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Desi Dreams (Indian Immigrant Women Build Lives Across Two Worlds)

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Item Code: NAM111
Author: Ashidhara Das
Publisher: Primus Books, Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 2012
ISBN: 9789380607474
Pages: 183
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.5 inch x 6.5 inch
Weight 470 gm
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Book Description

About the Book

Desi Dreams focuses on the India immigrant professional and semi-professional women who live and work in the USA. Some of the major issues that this ethnographic study discusses are: What are the selves and identities of professional Indian women? How is the continuity of selves and identities accomplished when these women find themselves constantly shutting between the starkly different expectations of American society and workplace on one hand, and the Indian immigrant home and community on the other?

The focus in this anthropological fieldwork is on Indian immigrants in the San Francisco Bay Area. They have often been defined as a model minority. Indian immigrant women who have achieved entry into the current technology based economy in the Silicon Valley value the capital-accumulation, status-transformation, socio-economic autonomy, and renegotiation of familial gender relations that are made possible by their employment. However, this quintessential American success story conceals the psychic costs of uneasy Americanization, long drawn out gender battles, and incessant cross-cultural journeys of selves and identities. The outcome is a diasporic identity through the re-composition of Indian culture in the diaspora and strengthening of transnational ties to India.

About the Author

Ashidhara Das earned her PhD in Cultural Anthropology from the University of California, San Diego, and has published articles in prestigious journals, such as the Journal of the Anthropological Survey of India. She has also presented her work at numerous conferences, including the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association. Her main interest is in the Indian diaspora in the US and in gender relations within the Indian immigrant community in Northern California. She resides in the San Francisco Bay Area and currently teaches freshman anthropology at a liberal arts college.


In general, My research has been guided by the principle that the study of cultural theories accompanied by the collection and analysis of ethnographic data is the principal foundation of the formulation of new theories of lasting value. I do not claim to have penetrated the innermost working workings of the psyche of my informants, nor do I claim to have found out the ultimate truth about their lives but rather, I embarked on a journey of self-exploration with them. Many of my interviewees said that they really enjoyed talking to me as they got to talk about themselves and the issues they faced in their lives. Each encounter was different in tone for while some women were eager to air their concerns, worries, and anxieties about their lives, others wanted to present their lives as complete, fulfilled, and balanced in every way. I suppose each was speaking her own truth and she was conveying to me even in her exaggerations, or in her evasions and silences. I am grateful to the women I interviewed for laying out their lives in front of me for me to examine and in the following chapters I will attempt to summarize some of my findings from these interviews.

As a member of the immigrant community, I know my work will be read by some members of this community, and while I was writing up the data I had collected, I was aware that some Indian Americans will regard my work as somewhat objectionable. I do not want to strengthen existing stereotypes, yet I must represent my findings impartially. On some occasions it has been hard to create a distance between myself and my subjects, especially as we are so similar, and so this has been one of the ongoing challenges of my research. I suppose all researchers identify with ‘their people’ at some point, and must make a conscious effort to separate their own identities from that of their subjects to create a study as objective as possible.

I was fortunate to be in an extremely inclusive university. Eminent experts in their respective fields, the professors who took me under their wing were extremely down to earth, and they went out of their way to explain new theoretical concepts to me and help me to adjust to the academic environment. My colleagues were exceedingly friendly, including me in numerous formal as well as informal discussions both inside and outside class. Besides being exceptionally academically gifted and receptive to learning, the undergraduate students I taught in discussion sections in the course of my work as a teaching assistant in the university were invariably cordial and cooperative. However, whilst conducting some of my research, I found that my university colleagues and students sometimes that were hard to explain as they do not have the same cultural conditioning as I do. Once, I was asked about patriarchal tyranny in Asian America; after all, had not all feminists, both White and Brown, always insisted that Asian women were terribly oppressed and domestic abuse was rampant in the Indian community? I found it difficult to counter this perception, but it is not entirely correct. Yes, I had found that patriarchal authority was seldom directly questioned among Asian Indians in the US, but I also discovered many instances where it was indirectly subverted. Equally, many Indian American women I had spoken to indicated that their priority was to hold the immigrant family together in the face of cultural marginalization by the dominant society, and they accomplished this by bolstering the self-perception of their men rather than attempting to change age-old habits for the sake of female rights. I was also asked: Do Indian diasporic parents not deprive their children of the opportunity to adopt normative ‘American’ behaviour patterns? Do they not force outdated restrictive ethnic cultural strictures on Indian American youth? I found it difficult to explain the emotional over-reliance on biological links, especially on offspring, that I had found among first generation Indian immigrants. Also, the parental response to the charge of being ethnically inferior was to assert their own ethnic moral superiority and thus, to attempt to invert normative exclusion by the mainstream population. This does not justify overbearing parental conduct, but it does explain it to some extent. Besides being a social-theorist, I am also a parent of two children who are growing up in the US, and I am confident that my children will able to negotiate the socio-political and cultural constraints they encounter in their daily lives with confidence in their own familial and ethnic roots as well as familiarity with American values and norms. I stand on both sides of the ethnographic researcher-subject fence, and my job as translator is sometimes hard to perform since I am invested in both sides.

Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo observes that gender and immigration scholarship must research how gender permeates a variety of day-to-day practices and political and economic institutional structures (1999). Rather than focusing only women’s experiences, women’s empowerment, and everyday female relationships, we must study how gender is a crucial ingredient of immigration. Gender permeates and organizes a variety of practices, institutions, and identities that are incorporated in immigration. In my own research, I have studied how gender is a crucial element in the composition of the labour force, transnationalism, moral conceptualizations, and ethnic identity. It is not possible to do justice to the full range of female experiences without also studying male experiences, hence my research is as much about Indian immigrant men as it is about Indian immigrant women in the Bay Area. Hence, this work records Indian immigrant male experience alongside corresponding female experience in the US, and in this way, it belongs to the genre of genre studies more than it belongs to the genre of women’s studies.


This Research work focuses on the construction of self and identity by Indian professional and semi-professional women who are resident in the San Francisco- Oakland Bay Area. The objective is to examine how professional achievement and economic mobility can remake gender, race, and class relations for actual ethnographic subjects. Arguably, anthropologists today must be cognizant of sweeping changes in global populations in the current era of late capitalism. Traditionally a study of the ‘other’ in the colonial and capitalist periphery, anthropology must now adjust to the entrance of the ‘other’ in unprecedented numbers into the Western core metropolises. Nirmal Puwar and Parvati Raghuram have written about the arrival of difference within the academia (2003), and I here have since been many scholarly works which have focused on the female members of the South Asian diaspora in recent years. There is a burgeoning population of Asian Indians in California. The 2010 Census states that there are 528,176 Asian Indians in California, who constitute 1.4 per cent of the population of the state, and who are especially concentrated in the San Francisco Bay Area. According to the 2010 Census, there are 119,854 Asian Indians in the San Francisco Bay Area, constituting 2.8 per cent of the total population of all the nine counties of the Area. There are a substantial number of working women in this population, many of whom are highly qualified professionals, especially those working in the Silicon Valey. According to a national survey, 34 per cent of Asian Indian females indicated that they were in professional/managerial occupations (William Darity et al., ‘Dressing for Success: Explaining Differences in Economic Performance Among Racial and Ethnographic Groups in the USA’, unpublished manuscript, 1994, quoted in Kamala Visweswaran, 1997). The presentation of their negotiation of ethnic difference and monocultural compliance contributes to contemporary debates about gender, work, and migration. While field studies of working class immigrant women have proliferated in recent years, there is a relative absence of empirical research on professional immigrant women who enjoy a measure of socio-economic autonomy. This study will, therefore, be of use to researchers of immigrant relations and employment, and the conclusions will be especially helpful in understanding immigrant dilemmas concerning assimilation, reclamation of ethnic identities, cultural autonomy, and minority agency.

This work addresses the following issues: the various identities and selves of professional Indian women; issues regarding the continuity of the self and identity when individuals constantly shuttle between the starkly different ethnoscapes of the American workplace, and the Indian immigrant home; transnational ideoscapes of belonging; and finally, the ways in which bay Area Asian Indian women build lives across worlds. Desi is a term used by immigrants from the Indian subcontinent to refer to themselves; it is inclusive of all the diaspora, regardless of their gender, religion, cast, age, or class. A caveat: the research findings reported in this book are specific to the professional class of Indians in the Bay Area, and may not always be applicable to all Indian immigrants.

Undoubtedly the level of assimilation or accommodation vis-a-vis mainstream American society increases with length of residence and employment history in the US, but parallel to this, there is an increasing emphasis on Indian diasporic identity among those who have a long residence experience and employment history. This work argues that the following model explains how these conflicting trends develop in the selves and identities of Asian Indian women in white-collar professions in the Silicon Valley and in other parts of the Bay Area.

The first stage of identity formation takes place in the first couple of years in the US, during which time the women dealt with in this work adapted to the shock of arrival in America. Due to the pervasiveness of Western culture in ex-colonial, neoliberal India, these women had imagined that they were sufficiently familiar with the Western lifestyle to negotiate the intricacies of daily life and culture in America. Though they live in a post-colonial era, they often continue the tradition of emulating Western women, educating themselves in the ways of Westerners, and if possible, immigrating to the West. Seduced by the neoliberal siren song of American global capitalism, they went to the US to pursue the American dream of educational opportunity, technological innovation, and economic prosperity, When they got off the plane from India however, they found that their ignorance of the local linguistic accents, currency cuisine fashions, traffic regulations, and modes of behaviour, were sufficiently alienating in the US to make it difficult to function in American society and the workplace. In the first couple of years of living and working in the US, due to the shock of acculturation and Americanization, Asian Indian immigrant women experienced a climactic psychological change similar to an identity crisis. Despite the continuity of an inner ethnic identity, they thought that many of their old social habits, skills, behaviours, and values had become irrelevant in the new situation. The resultant quest to rapidly adopt locally accepted customs, moral standards, and skills can cause considerable internal turmoil.


List of Tables ix
Preface xi
Acknowledgements xvii
I At Home and at Work in the Diaspora: Theoretical Approaches and a Statistical Overview 1
II In Search of Success in the American Workplace 32
III Professional Women at Home and in the Immigrant Community 58
IV The Construction of the Self 94
V Conclusion 136
Glossary 149
Bibliography 151
Index 159

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