Sunday, July 05, 2009

Playing To Win

G is like my kid brother and is given to checking on me every once in a while. I wish he lived closer, so J could have a sense of extended family. His child is less than a year old and would fulfill J's strong desire to be someone's big sister.

He and his wife have tried to socialize with desis in their city (they have lived in several up to now) and have faced challenges not very unlike my own. I used to imagine that desis are very accepting of two parent families as they view this to be the normal family configuration. Apparently not.

G has lived in America since he came for grad school, worked almost every kind of odd job there is to help pay his bills as a student. He is not the lowest common denominator desi IT worker in that he has a wide variety of interests outside his day job and can carry on an intelligent conversation that has nothing to do with technology or immigration. He happens to be a Bengali who like me never lived in Kolkata. He would love to be part of something pan-Indian in America but that is not the easiest thing to find as he has come to realize.

The desi society here is fragmented in many different ways - FOBs, ABCDs, by region and language, by vintage (as defined by visa and citizenship status) and most importantly by net-worth. This is almost the modern day caste system only with different parameters to define the different stratas of the hierarchy. G says, the minute he encounters a desi, he can almost hear a the click of their mental calculator going on. He is asked the typical questions - Does he own or rent ? Which school district does he live in ? How far along is he in the immigration process ? Where did he go to school in India and America ? What does he do for a living ? Does his wife work ? What does he drive and so on.

By when he has completed the de regieur survey, the other desi has awarded him a composite score. This score would determine if he is in or out of their social circle. He could choose to be in and be treated with condescension if the desi in question rated him lower than themselves. Conversely he could have been rated higher than the other person in which case he would be treated like an interloper if he decided to butt into their circle.

The best outcome in this situation would be an equal score where he will be accepted without overt prejudice. But it gets tricky at this point. Every one is at the start line but desis don't just spend their life standing there smelling the roses. They dash off to reach their destinations and the race is brutally competitive. There is no aspect of life that is untouched by competition.

You either play the sport or step out to be a low caliber bench warmer who is unlikely to be called upon to play (this is exactly what I have chosen to do). G is not able to accept that option and yet he and his wife are simply not wired to thrive in hyper-competitive desi society. Being FOBs, they are not welcome in the "superior" ABCD circles. The locals if they are not overly prejudiced are polite but distant. They have their own lives and are not desperately seeking to befriend random FOBs that happen by.

G finds himself left with no good options. Like a man stranded on an alien planet he seeks signs of life - surely there are desis who think like him and his spouse. Surely they can find a community somewhere. He is not excited about raising a child in the isolation he and his wife find themselves in. While I am able to sympathize with him, I have no guidance to offer.


Anonymous said...

I have been in US for quite more than 5 years now. However, I differ from your observation. My experience has been if you make for an interesting or entertaining company you would be welcome in most circles be it ABCD, FOB or whatever else.
I personally am not very outgoing person but most desis seem to make an effort to interact with me. Exception being ABCD guys. ABCD girls are however more friendly.
I have couple of FOB friends who hang out with ABCDs most of the time and are dating ABCD's.
Locals also hangout with desis who make for an good company and desis who take interest in american way of life and not just living in this country.

Anonymous said...

I read a work of Rabindranath Tagore called Europe Probasher Patra (Letters from Europe) in which he wrote about Indians settled in London who asked newcomers how long they had been in England, which roads they were familiar with etc.A new Indian was not judged by his merits but only by how long he had lived in England. This is still the culture of desi abroad. No change in over hundred years.

Anonymous said...

one of the many frustrating joys of living in this great country. If you have kids, you can talk about them, but there may not be much more substance in conversation...FOB or ABCD. guess the art of convo is lost and long gone.