstrate the Desi male lack of constraint concerning profanity and sexuality. The college students who perform this video are mocking the FOBby stereotypes of Desi Americans, while jokingly implying that they live up to some of these stereotypes themselves. They incorporate hip-hop lexical styles as well as a marked fashion trend. According to Shankar this implies that they feel they are “far enough from the stereotype to use it humorously (274).” Although this video is ripping off a past hit by pop artist Justin Timberlake, a male artist, there are only males participating in a performance that would be considered socially taboo by many parents of Desi children.  The performers do not seem to censor themselves much in either their song lyrics, or at times, their explicitly sexual behavior. It is probably much more difficult to find Desi girls who would participate in such a video with the same lack of reservation. Shankar points out: “As Desi girls are expected to display levels of chastity not demanded of girls of other ethnicities, using profane language is a potentially dangerous way of tainting one’s reputation (278).” Desi boys, on the other hand, “are unconcerned with such judgment, for they operate according to a different set of community-based standards (278).”  

This video is one of many from individuals poking fun at stereotypes associated with their heritage.  The students in this particular video intentionally embrace the marginalized FOB style, challenging the idea of a “model minority.” Because they are exhibiting metalinguistic awareness, however, it raises certain questions about their status as nonmodel minorities. Is it only Desi teens who exhibit the stereotypical FOB characteristics in a way oblivious to the notion of a “model minority” who come to embody a negative connotation of FOB? Can a Desi teen who displays some stereotypical FOB attributes but is fully aware of his linguistic and behavioral practices and how they relate to the notion of a “model” minority fall into that same category; or do they fall somewhere between a “model” and “nonmodel” minority?

Erin Newman

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