Tuesday, March 8, 2011

I’m Fresh Off the Boat!

by: Holley Davis

Metapragmatics; now that is a scary word. Thankfully we have dictionary.com to break it down for us. “Metapragmatics: An awareness by a speaker of the intentions and effects of one's speech.” (www.dictionary.com) Through this definition we are introduced to the linguistic theory that we are conscious of what we say and how our speech shapes our identity in relation to others – we are navigating and reinforcing our societal roles in our speech all the time. Looking at this from the other side, observers of another’s speech assume that the speaker is conscious of the role they are projecting through their speech - the speaker is fulfilling a role in the listener’s mind; one that has most likely already been inhabited by some stereotypical model of that person. Thus the stereotype we have of that person and the messages of personhood that one conveys through their speech serve to reinforce each other; I have an idea about who you are, and I assume that you are aware of the projection of self that you are sending out to me in your speech which feeds onto my stereotype about you!

To help us understand this idea of metapragmatics and examine it in a more tangible way, we will use one of this weeks readings, Speaking like a Model Minority: “FOB” Styles, Gender, and Racial Meanings among Desi teens in Silicon Valley by Shalini Shankar, to use as a foundational example of metapragmatics in action to examine how FOB teens in mark their distance (and have their distanced marked) from their more popular and mainstream peers.

Shankar defines FOBs as “…middle-class Sikh Punjabis that popular teens marginalize and distance themselves from based on their ways of dressing, speaking and comportment in school.” (Shankar, 270) The connotatively derogative term FOB – “fresh off the boat” is meant to mark an immigrant/alien (we can expand Shankar’s notation of Sikh Punjabis to all Asians) who has recently come to America and retains much of the culture and style of their homeland as someone who has not assimilated into the culture, style, and values of America. Their assumed unwillingness to participate in American culture marks them as outsiders – they are “othered” in relation with other Asians who have assimilated into American culture. Below is a depiction of a FOB:

Shankar explains the perceived differences between FOBs and their more culturally forward counterparts, Desi teens, saying “ FOB attributes include not adequately following fashion trends, having oily hair, speaking Punjabi at school, and speaking Desi accented English…Notably, these codes do not involve distancing oneself form everything South Asian…FOB styles act as claps between marginalized Desi teens and popular Desi teens as well as those school faculty who indicate that marginalized youth embody nonnormative attributes.” (Shankar, 270)

From Shankar’s quote we see the underlying tension between FOBs and their more assimilated counterparts. Asians are the model minority in America, due to their “work” of cultural assimilation and aspirations socio-economic mobility they are on the verge of being integrated into the dominant power in America, that is to say, white America. FOBs are the polar opposite of these aspiring assimilationists and thus endanger the entrance and acceptance of Asian into the category of White. FOBs retain their cultural ties publically which sends up red flags that may endanger this entrance into whiteness.

However, there is a tension – for in our politically correct world, difference is purportedly celebrated which gives license to FOBs to act and speak however they wish. FOBs should be able to celebrate their connection to their homeland and their multicultural identity, whether seriously in public expressions and cultural events  or in jest like this parody of Snoop Dogg’s Drop it Like It’s Hot, Drop it like a FOB (South Asian)

Yet the underlying power structure in America says otherwise – while you may celebrate your diverse cultures it should be within a designated space and time that is considered appropriate and safe, such as cultural performances. Performing and exhibiting your multiple layers of identity outside of this space are a threat to our monoglot culture and it’s ideas. Thus when the FOB teens in Shankar’s article openly speak Punjabi in school (a designated English only area) they are infringing on and endangering the power structure engrained in American society!

Looking at this view through a metapragmatic lens, we see the precarious position more assimilated Asians are in. America is an incredibly racialized country, viewing individual persons as part of and representative of a larger racial whole. Thus, even through a Desi teen may see themselves as being totally different from a FOB, chances are, a more ignorant American will just see them as Indian or Asian. When FOBs display their otherness through speech, especially in a space that has not been sanctioned as “safe” they are supposedly knowingly communicating and reproducing roles of difference between themselves and others who are not like them. Since one is representative of the whole, this can be expanded to the entire group – even those who want to assimilate into American culture are then thought to be harboring ties back to their homeland and therefore do not see themselves as truly “American,” which is a big no-no, especially for the group that is on the verge of becoming “white” and gaining the power and freedom that comes with joining the dominant group.

The racially homogenizing lens that people are viewed from is obviously a great disservice, as is the long standing structure of white dominance in American culture – this prohibits so much growth within our country. Using stereotypes of race and language are not helpful when trying to understand people and cultures – for there are wide variances in each culture, each race, and each language that are most definitely not representative of the whole.

As a joking example of the variances that there are within race and language, I leave you with one last video provided by the Brown Chinese Student Association: What Kind of Asian are You? 

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