“Oh, so your dad’s a FOB?”

That was my friend’s response when I mentioned that – unlike my Indian-born mom who grew up in the United States – my dad was born and raised India, and moved to the U.S. later in life.  That conversation occurred years ago but I’ve kept coming back to those words.  I knew she didn’t mean anything by it, but it got to me, considering once again how often the term was casually thrown around by my friends whose parents had immigrated to the U.S.

FOB stands for Fresh Off the Boat, and when the term first developed it was a racist slur hurled at Asian immigrants who had recently arrived in the United States.  These days, the term is often used within immigrant communities to denote someone who has recently immigrated and maintains much of their home country’s culture and behaviors.  I don’t consider this a true reclamation of the slur – instead, its current use still serves to reinforce negative stereotypes and assert a narrow idea of what it means to be a “real” American.

East Asian-Americans who grew up in the U.S. have been somewhat successful in reclaiming the term and taking pride in the “fobbyness” of their relatives, their peers, and even themselves.  But for many young Americans with roots in South Asia, being considered fobby is still seen as something to avoid at all costs.

The stereotypical desi FOB works in certain fields, may wear traditional clothing, and tends to only hang out with people from the same country.  Their social values are backward compared to the Enlightened West and they have thick accents that can be mockingly imitated by those who speak “better” English.  The prospect of getting married to “a FOB from back home” is considered a nightmare scenario, and if you do something even remotely in touch with your culture you might have to laugh it off as “so fobby”.

Among the American children of immigrants, the term FOB isn’t necessarily a means of directly attacking others in the way of its original usage.  Rather, it is used to distinguish oneself from the immigrant Other, and reinforce one’s own American-ness.  Calling someone or something fobby sends the signal that sure, you may be brown, but you’re not TOO brown.

In some ways the use of this term may be a response to the pressure South Asian-Americans often face from family members to strictly preserve their cultural traditions, even as they come in conflict with the practices of the American mainstream.  After all, desis also have an inverse term for people who have South Asian backgrounds but are allegedly too Westernized: ABCD (American Born Confused Desi).  Trying to navigate both sides of a hyphenated identity can be frustrating.  It’s also understandable that people who have always considered themselves more American than foreign would not always see eye-to-eye with someone who grew up with a vastly different cultural background.

But putting recent immigrants down does not lift us up, nor does it truly distance ourselves any further from our own immigrant heritage.  In a climate of increased violence and discrimination against people who look like us, we need more compassion and solidarity with those who are still struggling to find their place in a society that often makes them feel unwelcome.

  • Mariam Ahmed

    Originally from Texas, she lives in the Washington, DC area.