The term American Born Confused Desis may have lost much of its resonance among Indian-American youth today. However, it is finding a new avatar among the children of the growing but little-noticed Indian-American working class that exists in many larger US inner cities. These are the South
Asians who drive taxis and run convenience stores. They are Indian-Americans who may never use the term "ABCD" because they lack the playful facility with English of their better-educated brethren.
Says Neha Singhal, a 20-year-old student at the University of Maryland, "ABCD is outdated. But I guess I can see it still having meaning for FOB ABCDs. There's a tension there." FOB is an acronym for "fresh off the boat."
"Poorer youth are under equal pressure to succeed in school but don't have the supportive social structure of wealthier Indian-Americans. They are often left to fend for themselves in the US public educational system."
"Indian-Americans are very class conscious. One class is inner city. The other is suburban. The two halves don't see much of each other," says Annette Seecharan of the South Asian Youth Association. "Poorer youth are under equal pressure to succeed in school but don't have the supportive social structure of wealthier Indian-Americans. They are often left to fend for themselves in the US public educational system."
The full social variety of the Indian-American community is often obscured. "The daughter of a Gujarati newsstand owner in a public high school in Brooklyn has a different experience than that of a son of a Keralite nurse going to a Catholic school in Long Island who likes Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's music, or a Hyderabadi programmer's children in San Jose who go to Berkeley and listen to Gujarati hip-hop from Los Angeles," says Sunaina Maira of the University of California-Davis.
The problem, she says, is that mainstream US society "tries to pigeonhole ethnic groups, and young people in general, into a slot." The Indian-American youth has to live with the belief that he or she is part of the "model minority". Deepa Iyer of the advocacy group South Asian American Leaders for Tomorrow deplores the label: "The model minority is one of the most nefarious challenges young Indian-Americans face. It's a myth. It's insulting. It produces a wedge between our community and other ethnic groups."
A lot of Indian-American youth don't see it as a bad thing. Says 21-year-old student political leader Varun Mehta, "It's a label associated with Indian in the US and less so with other parts of the diaspora. But it's not that bad. It's better than what some other minorities face. There's always going to be labels, that's human nature." Fellow student, 20-year-old Ronak Shah, agrees, "I think the label is useful. It provides pressure to succeed. You don't accept not doing well in school and that makes you more successful."
"The model minority is one of the most nefarious challenges young Indian-Americans face. It's a myth. It's insulting. It produces a wedge between our community and other ethnic groups," deplores Deepa Iyer.
Maira says this is not uncommon: "Many Indian Americans go along with the idea it is due to their 'culture of hard work' and 'good work ethic' the community has been successful and not due to their educational credentials, English fluency, skills that fit well with the US labour market, and access to capital."
Working class Indian-Americans are less enthused about the model minority badge. Maira says those who grew up less privileged and with "other youth of colour" are more aware that political and economic factors, not cultural belief, have helped Indian-Americans to succeed. Khyati Joshi of Fairleigh-Dickinson University says "Working class Indian immigrants struggle in school because the 'model minority' standard is being imposed on them. Teachers tell me how they love Indian-American students because they are quiet and behave themselves - but they aren't doing very well."
One experience remains common to all Indian-American youth. "The disconnect and frustration between parents and children still distinguishes Indian-Americans more than any other group - and I've worked with other ethnic groups, " says Seecharan. "It cuts across class. The parents fear they have been exposed to too much privilege. They can't agree on what constitutes a happy life."
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