Within any race or cultural grouping of people, there are social and linguistic standards to which members of that race are recruited to embrace. In my personal circle of friends there is a clear divide between Asian Americans whose language use marks them as FOBs or “Fresh off the Boat”, “model minorities,” or those who are Asian American and linked with African Americans. Having developed friendships with individuals who fit within each of these categories, Shalini Shankar’s article “Speaking like a Model Minority: “FOB” Styles, Gender, and Racial Meanings among Desi Teens in Silicon Valley” provides a great opportunity to reassess the linguistic and social practices of one of my friends. Cho, an Asian American, lived in Korea for twelve years, then came to the US to attend high school. She was completely fluent in English and Korean upon her arrival and for many reasons, would constantly shift in and out of the “model minority” status.
In Shankar’s article Punjabi is used to distinguish between Desi and FOB teens in the Silicon Valley area. Desi teens are affiliated with the upper middle class where English is the primarily language, despite the variations of Punjabi that are utilized at cultural gatherings. There are “upper middle-class Desi teens who follow monolingual norms, while middle-class Desi teens construct heteroglossic “FOB styles” that incorporate Punjabi, Desi Accented English, California slang, and hip-hop lexicon” (268). Middle class or FOB teens often come from homes where there are relatives who do not speak English fluently, and therefore, these teens speak Punjabi more frequently than English. Below are two videos of what I consider to be the faces of model minorities. The clips are from the trailer of a film about Asian Immigrants in the Silicon Valley.
Asian Americans have “easy integration into upper middle-class white society” because of their alliance to these characterizations in their daily lives, however, they are not completely accepted in white society (268). Those who embrace monologist standards are positioned higher in society and provided greater opportunities to succeed amongst white Americans. There are also “predispositions toward language use” which are shaped by class that establish Asian Americans as model minorities (270). Shankar notes that the language use of FOB teens is marked negatively, signaling that they are from a lower economic class and are not affiliated with the “model minority” status. Desi teen’s language use is unmarked however, due to their normative usage of English and the minimal use of profanity. What’s interesting is that even though both FOB and Desi teens are marked racially, language use is what establishes who a person is, as well as who they are in the context of school. The article raises the question of “what is means to be a “model minority” linguistically” in the context of FOBs and Desi Teens in the Silicon Valley of California, primarily in a school setting (268). The model minority status is framed around the following characterizations: “level of education, economic self-sufficiency, low crime rate and positive social contributions” (268).
From my experience, Cho would not be classified as the typical “model minority” due to her lax academic performance, her normative use of profanity, and risqué social habits. Despite the fact that she didn’t excel academically, it is important to mention that she did excel artistically. In any artistic context, she would easily take on the “model” student status, behaviorally, socially and linguistically. For her it was always a matter of choice. Linguistically, Cho would commonly use a combination of AAVE and valley Girl English to separate herself from strictly Asian groups, allowing her to be incorporated in various racial circles. Her usage to these variations however, were not utilized in humor, but rather very seriously to position herself closer to other cultural groups, that is, in regard to stereotypical linguistic usages of various groups. In order to use stereotypes for cultural positioning, one has to understand what these stereotypes are, how the represent others socially and how implementing them into their linguistic register will position them socially. Since the high I attended was English dominant, all academic classrooms were public and students refrained from speaking in any other language. What’s interesting however is that with our art class, bilingual students were able to take more linguistic liberties. While in my graphic design class one day, Cho had to take a phone call from her mom. As she answered the call, I heard her speak Korean for the first time. In a normal classroom, making and accepting phones calls is strictly prohibited, yet in this artistic bubble within the academic school, rules were reshaped to accommodate student’s need. Here bilingual students were encouraged to utilize other languages they knew, especially during instances when we as a class would study artists of various cultures. Shanker notes that both Desi and FOB teens “understand classroom time to be public and are careful there to maintain the monolingual school code,” therefore refraining from using Punjabi in class (275).
Shankar also discusses “how gender differently shapes linguistic norms for these speakers” (269). She gives the example of how FOB styles “affirm clique boundaries, but also test the limits of gendered expectations” (276). It is stated that “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” due to the fact that "Desi girls are expected to display levels of chastity not demanded of girls of other ethnicities, [and that] using profane language is a potentially dangerous way of tainting one’s reputation” (278). On the other hand, FOB boys use "Punjabi to swear in ways that are not recognizable as transgressions by school administrators but communicate solidarity, humorous insult, and rancor among friends" (279).
Overall, it is gratifying to know that marginalized social and linguistic standards are continually challenged by young individuals across the U.S. and the world.