South Asian 'Gangs' in NY/NJ [Village Voice]

Rohit Khare (
Tue, 24 Feb 1998 06:00:45 -0800

> "A New Crowd in the City: Indian, Pakistani Kids Threaten Community's
> 'Perfect' Image"
> by Ana Arana
> They wear baggy pants, favor hairstyles called fades, play loud hip hop
> music, and fight with other youngsters. That's all familiar, but look
> again: these are new players in inner-city life. These are Indian and
> Pakistani kids mimicking the tough street hustlers of other locales. In
> New York and New Jersey's Indian and Pakistani neighborhoods, they are
> the tough guys - the homeboys, the members of wannabe gangs made up of
> high school kids and young adults. Even as the weather turns colder
> they're out every night - but especially on weekends - congregating on
> street corners near the ethnic shopping areas throughout the region,
> where thousands of families flock to the shops to buy their weekly
> specialty foods. In the midst of the weekend bustle, these youngsters
> revel in challenging everything that's culturally Indian and Pakistani -
> or South Asian, a term that includes all the different communities from
> the Indian subcontinent.
> They smoke marijuana and drink beer - a serious offense in their sober
> and religious communities. They harass the girls who come shopping with
> their parents, violating strict rules on how to treat women. They
> exasperate the local merchants at nearby stores, who fear their presence
> will scare off customers.
> They're in Jersey City and Edison, in Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, and
> in Brooklyn's Midwood. The groups adopt symbols and names that define
> their religion or locality. One group that police claim is now
> disbanded was known as the Punjabi-by-Nature-Boys and wore Sikh symbols
> - two swords in semicircle; they used to hang out in Flushing, Queens.
> The Medina Boys, named after the Muslim holy city, is made up of
> Pakistanis who mostly reside in the Jackson Heights area. The Malayalee
> Hit Squad is named for the North Indian area where most of its members'
> families come from. The 74th Street Boys got their name from the
> Jackson Heights street lined with Indian and Pakistani bazaars.
> The gangs are loosely organized and do not engage in heavy criminal
> activities as other ethnic gangs do, according to community organizers.
> Police in New York declined to talk about the groups, although community
> activists say the department monitors them closely. For the South Asian
> community - which includes Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis - these
> gangs are scary, in their own way.
> "Until very recently, the community was a perfect success story - it
> was a model community," explained Madhulika Kandalukal, an
> Indian-American sociologist. But there's a revolution in music, dress,
> and behavior of young people, she said, and the gangs - a tiny fraction
> of the community at large - need to be dealt with by the community.
> There's a possible downside to talking about these problems, though,
> Khandalukal said. It could result in the creation of new stereotypes.
> And that's what most South Asians fear the most: damage to their
> reputation as a well-mannered, hard-working, and high-achieving ethnic
> group. Because of that disturbing prospect, few experts in the
> community are willing to talk openly about youth problems and
> alienation.
> Yet the problems of disaffection and youth unhappiness transcend
> community boundaries. An unsigned letter circulated on the Internet a
> while ago in which two American-born Indian youths questioned their
> parent's demands on them and talked about their inability to feel
> totally Indian or totally American.
> The angst was more soul-searching than that of the gangs, and less
> destructive, but a handful of community organizers who have begun to
> work with South Asian youth say there are deeper issues of alienation
> and identity crisis. "They're an American relflection of what's going
> on," pointed out Rekha Malhotra, a 25-year old American of Indian
> descent who grew up in Flushing and Long Island.
> "They're defining a new sense of self," Malhotra said. "They're not
> white, they're not black. They're picked on by everyone. They have
> conflicts with their parents, who still behave as if they don't belong
> here."
> She remembers being called a "smelly Indian" by other kids when she was
> among the first Indian kids in Flushing. It wasn't until she enrolled
> at Queens College and met other Indian Americans that Malhotra found she
> wasn't alone in feeling invisible in this society, where ethnicity is
> well defined and Indians and Pakistanis don't fit within the available
> definitions.
> Malhotra sees the kids at South Asian parties, which have become
> popular in New York and New Jersey, and where she works as a disc
> jockey. Some come to dance to Bhangra, Indian music from the state of
> Punjab. But others want to hear hip hop music, and dance to it with
> people like themselves.
> At New York's SOB's recently, Wall Street types mixed in with the
> homeboys dancing alone, as videos with Indian and religious icons
> flashed on a background screen. There wre middle-class girls who danced
> with other girls, and college boys. But by the end of the night, the
> homeboys were in the majority, and hip hop ws the music of choice.
> "This thing of identity crisis and feeling different is not new in
> America," Malhotra said. "But for Indians and other South Asians it
> is."
> She added: "The parents want the gangs to go away and want to say
> they're only poor kids. But [the groups] also include sons of doctors
> and other professionals. They're only an expression of the difficulties
> youth are facing. The formulation of the gangs is to be together. It
> includes second-generation kids who want to belong and are reacting to
> the idea that Indians and other South Asians are nerds or Gandhi types."
> Malhotra and others trace the origin of South Asian gangs to the late
> 1980's and early 1990's, when gangs of white youths beat unsuspecting
> South Asians and vandalized shops in Jersey City. The so-called Dot
> Buster Gang attacks opened the eyes of the young South Asian population
> and led to the creation of consciousness-raising groups in colleges. In
> the streets, and at the high school level, it led kids to the
> realization that they would have to fight back so they did not get
> beaten up in school.
> Meanwhile, in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, an 18-year-old Pakistani
> youth, who came to this country 10 years ago, said he quickly learned
> his tenuous place in the culture. (He did not want his name used, and
> is apparently not a gang member himself.) Few in his neighborhood can
> find his country on a map, but they all seem to hate him, he said.
> Until he learned to fight back, he was chased, robbed, and harassed.
> "Blacks, Hispanics, and whites pick on us. We don't walk the streets
> alone," he said.
> He and about 20 other Pakistani youth attending James Madision High
> School have complained about the harassment to school officials, but he
> said they haven't responded.
> The area where he lives is a bustling, tight-knit community that's run
> like a small village. Concentrated along Coney Island Avenue and
> defined by Avenue H and 18th Avenue, it is the largest Pakistani
> community in New York. It's primarily a working-class community of
> cab-drivers, restaurant workers, and service industry employees. Women
> walk the streets in traditional dress, squeezed between aging Victorian
> homes and stucco apartments, there is a small mosque.
> The 1990 census determined there were about a million South Asians in
> the United States. But community leaders estimate there are about 2
> million more who have entered the country illegally. The census figure
> included the bulk of professionals and upper-class Indians, Pakistanis,
> and Bangladeshis who immigrated to the U.S. in the early '60s, and their
> American-born children.
> In the tristate area, the various communities live side by side in
> neighborhoods such as Elmhurst, Flushing, and Astoria - the first stop
> for the new arrivals or less affluent residents; Jersey City, Edison,
> and Union City, where new arrivals and old-time residents live; and Long
> Island, where the more affluent families have settled down. The Midwood
> section of Brooklyn is the largest Pakistani neighborhood in the city.
> The various communities do not socialize. Class and ethnic and
> religious lines that are important at home dominate social interaction
> here. Those differences are sometimes acted out by the youth gangs -
> which use names and tags delineating their ethnic or religious
> differences. One major dividing line is between U.S.-born youth and
> those who came to this country as immigrant children.
> "Our problems are not single-issue," pointed out Sayu Bhojwani, a
> 29-year old Indian who runs the South Asian Youth Action center in
> Elmhurst, Queens. Petite and bespectacled, Bhojwani looks like a high
> school senior herself. Through SAYA, she has visited most New York
> schools with large South Asian populations. "We're running up against
> our own good stereotypes," she said, adding that the group had a hard
> time getting funding resources to help them get started. The reaction,
> she said, often is, "Indians? But Indians and South Asian kids don't
> have problems."
> South Asian parents can also be clueless. Bhojwani, who has a master's
> in English education from Columbia University Teacher's College, said
> simple issues like dating, or feeling displaced because nobody in
> television looks like you, are issues parent's don't get. "In India,
> there's no teenager culture."
> Sandhya Sassi and Prachi MOdi are two spunky girls who are board
> members of SAYA. Born in New York, both are 17. They are the type of
> offspring every South Asian parent is proud to have. Straight A
> students, they attended the Bronx High School of Science, where there
> are 200 other American-born Indian students. Asked to describe the
> social scene at the school, Sandhya said she and other Indian girls
> stayed together, and dated other Indian boys. "Most of the school is
> like that," she said.
> Both girls said they feel Indian, but their parents wnat them to be
> more Indian.
> But there is a gulf between the problems these two girls have and the
> youngsters who came to this country 10 years ago. U.S.-born South
> Asians and recent immigrants don't necessarily mix. American-born
> Indians call recent immigrants "FOBs," or Fresh Off the Boat. And
> foreign-born Indians as "ABCD," or American-Born Confused Desi (Desi
> means hick or a country boy).
> The Nav Nirmaan Foundation is a South Asian social service group based
> in Elmhurst, Queens, that deals with immigrant children who have gotten
> in trouble. The agency gets its referrals from local schools or social
> service agencies. Many of the children have behavioral problems, or are
> alcohol or drug abusers.
> Nav Nirmaan often tries to treat the entire family when it gets a youth
> referral. Many of the troubled children live with parents who abuse
> alcohol or in a home where there is domestic violence. The group holds
> free weekly alcohol and substance-abuse counseling sessions.
> Some of the behavioral problems are connected to youth's feelings of
> inadequacy in their new country. A lot of the kids who join gangs just
> want to become Americans quickly.
> Also, in many cases involving recent immigrants the parents are
> overwhelmed with their new reality, and have relinquished their parental
> roles. Children often speak better English and serve as translators for
> their parents. This role reversal, according to the therapists and
> youth activists, alters the balance of power in the family structure - a
> dangerous result within South Asian traditional families.
> Two hundred Bangladeshi students at Long Island City High School are
> luck to have found Abul Azad, a Bangladeshi teacher who's taken over the
> fatherly role that parents can't fulfill. Azad's been a teacher for
> four years, and his students respect and obey him. Himself an immigrant
> who first arrived in the United States in 1980, he understands their
> needs.
> "Bangladeshi kids are very respectful. If you teach them the right
> things, they are wondeful," he said one afternoon as he tested students
> on Bengali language.
> His close involvement with the children brings good results. All
> Bangladeshi graduating seniors went to college last year, although they
> had enrolled with limited English skills in their freshman year.
> Azad explained: "These are the children of the cabdrivers, the
> restaurant workes, who came to America alone and only in the last 10
> years have been able ot bring their wives and kids to this country. The
> youth are not expected to have problems adjusting to their new lives,
> because they are being taken care of. But it's hard on the kids.
> That's why the school is so important."