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Worldwide Locations

Sunaina Maira on 'Desis in the House,' or Indian-American Youth

Desis In the House (Temple University Press, 2002) by Sunaina Marr Maira.

Desis In the House (Temple University Press, 2002) by Sunaina Marr Maira.

Sunaina Maira
is Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies in the English and Anthropology departments at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her new book, Desis in the House (Temple University Press, 2002) explores nostalgia, authenticity, and the aesthetics of "cool" in the subculture of second generation Indian American youth in New York City. She is also the co-editor of Contours of the Heart: South Asians Map North America (Temple University Press, 1996), for which she received the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award in 1997.

In your book you use the term “remix Indian American subculture." Can you explain what you mean by this term, particularly the “remix” part?

By “remix” I mean a couple of different things, as you probably gathered. I used that term because the music itself is remixed. It involves mixing samples of dance music, techno, jungle, and reggae, with samples of bhangra music. The dance movements, too, are in a sense a remix of traditional folk bhangra movements or Hindi film dance gestures and American club dance movements. Culturally and aesthetically I felt there was a remix, but I was also using it as a metaphor for the identifications that are mixed in that space. I like the term “remix youth culture” because it captures that mixing on many levels. I should say that in some of those spaces the music is not entirely remixed. One of the DJs who I interviewed said that she doesn’t just play remix music, she plays either bhangra or hip-hop. For me the term “remix” just works on many levels.

In terms of “remix,” though, it’s easy to think of an Indian identity that gets “remixed” with an American one, but in your book you complicate the idea of an “authentic” Indian identity. How does “authenticity” get defined in the diaspora?

I try to argue in the book that for second generation youth, authenticity gets defined by their parents, by the media, and by the institutions they participate in. Authenticity tends to be based on very particular elements of Indian culture that get transplanted to the US. and those elements are not necessarily representative of cultures within India, which are changing very rapidly, nor are they representative of the experiences of the second generation in the US. So there’s this dissonance that is created. A lot of people have written about the so-called culture clash and the clash of two worlds for second generation Indian Americans. There has been a lot of focus in the Indian immigrant media on the supposedly confused generation and I think the book is trying to complicate that idea by pointing out that it’s not really the second generation per se that’s confused, but it is this notion of authenticity that is very limiting and that actually creates this tension in the second generation, who are trying to produce their own notions of authenticity.

The term “American Born Confused Desi” (ABCD) is commonly used to describe the second generation, but based on reading Desis in the House, it’s not the second generation that’s so confused, but the first generation. I think you use the term “petrified” to describe the version of Indian culture espoused by the older first generation immigrants.

Not to bash first generation immigrants because they are obviously dealing with their own anxieties, but they often work out their own anxieties through their children. That was obviously something in the background of the book, that the second generation feels this need to live up to this authentic vision that their parents constantly hold up to them. But then when they go to India or when they meet other kinds of first generation Indians who are very different from their parents, they come to realize that Indian culture is actually much more complicated and heterogeneous than their parents sometimes let on.

In other senses, there’s also an expectation in mainstream US culture about what India is. There is an association of India with particular kinds of mysticism and religion or the arts and not with modernity and contemporary globalized culture. So I think it’s not just the immigrant parents creating this confusion, but it’s these other sources as well.

In your book you use the term “self-Orientalization” to describe this internalization of mainstream American notions of what it means to be Indian. How is the creation of “the authentic” a process of Self-Orientalization? How do Orientalist views of the authentic get replicated in the diaspora?

I’m really glad you asked this question because it is something I’m taking up in my more recent work since the book was finished. What I found while researching the book was that in the cultural shows that Indian American student organizations perform on college campuses, there is a celebration of Indian culture that is really important and worthwhile on the one hand, but on the other hand, certain images of Indian culture that are staged there tend to mirror Orientalist representations of India that have been formed in the US and Europe. Classical dance or classical art or particular kinds of representations of gender, for example, become the only version of Indian culture that is showcased. These art forms are not problematic in and of themselves and they are obviously important, but when they are held up as being “pure” Indian culture it becomes problematic. The self-Orientalization comes in because these ideas about what is “pure” Indian culture are internalized within the second generation, and within the first as well. In the second generation, they are almost mirroring back to mainstream American culture how they expect to see India represented.

Since I finished writing Desis in the House, I did a project on Indo-chic and on the mainstreaming of mehndi and bindis and Indian fashion and yoga and so on. I found that there is this kind of ambivalence among Indian Americans about this. There are some people who adopt this Indo-chic style, including myself; maybe we are Orientalizing ourselves. There are others who are much more critical of that and critical of the larger political context that the fashion is embedded in.

How does social hierarchy get recreated and reified at these desi dance parties in New York?

The social hierarchy is really recreated through these very gendered practices and also through these class distinctions. People often haven’t taken seriously what happens in this dance culture, but I found that dance culture mirrors the larger society. At these dance parties, there is this double standard for women as opposed to men. Women are expected to perform a very demure femininity, whereas men are given a great deal of freedom in terms of the kind of behavior that is acceptable for them or the kinds of style of clothing they can wear. Women had a great deal of anxiety about being seen as not Indian enough because their behavior was seen as too Americanized. I think this is true of many immigrant communities and not just of Indian Americans.

I think class distinctions were not talked about as much, but they were definitely present. They are not always so easy to tell; if you just go to a dance party you can’t always tell who is from a working class background and who is from a middle class one. In many ways, when I talked to some of the young men, I discovered they had a lot of anxiety about the kind of careers that they were expected to enter. A lot of this anxiety was being worked out by these ideas of what makes an Indian American man attractive. Some of that was being worked out through drawing on hip-hop and using hip-hop to represent an alternative lifestyle or the freedom to experiment with different kinds of identities. Hip-hop was opposed to this stable, white-collar male identity. That was one of the ways that hierarchy was coming up in the dance scene.

But isn’t that identification with hip-hop culture problematic in that it buys into the stereotypes of the dangerous and over-sexed Black or Latino man in order to counter Orientalist views of the effeminate Indian?

Exactly. There is a lot of this reproducing of racist stereotypes of what Black masculinity or what Black and Latino youth culture is about. I felt that many of the young people I spoke with who identified with hip-hop did so because they identified with Black and Latino youth and with their experiences of racism as youth of color growing up in the US. For others, it was just the ethos of growing up in New York. Others identified with hip-hop because they bought into those stereotypes of hyper-masculinity that you mentioned.

Why do you think there is such an emphasis on Punjabi culture at these dance parties? It’s all Punjabi music and dance and there are always Punjabi people on stage.

In terms of Punjabi culture, that is a really interesting question. The remix music really came form Britain, and in Britain there was a huge Punjabi community because that was the region from which a lot of people migrated in the 1950 and 1960s. So they’re kind of coming of age earlier than the second generation in the US. I think it has something to do with the history of migration to Britain. In New York, you have a large Punjabi community, but you also have a large Gujarati community and a large South Indian community, but all of these regional groups have adopted bhangra as their second generation music. I did find that people who are not Punjabi sometimes feel a little bit ambivalent because they have not grown up hearing bhangra or seeing bhangra dance movements. For the most part, I think bhangra has been recreated as pan-Indian or pan-South Asian music and I think a lot of that has to do with the music. It’s very percussive, it has a really good beat and it really lends itself to being remixed as dance music. I know there are other kinds of music like garba and Indian film music that get remixed as well. Hindi film music also appeals more intrinsically to a pan-South Asian crowd. It seems to be a combination of those historical and musical factors.

You mentioned Hindi film and one of the things that was running through my mind was the image of the wayward Westernized non-resident Indian in Hindi films, like Pardes and Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gum to name just a few. These films portray authentic “Indianness,” often with diaspora markets in mind.

That is a really important comment. It would be interesting to look at how those images are received in India and shunted back here, where people consume those images as the authentic. I don’t look at Hindi film very much in the book; I focus more on the way people think about Indian film, rather than the films themselves. The films became part of this package of authentic identity, so I felt that people who didn’t watch Indian films were considered to be inauthentic. I think there are a lot of elements in Indian films that challenge that notion of authenticity itself, but it is complicated.

Why are many young second generation South Asian Americans ambivalent about being included in the Asian American category? How can this rift be healed?

That continues to be a tension on many campuses and in many community organizations. At the time I was doing my research, it seems South Asians were not really involved because they were not identifying with the pan-Asian umbrella. It is a two way street, obviously. In some cases I felt that pan-Asian organizations were not reaching out to South Asians, so then it became a vicious cycle. When I asked people what they would identify as, most people said, “Indian,” and some didn’t even say “Indian American.” Some said “South Asian,” but not very many said “Asian American.” Asian American is obviously a kind of political identification. It has to come from a need to make those kinds of alliances with a wider community. I got the sense from many of the young people I spoke to that they were just not at that point yet. Some of them were and they were very frustrated that their peers weren’t joining them in these Asian American groups. It seems like there is a split, and either South Asians are in [Asian American organizations] in a big way, or they are not at all [a part of the pan-Asian umbrella].


Interview conducted by Michelle Caswell, Asia Society.