Harvard Educational Review
  1. Desis in the House

    Indian American Youth Culture in New York City

    By Sunaina Marr Maira

    Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002. 256 pp. $64.50, $19.95 (paper).

    The Immigration Act of 1965 ended decades of restrictions on Indian immigration to the United States. Since then, the population of Indians living in the United States has grown from 50,000 to well over 1.5 million. Today, second-generation Indian Americans comprise a considerable portion of Asian American youth (approximately 12%) in this country. Still, the experience of Indian American young people has barely been documented, particularly in urban areas where these youth have created their own culture that fuses traditional elements of their pasts with modern elements of their multicultural presents.

    In Desis in the House, Sunaina Marr Maira presents the results of an ethnographic study documenting the experiences of second-generation Indian American youth in New York City. She asks the following questions: “What are the meanings of this youth culture in the lives of Indian American youth? How do Indian American youth negotiate simultaneously the collective nostalgia for India (re)created by their parents and the coming-of-age rituals of American youth culture?” (pp. 15–16). An assistant professor of Asian American studies, Maira has experience researching the experience of South Asian immigrants to the United States. In this study, she focuses on popular culture as a tool that enables Indian American youth to negotiate and manage this tension between “nostalgia” and “cool” in their attempts to shape and assert their evolving identities.

    Chapter one provides historical context about the immigration of Indian Americans to the United States and outlines the subsequent chapters. In chapter two, Maira explores the Manhattan “desi scene.” She defines desi as “a colloquial term for someone ‘native’ to South Asia and one that has taken hold among many second-generation youth in the Diaspora of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, or even Indo-Caribbean, descent” (p. 2). The desi scene is one in which Indian American (and South Asian American) youth go to clubs to dance to a style of remix music called “bangra,” which blends traditional Indian music with more modern elements from hip-hop. Maira shows how, in this subculture, the youth actively create the popular culture that they simultaneously consume and develop understandings of their gendered racial identities.

    Many of the youth with whom Maira spoke mentioned the different norms operating for men and women in this subculture. Men consider it important to flaunt their material power through brand-name clothing. Maira states that this masculine behavior is linked to nationalism and signals a certain sense of ethnic authenticity. By contrast, women believe that both male and female desi youth value sexually provocative behavior on the dance floor, but these women also criticize other women for sexually suggestive behavior that goes against what is considered proper behavior for an Indian American woman.

    In chapter three, Maira uses the term cultural nostalgia to describe the range of activities the youth engage in to explore the Indian side of their hybrid identity and feel more ethnically authentic. She writes, “For many of the youth I spoke to, the notion of being ‘truly’ or ‘really’ Indian involved possession of certain knowledge or participation in certain activities. . . . The ideology of nostalgia . . . is the ethnicized flip side to a notion of subcultural ‘cool’ based on American youth culture” (pp. 87–88). Many of the youth who Maira interviewed grew up in predominantly White suburbs, attended predominantly White high schools, and socialized with predominantly White families. Maira describes key events in what these youth spoke of as “coming out” as ethnically Indian, such as independent trips “going back” to India or participating in Indian American and South Asian American college group activities that often feature traditional Indian films, music, and dance.

    Chapter four revisits the theme of gender roles and their link to nostalgia for Indian American youth. Masculinity is idealized through strength, economic power, and authority, while femininity is idealized through purity and chastity. These images develop in many ways out of pressures that the youth feel from their immigrant parents. For example, Vijay says, “I’m the oldest son . . . and for all practical purposes I’m competing against my father for everything I do” (p. 162). Reena tells Maira, “It’s so frustrating because the American value is you have to be successful . . . and then the Indian culture is like, it’s family, it’s family, it’s always family first!” (p. 161). While these youth talk about recognizing and even resisting these pressures, they simultaneously promote them through their cultural practices. For example, males can easily adopt a “gangsta” style in their dress without compromising their ethnicity, whereas women are more often expected to wear traditional Indian clothing. Maira calls for scholars of feminist cultural studies to examine masculinity in this youth culture context, and to recognize that ideals of femininity are influenced by the material notions of masculinity with which they interact.

    In her final chapter, Maira emphasizes that scholars must use an interdisciplinary lens to study the experiences of second-generation immigrant youth, claiming that structural forces in the academy, particularly in the humanities, prevent the collaborative endeavors necessary for this type of study. She also criticizes the unwavering link between discipline and methodology, wherein cultural studies tend to produce theoretical analysis and anthropology tends to produce more empirical analysis. She worries that documents of the experience of Indian American youth and groups like them will get lost if scholars do not use multiple methodologies to bring together disciplines such as anthropology, cultural studies, and Asian American studies. Desis in the House demonstrates how ethnography in particular can be applied to the field of Asian American studies. By linking empiricism with cultural studies, Maira brings an increased understanding of how the multiple forces of ethnicity, class, gender, and popular culture interact to influence the experiences of one particular group of second-generation immigrant youth.

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    Book Notes

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    By Sunaina Marr Maira

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    By JoEllen Fisherkeller

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