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Sreeny Cherukuri
xx honest but politically incorrect observations (1)
« Thread started on: Feb 23rd, 2003, 10:05pm »

Detroit Telugu Association - 25 years
A success or a failure?
By- Sreeny Cherukuri

Years ago, the Detroit Telugu Association was founded with the hopes of creating a Telugu Cultural society for the Immigrant generation and for their children. Clearly the association is thriving, with many founding families still participating, and it has been enthusiastically embraced by recent subsequent arrivals.

But what of the second generation? Has the DTA been successful in creating a community and passing on culture to the next generation? The answer to these questions is unfortunately No.

If you were to look at the DTA directory from the late 70’s and track the several dozen children who made up the first generation to grow up here, you would find the following: The are highly educated, and most are well on their way to successful careers. Many are happily married, and some are even raising their children here in Detroit.

But the question remains has the DTA been successful in creating a community among the next generation? In this respect DTA (and all other Telugu associations that I know of) has been a failure. And while I speak of this from personal experience, the data bears witness. When we look at the first generation, we observe several curious trends.

1. The majority have married outside the Telugu community (Outmarriage)
2. They have a high rate of divorce, as well as late marriage
3. There is very little sense of community among the next generation.

Outmarriage. When a member of an affinity group decides to marry outside the community group – there are generally only two possibilities: Either there is a lack of opportunity within the group, or the individuals feel a weak affinity for the group. With the majority of Telugu youth marrying outside their native community, it is clear that the so-called Telugu associations have failed in this respect. The Telugu youth are either entirely frustrated in their efforts to find a spouse within the community, and/or the Telugu community (or being Telugu) means comparatively little to them.

This is not meant as a criticism of the individual decision to marry. However, in aggregate, the high rate of outmarrriage is damning evidence of the failure of organizations like the DTA to create a community for their subsequent generations.

Divorce and Late Marriage. The second disturbing characteristic is the high rate of divorce. By some accounts, the divorce rate among first generation Indian Americans has surpassed that of the American average. This is most puzzling, since certainly we are raised with as strong a sense of marriage as any group in the USA. Perhaps it is related to the fact that many are forced to marry outside the community, those of a different background, or simply those with little shared experiences – that proper spousal bonds never form.

A related development is late marriage. Across the community, many are getting married quite late or not at all. There are many dozens in their 30s who remain unmarried – and some likely will stay that way. Theories abound as to why – but again clearly this group is finding it difficult to find mates and comfortably settle into marriage

Community. Finally, it appears there is very little sense of community among first generation. DTA functions are full of participants in their 20s and 30s, but almost all are recent immigrants. Again, I speak from personal experience…few who grew up in the US seem to participate in Telugu Associations or even in Telugu society as adults. Among individuals who grew up in the community, there is some friendly familiarity – but little real social interaction.
(Continued in next post )
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Sreeny Cherukuri
xx Honest but politically incorrect observations (2)
« Reply #1 on: Feb 23rd, 2003, 10:12pm »

So why has the Telugu community which has served the immigrant generation so well, failed the succeeding generation? I think the reasons are many reasons, but I will highlight several.

Unresolved caste issues. Unfortunately, when many of the old caste prejudices from the old country cropped up here there was a devastating effect on the second generation. Now caste is not something we are comfortable discussing as a community – unless we are in the privacy of our own caste community – in which case we all know the conversations that go on.

It wasn’t always this way. When the DTA was founded, and the community small, everyone mixed with everyone. However as the population grew, caste divisions reasserted themselves – probably starting in the late 1970s or early 80s. In those days, it was probably benign – not political.

Nevertheless, it had a devastating effect, communities which were already small, were fragmented further. Children growing up in this period had comparatively few cohorts – and now their interaction with them was sharply reduced. I personally recall the Telugu social circle splitting – such that there was a period of years in which was no one of my age group at any of the parties my family would attend. As you would expect this was a period when I largely withdrew from the community – and I know many who have shared this experience. Add in the TANA/ATA nonsense and you have a situation where people weren’t even attending the same conferences, and many others simply gave attending in disgust.

Sexuality in a Foreign Country.. A second area in which the community failed the second generation was the inability of parents; to deal with the issue of their children’s sexuality (read: dating and marriage). While the youth conferences are fond of having session in which the youth discuss dating and marriage – it is most peculiar that the Parents have never done the same. There are other communities in which the parental community attacks the issue as a group – Jews, Catholics, and Gujuratis come to mind. In our community, it seems to be an issue that many families never even talk about. Now perhaps this again relates to caste, wealth, or other issues, but one thing is certain – the parent have never held even a single forum to discuss such issues.

Hence most youth of the community mature – dealing with such issues by themselves. Dating secretly – and certainly almost certainly outside the community. Going back to the issue of outmarriage – it is probably unrealistic to expect children to marry into a community in which they’ve had little interaction. Far too many parents, it seems, think they can ignore such things until their kid is done with Medical School, hit a switch, and expect them to suddenly find success dating in the Telugu community.

DTA Youth. Yet another problem seems to be the way in which the DTA has historically dealt with its youth. Where as the DTA has done an excellent job encouraging children to learn and perform in cultural events, I don’t believe the community placed enough emphasis on creating a community for the youth. In my days as a DTA youth member, my main function was to setup tables – and get other youth volunteers to do the same. Not all DTA activities need necessarily revolve around the cultural events – and doing so leaves many out. Simply planning events like ballgames, Cedar Point trips, whatever. will help build ties between the youth and the community. And parents should actively support these activities.

Conclusion. Now to end on a positive note – I will say that I do observe some improvement in the half-generation that is following me. Among those kids 10 years younger than me, they do seem to have developed stronger bonds of friendship amongst themselves - and it appears their parents are significantly more supportive of such things. Also, more and more parents seem to be aware of the problems that those of marriageable age face, I hope they will somewhere soon convene a parents’ forum to discuss such things. I believe all would benefit if they had a way of knowing what others in the community were thinking.

Finally, I want to emphasize that I don’t believe, that the problems I have discussed reflect a disinterest by youth in their own Telugu culture. A couple of years ago one of the members of our community said something rather profound to me. He said that he felt “sorry for Americans when they have to move to a new town – because they have no community to fit into.” Like him, I think most in the second generation strongly value being Telugu and being Indian. I believe the vast majority want to be part of the community, and marry in the community. It simply has not been possible for many in the past – but that does not mean the community can’t change in the future.

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Vijay Uncle
xx Re: honest but politically incorrect observations
« Reply #2 on: Feb 23rd, 2003, 10:19pm »

These bold observation were made by Sreeny Cherukuri at the silver jubilee celebration of Detroit Telugu Association, July 13th 2002.

At all such conventions most leaders are busy touting the great achievement of the organization. Sreeny raises several very important issues. Most of the time lacking on the agenda is sincere effort by the first generation as to how they plan to change to meet the needs of second generation.

The issues raised by Sreeny is not isolated experience of Detroit Telugu Association but I would suspect most of the segments of our Desi Society. Time has come to address these issues.

We thank Sreeny for sharing his thought with us. He may be reached at

- Vijay Mehta
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xx Re: honest but politically incorrect observations
« Reply #3 on: Nov 29th, 2004, 08:33am »

I grew up in the Detroit Telugu community around the same time as Sreenivas Cherukuri. And while I agree with certain elements of his analysis, I strongly believe that some of his assumptions need to be questioned.

Sreeny is right when he says that the Detroit Telugu Association, while it served our parents generation well, has not been embraced by the second generation in quite the same way. And like Sreeny, I believe it is worth asking why. As he points out, the Association (and its national partners such as TANA and ATA) exist today largely because they have been invigorated by a fresh stream of immigration from Andhra starting in the mid-90s. But kids of my generation, who grew up in the US and are now in their 20s or 30s have moved away from the organization.

But the causes and consequences of this, I believe, have to be examined at a more fundamental level. First of all, what does it mean to embrace one's identity as a Telugu American (or Gujarati-American, or Bengali-American, etc.)? Is it about speaking a particular language? Or about participating in a set of cultural performances (taken from classical, folk or filmi traditions)? Or creating bonds of community? Or mobilizing for political action? Or imparting a particular set of values?

Moreover, what is the role of an organization in promoting this type of cultural identity? If we take Sreeny's remarks seriously, then one of the primary roles of cultural organizations such as the DTA is to help reproduce the community, by creating a stable social arena, through which marriage alliances can be formed. Was this ever one of the DTA's goals, either explicitly or implicitly? Should this be one of its goals? I for one do not believe that the DTA can better serve the challenges of the next generation by becoming a dating service.

Let's go back a second to my first question. What does it mean to be a Telugu American? To this, there is no single answer. But one of the reasons why many second generation youth have moved away from the DTA is because there are other organizations that fulfill their needs better. Many kids who participate in the organization when they are in school often stop once they start attending college. On a college campus, one finds a number of other competing options: Indian (or South Asian, or Pakistani etc.) Student Associations, Hindu or Muslim Student Associations, or political action groups working around particular issues (violence against women in the South Asian community, the recent detentions of South Asian immigrants, AIDs, etc). Later on, some people might become active in organizations like NetIP or in their temples, mosques, gurdwaras. All of these organizations are popular, because they build solidarities across linguistic or regional lines. I believe that ISA (the Indian Students' Association) is so popular at a place like the University of Michigan because it provides a place for Telugu youth, for instance, to discover that their concerns growing up in the US, are rather similar to those of youth from other South Asian backgrounds. And that kind of shared experience creates its own kind of social bonds.

As "Telugu youth" start to make their own choices about cultural affiliations, many (though of course not all) find it more useful to think about themselves as part of a much larger constituency, understood either in terms of race (hence the frequent preference for blanket terms such as "South Asian" or "desi," which our parents never used) or in terms of religion (Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and so on). This is a phenomenon that needs to be taken seriously. For our parents, affiliations centering around caste, language and region took precedence because these markers explained their own social background. But in the US, how meaningful can the term "Telugu" be for a second generation that hardly speaks the language in the first place? How can "being Telugu" be relevant in the lives of a second generation that frequently confronts issues of race and ethnicity outside the home, rather than language or caste? So an organization designed to meet the social needs of our parents must change radically in order to serve the needs of a different generation, growing up with a different set of concerns.

If this is the case, why should Telugu youth marry within the community? Indeed, why should the relevant boundaries of community be defined in terms of language or region in the first place? If you care about cultural continuity, why not move up to a larger category such as "desi"? Or to a smaller one, such as caste? Sreeny assumes automatically that Telugus should be encouraged to marry Telugus to maintain cultural continuity, and that this is a task which an organization such as the DTA should take on. But again, what relevance does being Telugu have to a generation that hardly speaks the language, and has no investment in movements for linguistic autonomy in India itself (represented historically through the movement for the creation of a separate Andhra or a separate Telangana)?

To sum up, the issue is not marriage at all but much larger and more fundamental. If organizations such as the DTA want to be relevant to second generation Indian Americans (and I am not sure they really care about this question in the first place) they need to re-imagine ways of making linguistic identity meaningful to the politics and social struggles of the next generation. What for instance was the reaction of the DTA to an event like September 11. Or for that matter, TANA and ATA? If they can't accomodate the issues that face this new generation, in the American context, then they must accept the fact that being "Telugu" as an identity will become secondary to a number of other growing affiliations. This, and not dating, is the real issue.

Dear Poornima,

Thank you for sharing your views. I think most important question I would like to ask you is this. "If you were in charge of DTA or ATA or TANA what specif goals would you have in mind when organizing the activities and what specific steps you shall take to improve keenship among the second generation Telugus regardless of whether they speak Telugu or not?" Or you would be happy with let each kid figure out for him/herself? - Vijay Uncle
« Last Edit: Nov 29th, 2004, 8:10pm by Vijay Mehta » User IP Logged

xx Poornima Speaks...
« Reply #4 on: Jan 27th, 2006, 9:09pm »

I am checking this site after a very long time, and therefore failed to see Dr. Mehta's query to me until now. I realize that my reply comes rather late, and for that I am sorry.

First of all, in order to think about the on-going relevance of an organization such as the DTA in the lives of second-generation Telugu Americans, we need to stop and think about what kind of community is constituted by the term "Telugu" in the North American context. It usually refers to speakers of the Telugu language, many of whom (though not all) migrated from the state of Andhra Pradesh. But many second generation youth do not speak very much Telugu, and have only a casual attachment to the state of Andhra. While they might still call themselves Telugu Americans, how strong is this affiliation, if it is no longer secured by linguistic and regional identification, as it was for our parents' generation?

Besides, all of us who consider ourselves Telugu, whether we are first, second or third generation, also know that we inhabit other identities as well. As South Asian Americans, as people practicing (or hoping to practice) certain professions, as members of particular religious communities, and perhaps also as members of particular castes. As Sreenivas points out, the Telugu community, and therefore the various Telugu associations in America, have fractured numerous times along caste lines. So the idea of a "Telugu" community is not entirely stable. It can be subsumed by larger units of identification (such as desi) and broken down into smaller ones (such as caste). For those who want second generation children to grow up with a strong attachment to the idea of being Telugu, they need to think about why such as affiliation would continue to be meaningful for second and third generation children, growing up in the US, rather than in India. The answers are not particularly clear, and I personally feel that the notion of a Telugu community, while useful, also has its limits.

But there are plenty of avenues for thinking about, and strengthening the role of Telugu associations in the lives of second generation youth. We might for instance want to think of the association as a social network, that can serve some very practical ends for kids growing up in America, whether or not they speak Telugu or identify with Telugu culture. For instance, the association can develop a mentoring system, whereby older "youth" (say people of my generation) can coach or advise youger kids (those still in school) on academic matters, applying for colleges and employment, family and dating issues, etc. It would be fairly easy to host something like a "college day" where students in college or professional schools could sit down and talk to younger kids about the application process. The association could also develop an internship program where younger kids could spend their summer or spring break interning with older association members. I think many kids would be interested in an opportunity to intern with an ngo doing human rights work, or shadow a surgeon in the OR, or work in a science lab for a summer. Since many people in our communities do such interesting work, sharing that aspect of their lives with youth members is a great way to forge links. A database could be established nationally to advertise internship and employment opportunities. It would require some effort to establish and maintain, but would be more useful in the long run than the DTA youth picnics I went to as a kid.

In other words, Telugu associations in North America can serve to link people of different generations in practical ways: as sources of employment and mentoring, as networks for fundraising for charitable causes, as a base for political mobilization. If members start to participate in any one aspect of the network, the strength of the entire association improves. Many of my friends who are Jewish participate in their own communities this way, though they are not particularly religious. This is one model, therefore, of encouraging youth participation among Telugus, without having to rely too heavily on linguistic or cultural identification.

Another tactic might be to develop language skills and cultural knowledge in the second generation. Knowing another language opens up a diverse and hugely rewarding cultural world, so why not encourage more kids to learn Telugu? While some Telugu associations do offer Telugu lessons, this wasn't very seriously attempted by the DTA when I was a kid. Why? Because the DTA was largely a social network for our parents (kids were somewhat secondary), and our parents already spoke Telugu. But a lot of social, historical and cultural knowledge might be lost, if we fail to share our linguistic heritage with the next generation. The association could raise money for instance, to make sure that Telugu is offered as a language at Michigan universities. And it could fund opportunities for kids growing up in the US (whether they are desi or not) to spend time in Andhra. Why not fund a study abroad semester, through a local college or university, so that kids can spend some time studying in Hyderabad, and learn about the history, culture and politics of that region?

Finally, I would like to object to Sreenivas' suggestion that the DTA should primarily serve as a network for dating and marriage. In the end, to confuse culture for community and make that the faultline for social interaction leads to a very parochial and deflated understanding of our social heritage. If you grew up as a Telugu American, and would like to explore the language, history and culture of your ancestors, by all means do. If you think that Telugu networks can play a positive role in the lives of kids growing up in the US, be my guest and try and explore these possibilities. But don't forget that Telugu is a language, and that it can be taught to anyone, whether their ancestors spoke it or not. The musical and performance traditions associated with this language are also things that ought to be shared with the wider world. Cultural knowledge can and does cross the boundaries of community all the time; that's the beauty of it. "Outmarriage" as Sreenivas puts it does not signal the death of a cultural community, since culture can be taught just as it can be inherited.

The sad thing is that both first and second generation tend to treat the DTA as primarily an arena for dating, something which it will never be particularly good at. Strengthening the role of the DTA in the lives of second generation youth will instead require us to be more thoughtful about the kind of community we want to create and participate in. These are tough questions, with no simple answers, but I have yet to see anyone from the DTA (or the Tamil Sangam or the Gurjarati Samaj or any of the linguistic organizations) ask them.
« Last Edit: Jan 28th, 2006, 11:02am by Vijay Mehta » User IP Logged

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