Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier chronicles the struggles of an Indian-American teenager, Dimple Lala, as she tries to shed her Desi image in favor of an Americanized identity. Throughout the book, Dimple is spoken to in Gujarati by her parents and Desi friends, though she generally responds in English rather than her heritage language. Dimple is also extremely concerned about her reputation at school, afraid of how her ethnic and cultural background will affect her love life.
Hidier has stated that the content of Born Confused is semi-autobiographical, having drawn from personal experiences to describe the thoughts, feelings, and memories of the protagonist. Examining the novel as both a memoir of an Indian-American woman and a fictional account of a Desi teen striving to conform to American cultural and linguistic practices, we can discern many similarities between Hidier, Lala, and the teenagers discussed in Shalini Shankar’s article “Speaking like a Model Minority: “FOB” Styles, Gender, and Racial Meanings among Desi Teens in Silicon Valley.”
As Shankar explains, Asian Americans are lauded for their high levels of education, economic self-sufficiency, low crime rates, and positive social contributions (268). Based on this information, many Caucasian Americans view Asian Americans as the “preferred” minority population in the United States. Focusing on Desis (South Asian Americans), Shankar outlines the two categories that comprise this “model minority” group: FOB Desis (“fresh of the boat” immigrants) and popular Desis (assimilated immigrants).
FOB Desis are generally second- and third-generation, middle-class teenagers whose parents are non-skilled workers. According to Shankar, FOB attributes include not following fashion trends, having oily hair, speaking Punjabi (or other heritage languages) at school, and speaking Desi Accented English (270). These Indian teenagers are easily distinguishable from their popular Indian counterparts, though school officials admit that they often confuse Desi students for Hispanic students due to the comparable shades of their skin (283). As Shankar elaborates on the linguistic practices of FOB Desi students, who are often perceived by educators as possessing a low proficiency in the English language, most of these teenagers have one parent or live-in relative who isn’t fluent in English (283, 272). The result is a high proficiency in their heritage language and a speaking style classified as Desi Accented English, setting them apart from popular, Americanized Desis.
On the opposite side of the stylistic and linguistic spectrum, Shankar characterizes popular Desis as upper middle-class teenagers whose parents are well-educated and have upwardly mobile careers (272). Most of these parents were educated in English-medium schools and tend to speak English at home, causing their children to speak English frequently with their relatives and friends (272). In the process, these families relegate the use of their heritage languages to community gatherings and conversations with elders.
Keeping in mind these categorical distinctions, Shankar analyzes the roles of gender and race in the stylistic and linguistic practices of FOB Desi teens. Her primary conclusions are the following:
• Females tend to regard school space as public while males regard it as private (276).
• Females generally refer to Bollywood films for pop culture and style markers while males refer to hip-hop music (276).
• Females are more concerned than males with maintaining their positive reputations (276).
• Females avoid using profanity while males tend to use it excessively, particularly in group settings (278).
• Females use Punjabi (or other heritage languages) to embellish details when recounting stories to friends while males usually use native languages when discussing violence, especially in front of English-speaking school officials (280).
These enlightening conclusions can be applied to Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused. The protagonist, Dimple Lala, dislikes the forced interaction with highly superficial American and Desi teens at school because she is unable to relate to them. Lala also works to maintain her good reputation within the South Asian community in her town, attempting to dress fashionably, but not provocatively, and equalizing her language use between English and Gujarati. If you have never seen a Bollywood film or heard Hindi (the language spoken in most Indian movies), I have included a video below from one of my favorite films, Kal Ho Naa Ho. The song, “Maahi Ve,” is common of modern Bollywood music because it incorporates English phrases and has an upbeat tempo—two characteristics that were established in Bollywood music as a result of American influences.
For many South Asian Americans, this balancing act is a reality in their tight-knit communities. As a result, many stereotypes have emerged about Desi American practices. A Facebook group entitled “You Know You’re Brown When…” highlights several of these conventions (preceded by a disclaimer that they “are not meant to be taken seriously”), many of which are also noted by Shankar. Number one reads, “You tell your parents you got a 98% [on an exam] and they ask what happened to the other 2%.” In her article, Shankar outlines the model minority ideal of academic achievement, labeling it a “normative standard that pervades everyday life” for Desi students (270). Later in the Facebook group’s comprehensive list of humorous and slightly offensive stereotypes, number twenty reads, “Your parents are panicking if you aren’t married when you turn 25.” Shankar emphasizes the importance of marriage to young Desi females in her retelling of a conversation between several girls regarding marriage proposals they had recently received (276-277).
As an Indian American, I have felt the pressure to excel academically. Desi parents value education above most other pursuits that challenge teenagers in the United States because it helps their children attend prestigious universities, acquire high-powered jobs, and (if a marriage is not arranged) find an equally motivated spouse. Although my parents don’t plan on searching for my future spouse through our network of South Asian relatives, they do stress the importance of academics. To a certain degree, I can relate to the teens in Shankar’s article because of the expectations of the Desi community in my town; however, the South Asian population of my area is quite insignificant when compared to the Hispanic and Caucasian populations.
Shalini Shankar’s article “Speaking like a Model Minority: “FOB” Styles, Gender, and Racial Meanings among Desi Teens in Silicon Valley” discusses the characteristics of Desi students in the United States. While many of these traits facilitate educational achievement, there are many that contribute to the categorization and separation of these teens along stylistic and linguistic lines. Yet; there is much we can learn from the determination and dedication of Indian Americans who are obtaining a Western education while maintaining their culture in the melting pot that is the United States.