Digitally Speaking

When 16 year-old Jaspreet signals to the girls in her dance to get ready for another run through, the mass of chattering and giggling 11th grade girls slowly moves into formation. The twenty high school girls assembled on the driveway and front lawn of Nidhi's San Jose home become increasingly social and energetic, as the early evening breeze offers a respite from the intense California sun. Jaspreet explains, "This is for our Junior Class skit at school. Each grade had to pick a cartoon theme, and we chose Alvin and the Chipmunks. We're The Chipettes." Adjusting the boom box wedged between the Camry and Minivan, she turns to the group and bellows, "Ok, everybody, get ready!" Compared to their television counterparts, these Chipettes are notably more diverse and include a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds -- a lived example of the White-minority California of the 2000 Census.

The Chipettes version of "Leader of the Pack" begins to blare, causing girls to scramble into their proper places. I met him at the candy store... that's when I fell for... the leader... beep... beep... beep! In the ensuing commotion, one girl checks her shoe and turns to the girl beside her to shriek, "Omigod, is that you?" "It's not me," she replies, "but it's, like, someone around here!" A flurry of hands search pockets, sock elastic bands, and keychains until a resounding squeal is heard. "He paged me '07734'! 426 beeped me!" exclaimed Maria, who now had a small huddle around her. "Wow, that is so sweet," said one of her groupies, dreamily. "What are you going to page him back?" clamored another. Staring deeply into the LCD display screen, she waveringly announces, "I don't know... maybe '14'? Nidhi, can I use your phone?" "No, wait" offered another girl, "my mom lent me her cell phone. I'll go get it from the car!" As Jaspreet restarts the music and tries to herd the girls back into position, the familiar beeping and accompanying search routine recurs. This time the lucky winner shouts, "My sister wants the 411. What are we doing after this?"

If this scene feels like finding yourself in a nation where you don't speak the language or hold the currency, and the locals are too busy socializing to show you the lay of the land, it's about time you arrived. 07734! (which spells out 'Hello' on the LCD display of a pager, if you turn it upside down). Welcome to the Nation of Teenagers, where pager code is spoken and a beeper, cell phone or networked computer will get you almost everywhere you want to be. Here, despite the range of ethnic and linguistic differences among Silicon Valley youth, several common languages are spoken. Pager code is more or less the latest (although probably not the greatest) innovation in teenage communication, and Instant Messaging offers a quick and easy way to stay in touch.

At first glance, these technologies seem like new versions of age-old communication forms such as telephone calls and note-passing. Upon closer examination, however, these digital technologies depart from their analog predecessors by enabling instant access to people, shared codes of communication, and previously unimaginable means of surveillance. For desi teenagers in Silicon Valley, technological innovations such as pagers and Instant Messaging have become integral to maintaining friendships and relationships as well as handling rules set by their parents and community. They have become incorporated into larger practices of consumption that are linked to status and reputation. Further, these technologies are popular among girls as well as boys. Unlike male-dominated realms of Game Boys and Playstations, pagers and IM cross the gender barrier, with girls as active users. The methods and implications of this technology use offer new perspectives on social networks, intergenerational relationships, and the dynamic state of South Asian youth culture in the United States.

Community, Consumption and Status Among Silicon Valley Desis

South Asians in Silicon Valley comprise a far more socioeconomically diverse group than most media accounts suggest. With ubiquitous stories of desi-led start-ups, CEOs and successful engineers, who are you if you aren't worth millions? Chances are you are one of the thousands of working- and middle-class South Asians who populate the assembly lines and delivery services. Along with Vietnamese, Mexican, Filipino, White and Black workers, they comprise the solid but unrecognized workforce of around-the-clock quality inspectors, truck drivers and security personnel that enable the large-scale manufacturing and production for which "The Valley" has become renown. They range from recent arrivals from South Asia to more established families who settled in Yuba City a few generations ago, as well as Indians from Fiji who have made the Bay Area their home. Growing numbers of upper-middle class engineers and doctors have also flocked to this area over the past three decades, creating a large and fragmented "community" in which families mainly socialize with members of their own extended family or ethnic group.

Across these divisions, consumption is one way in which status is conferred and maintained. Even for less wealthy desis, holding a working-class job does not necessarily mean looking the part. In today's world of consumer culture, you don't have to have millions to display certain signs of status. Luxury cars, high-end consumer goods and designer apparel often signal movement from average middle-class life to the good life. As home prices in previously undesirable parts of Silicon Valley climb into the unattainable range for many middle-class families, arriving at the Gurdwara in your pre-owned Lexus or visiting friends in your new Lincoln Navigator is fast becoming the sign of the times. Among teenagers and their parents, there are sure signs of when a family has made it, and displaying that to their community is a definitive step in that process.

These linkages between status and consumption are especially prominent because Silicon Valley desi life includes many large, tightly-knit communities of extended families or groups of families, many of whom have maintained ties formed before moving to the U.S.. These communities generally form along religious and linguistic lines, which result in aggregations of families from Gujarat, Karachi, and Fiji all socializing among themselves. While there is some intermingling, these groups have become so large and established that people barely have time to fulfill their own social obligations of weddings, graduation and dinner parties, let alone routinely venture outside of their circle. Within these circles, if there isn't an event to be planned or discussed, the grist of everyday talk centers around consumer culture, ranging from which family bought a new car to whose cousin has a high-definition home theater.

Consumption practices predictably vary across classes, but nearly everyone is participant. For desi teenagers, the context of public high school and related school events puts them into close contact with a wide variety of peers. In this setting, display and connectivity are central to maintaining status. The range of consumption practices vary, wherein upper-class desi teens are routinely bought new cars of their choosing, while disposable income for leisure purchases can be harder to come by among working- and middle-class teenagers. While some items fall out of the range of everyday acquisitions, others such as pagers have become affordable to even the smallest of budgets. Likewise, even youth with little access to technology at home can still Instant Message at school or from a friend's place.

Commodity consumption and use of new media technologies such as pagers and instant messaging are wide-spread among desi teenagers in Silicon Valley. The goods themselves, as well as their use, are part of semiotic systems that signify social networks and group membership. They are culturally significant in how they work with and against rules and expectations placed on these youth by their families and communities.

Learning the Code

In the moment-to-moment world of teenagers where trends become passé in a matter of days (if they even last that long), Pager Codes and Instant Messaging are hardly the hot new fad. Sunil, an 11th grader at X high school scoffed at the question of whether he uses pager codes and exclaimed, "Pager codes? That was so two years ago!" Then why are pagers still ubiquitous features on backpacks, bungee cords, and in pockets? The somewhat passé status of pagers underlines the question of how this relatively new and innovative technology so quickly became a commonplace means of communication.

Part of the answer lies in the convenience and accessibility of the device itself. Pagers became cheaply available and popular among teenagers about five years ago, and are still widely used. Most teenagers who use them own the basic one-way numeric model with a two inch square LCD display window, which are available in a variety of colors and translucent styles. While smaller, more stylish pagers range from $30-$60, the basic models cost about $10 or even come free with monthly service, which is about $5-$10 per month. Unlike standard cell phones, all pagers can be set on vibrate mode, and receive pages unnoticed by others in all but the quietest of places. Having a cell phone ring in high school will most likely involve its confiscation, and at the very least require an answer or quick call to check voicemail. While the popularity of cell phones is on the rise, they are still out of many teens' price range. Easily available pagers can be set on silent mode at school and beep mode to profile in public places, and offer the added convenience of displaying a specific message and the sender of the page right on the screen. If you can read it, that is.

Where do youth attain this type of literacy? Mainly from friends, where pager codes become an easy, discreet and potentially exclusive way of communicating. Amanpreet and Rani are two close friends who both use pager codes with their tightly-knit circle of friends. About acquiring the code, Amanpreet remarks, "we learned those a long time ago. We started out writing them down, having a list. Simi introduced it to us in the first place. She was the first one to get a pager, and learned the alphabet and then we learned it from her and she carried it around and we learned how to use it." This type of knowledge dissemination and in-group literacy contributes to why pager code is still widely used.

How do a few numbers become entire phrases? While the intended use of pagers is to enter a telephone number at which you wish to be called back, few teenagers regularly use pagers in this way. Rather, they use localized numeric codes to convey simple and complex messages, most often eliminating the need for call-backs. Most use a system where each letter in the alphabet is represented by a number or set of numbers. Amanpreet explains, "You put the numbers together and they look like letters. Just imagine the letter transforming into something -- like two numbers would be an L or a D. You sort of make out the letters, 177 when you put them together it looks like an 'M.'" Certain codes are standardized within a group to convey messages. Rani elaborates that, in her circle of friends, "823 means 'thinking of you,' 673 is 'always and forever'... Most often we page to say things like 'Call me,' 'good night.' 'I love you' is 143. It takes forever to write some things out, so people have this thing going: 'I' is one letter, 'love' is 4 letter and 'you' is 3." Pager code is not limited to English, as Navdeep explains: "Sometimes when I page my Mexican friends I say '50538,' which spells out 'BESOS' (upside-down), or 'kisses' in Spanish."

My initial foray into this world involved my paging teenagers without any response or acknowledgement. When I followed up, I was informed that my pages went ignored because I didn't say who I was. I soon learned to append the requisite *55, the code name given to me by a group of girls who were baffled as to why I didn't already have a code; '55' stand for my initials 'SS.' Once initiated, I too could ask for the "411"-information, let them know my page was "911"- urgent, or if I was going to be "87" ("L8"/ late, upside-down). Looking back to the dance rehearsal at the beginning of this article, the Mexican girl gets a "hello" (07734 upside-down) from *426, whom she immediately identifies to be a boy she likes, and contemplates saying "hi" (14) back. On a high school scale, that's a lot of information in very few characters.

Hide and Seek?

When face-to-face contact is restricted and phone use monitored, pagers offer options for communication. They are especially useful for youth who are not allowed to get calls from the opposite sex at home. "Anytime a girl calls our house asking for me, even if it is for school or something, my mom trips!" exclaims 16 year old Gurpreet. "She don't [sic] even have to be a girlfriend, but my parents ask me all these questions. That's why I have people page me." Similarly, Amanpreet praises the utility of pagers in her high-surveillance world: "I hardly ever give people my number- I have them page me and then I call them. When I get calls I have to go through our caller ID box and delete them before they see them. Otherwise my parents ask me about every call I get."

While it is tempting to ask what these kids are working so hard to hide, it is perhaps more culturally relevant to inquire why hiding is the default tactic. One of the central areas of generational conflict between these youth and their parents centers around social freedom, including dating, going out with co-ed groups of friends, or going out in unsupervised groups. Although these are typical aspects of high school life on TV for many of their Mexican, Black, White and Asian friends, the lives of desi teens can be quite different. Not only do the vast majority of these desi parents forbid their teenagers from dating, but restrict their overall movement for fear of having their family reputation besmirched. In their closely-knit social circles, gossip is a rampant and formidable social force. While news about your new Mercedes convertible is exciting, who you were seen with in it raises the stakes considerably. From teenagers to grandparents, talk flows about such topics, and while many of these discussions are complimentary, it is just as easy to become the focus of unfavorable attention. From upper-class to working-class desi families, maintaining a good reputation becomes a concern for families, especially those with teenagers. While boys can have relatively more freedom than their sisters, most are still not allowed to date in high school, and are aware of the implications of bringing a bad name to their family through their social activity.

Pagers and IM provide new angles and options in circumventing these issues. In some cases, especially among Sikh and Muslim teenagers with whom I spoke, teens agree with their parents that dating is not right for them, and are amenable to the idea of their parents introducing them to suitable partners when they are older. Despite this open agreement with their parents on this matter, their freedom is still limited to family or community events. Mandeep, a frustrated 17 year-old, explains, "My parents are just hella strict- they never let me go anywhere unless I'm with them, or with my brother and sister at a family thing. It's not like I'm even doing anything- I know what's right and wrong. They're just hella strict." For these youth, paging friends or receiving occasional pages is often their only social contact outside of school.

Other youth who disagree with social restrictions placed on them find pagers to be an way to have some contact with romantic interests or friends when meeting up is out of the question. Ever since Dinesh bought his girlfriend Aisha a pager that matched his, they are able to communicate outside of school. "It's especially nice over weekends, or vacations, when we hardly ever see each other," Aisha explains. "Usually he pages me 'good morning,' 'thinking of you,' 'I love you' and 'good night.'" In this sense, pagers provide the option of discreet contact and communication, without attracting unwanted attention.

All this freedom has its downside, if you have tech-savvy parents who are aware of your pager and know how to find you. Amar exclaims about his pager, "I hate that thing, it's like a leash. My Mom pages me all the time and starts to trip when I don't call her back. I never want to own a cell phone." Sonny relates similar experiences: "If I tell my mom I'm going someplace and she pages me, I gotta think fast if I'm not where I said, because we have caller ID and she can see exactly where I'm calling from. So if I call from someone else's house, she'll be like, 'Let me talk to their mother,' and then I'm screwed." A handful of parents and kids seem to manage a balance, where kids are honest about where they are going, and parents refrain from paging excessively. That is, if you are out in the first place.

C U Online?

If you're not out with your friends, the next best place to be is online. When Roshini logs on to her computer about an hour after school, her screen is soon filled with flashing messages and high and low pitched alert noises emanating from AOL Instant Messenger. She begins to respond while revealing the identity behind each Screen Name: her cousin at a neighboring high school, a friend from a youth conference, the boy she might have a crush on but can't decide, and the same five girls with whom she spends almost all her time at school. Soon juggling about six conversations at once, it is her computer rather than Roshini, who seems overwhelmed by the myriad twinkles and chimes timed with the sending and receiving of flashing messages. "I just get on a couple of times a day to say hi to friends, especially people I haven't talked to in a while. It's so much easier than email, which I use for more formal things like sending out information." IMing away, Roshini brings each of the conversations to a close and logs off, knowing she will see her friends back online in a matter of hours, or less.

One of the most popular programs among desi youth is AOL Instant Messenger (IM). While email is one sided and chat rooms are often filled with strangers, Instant Messaging offers just that -- immediate contact with exactly those whom you are trying to reach. By adding "buddies" (the Screen Names of other users) to a list, you can see which of your friends is on-line as soon as you sign on. With doors creaking open and slamming shut to signal entries and departures of your "buddies," the dynamic list of nearest and dearest IM pals simulates the feeling of all being in the same place together. Even with call-waiting, it would be impossible to have daily contact with this many friends at once, and in this sense IMing reintroduces a dailiness back into communication with people you can't see face-to-face.

On-line chatting and messaging has its own language too. While standard English is acceptable, if writing in it doesn't slow you down, deciphering the different types of IM-speak that others use will. Are you kewl, koo, coo, or just cool? Did that make you LOL (Laugh Out Loud)? OMG (Oh My God), I'll BRB (Be Right Back). Online, you can create your own expressive or humorous IM Screen Name, chat in fonts and colors of your choosing, and even add your own icon for others to see.

Coming of Age in a Technological Time

In the early nineties, urban twenty-somethings might have reminisced about their teen years to the tune of: "Back in the days when I was a teenager, before I had status and before I had a pager..." (A Tribe Called Quest). For today's teens, there is no world before pagers, no distinct time in their memory when they could not get online and IM their friends. There are several aspects of this modernity that are significant in the lives of desi teens and their families.

One is having instant access to people. Immediate contact has become the norm, offering radically different conceptions of time and space. For the parents of these kids, communication with friends and loved ones was often about "aerogrammes" that took about three to four weeks to arrive from South Asia. Even older siblings of these teens can recall a time before answering machines and voicemail, or an even darker age without call-waiting. All these developments do not inherently make growing up or being a teenager any easier. They do, however, increase the type of peer support and company teens rely on with one another to make it through these trying years. Another feature of this modernity is the ease of connectivity these technologies offer. As a rejoinder to those ubiquitous TV commercials about how technology and the internet are transforming the world into a global village, this teenage use illustrates how they sometimes make the same village feel more global to some of it's residents.

In some ways, these languages of connectivity might seem subversive, disobedient, or just plain disrespectful to boundaries that parents set according to their best judgement and their children's best interest. Yet, compared to the myriad more serious teenage issues of gangs, violence, alcohol, drugs, and so on, a little '07734' never hurt anybody.

[Names in this article have been changed].

Comments For desi teenagers in Silicon Valley, abstruse innovations such as pagers and Instant Messaging accept become basic to advancement friendships and relationships as able-bodied as administration rules set by their parents and community. 

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