Nov 20, 2005

Why "FOB" is not "KEWL"

The word "FOB" bothers me. It's bothered me for a long time. A term of derision used against folks from the (m)otherland who came to the U.S. later than our parents, or even our friends who are 1.5th generation.

The conventional wisdom goes a little something like this: They may have come here for college, or even a little before that, but they're still relatively young. They don't seem to wear their clothes right, wearing white socks with dress shoes, jeans that are a little too tight, or acid-washed, or high-watered, or rolled up funny. They occasionally have unruly hair, too much make-up, awkward laughs. They stare, they bring their own food to events or on trips, they're unnecessarily loud, they become shy when they should speak, and are too loud when they should be quiet. They rejoice to see other Indians/Chinese/whatever when they do. They recoil when a lazy American accent rolls off your tongue (perhaps intentionally a bit lazier just to make the point, to widen the gap, to underscore the separation, to distinguish ABCD from F-O-B).

I've never been comfortable with the short-hand that native-borns use for non-native borns in the Asian American diaspora, especially in South Asian circles. I started thinking about it, and after going to a party last night, where a group of young desi socialites were laughing it up, I finally realized why. These folks were obviously not native-born, or at least were connected enough to a transnational life to feel more international than some of us - the untraveled, insular Americans. They were dressed well, spoke with a slight tinge of a proper British Indian training, and able to switch back and forth from English to Hindi, a kind of interplay that resonated of Bollywood more than Bombay, though for the foreign traveller like myself, I don't know if I'd know the difference.

They were laughing about uncle jokes, and the exaggerated accents and caricatures came tumbling out of the closet. I was annoyed. And I become increasingly more annoyed, until I finally talked it out that night at home. This was classism. These folks, and perhaps my peers with the privilege of decades of assimilation, were making fun of folks who hadn't "fit in" yet. They were pointing out the differences that embarrassed themselves, that made them feel better about where their lives were, and that again, created distance from themselves and who they did not want to be associated or affiliated with. The privilege oozed off of these folks, many of whom must have come from very well off families, flashing their financial status and entitlement, and I could sense a similar privilege from people who were just Americans.

It saddens me that this attitude, this writing off of a whole bunch of our people, happens on a daily basis. It worries me that any true attempt to build from the fragments and partitions that we've become, that we continue to create, will be ever more difficult in light of these perceptions. It bothers me that this is an old problem that we're dealing with still, and that there's no real relief in sight. And it angers me that if we can't get our shit together in some way in our own young community, amongst our brothers and sisters, how will we challenge our elders and teach those who come after us?

And the privilege leads to an enormous gap in understanding between these folks who are living in the clouds (and for the jet-set, those are literal clouds) and those who are stuck on the ground, dreaming, but daunted.

So don't use "FOB" near me. I may go postal like I almost did last night. It was the accents, but maybe it was also because one of them insulted Gujarati food. You just don't go there.


SK said...

Great post. I have always thought the term "FOB" represents nothing but the desire to exclude and humiliate.

Rage said...

Thanks, SK. I definitely agree with you on that, at least from my personal feelings. We need to be uniters, not dividererers. :)