By Sharon Simonson
SAN JOSE—Ten years ago, Shreeja Sharma probably could not have found her job in Silicon Valley — or anywhere else in the United States. No, she is not a computer scientist honing technology’s cutting edge. She is something a lot cooler — a global citizen riding today’s transnational currents of cultural change. A former “radio jockey” for India’s national broadcaster, All-India Radio, Sharma grew up in Delhi, speaks three languages, claims Canadian citizenship and a U.S. green card, and has lived in four countries on two continents.
Since January 2012, she has peeled her eyelids back at 5 a.m. each weekday to commute an hour from her East Bay home to the East San Jose radio studios of Desi 1170 KLOK AM. (A “desi” is an Indian person who lives outside his or her native country.) There, beginning at 7 a.m., she spends three hours in nonstop gab, her speech wandering effortlessly from Hindi to English to Hinglish and back again. She brings news of Indian relations with Pakistan, a notable train wreck or a prominent politician’s death along with updates on the California drought and regional water quality. She plays Bollywood music, responds to Tweets, Facebook comments and other social media — often commentary from listeners reacting to something she has said, a cricket game back home or a song that has prompted reminiscence. She interviews local business owners and station advertisers about tax services, legal counsel, face creams and student tutoring — all with the needs of a newly immigrated ethnic population in mind.
For someone who speaks only one of the three languages (say English), it is a semi-comprehensible mix. But for the Bay Area’s Asian-Indian, Nepali, Pakistani and other Hindi-speaking residents, the show offers news, information and entertainment relevant to American lives but delivered in native languages and a familiar format. Her job, Sharma says, is to tie life here to life there, “to bridge that gap.”
“I feel that gap,” she says.
Me: How did you get started in radio?
Shreeja: Back in India at “All India Radio,” the biggest radio organization in India and a government agency. It’s a regional powerhouse and people in countries around India would know it too. I was into Western music and not into Indian music at all. I played only American or English songs, top hits of the time. We had jazz hours, so Harry Belafonte, and classical music. I would play Vivaldi and a bit of Chopin and piano concertos. It always depended on the show’s format. I got into speaking Hindi and playing Indian music much later. I was born and raised in Delhi and I know English as well as Hindi and—I think it’s probably a term in the dictionary—Hinglish, which is a mix of Hindi and English.
Me: Did you say ‘Hinglish’?
Shreeja: Yes. That is the language that everyone speaks in the cities of India now and that is the language that I speak on the radio. People ask me, ‘How do you switch from one language to the other like that?’ (But) that is how we have been doing it all of our lives in Delhi. That’s just the way it is, and I’m not doing anything. When I was in college or school, of course when we studied English, they said, ‘Just English,’ or when we attended Hindi lectures, we were told, ‘No English.’ It was hard. It was harder doing it exclusively in English than Hindi. I don’t know why that is. My dad was a journalist. My mom taught economics in college, and we spoke more English at home than Hindi.
Me: Do you hear Indians speaking Hinglish here in Northern California, in Silicon Valley?
Shreeja: Oh yes.
Me: How did you wind up in Silicon Valley doing a morning drive-time radio show in Hindi?
Shreeja: We moved here in 2007. I saw the (size of the) Indian population, and I had heard of one (Hindi) station that wasn’t 24 hours, and I recall thinking that’s very surprising. Then back in 2010 maybe late 2009, I did another search and then this (station) popped up. I cold-called the general number. The former afternoon drive-time guy here called back and says, ‘Why don’t you come in with your resume?’ It was near 5 p.m. when the evening drive was kicking off, and I met with them for five minutes and then the drive-time host says, ‘Why don’t you do a live audition?’ There was the opportunity, and I had to grab it. It was exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. I went on the air, and he asked me questions. I had all of that experience behind me in India and then in Dubai. Here they were still in the process of growing. They were just starting out, and they were looking for people to help them with programming. There was an alignment of the stars, and this was meant to happen.
Me: Do you speak on the air in the same way as you did in India?
Shreeja: Seventy-five percent of it would be the same. My sentences might be constructed somewhat differently. There may be words I use in everyday conversation here that are not used in India. Someone in India would be able to tell I was raised in India, but they would know that my word choices are not the same as in India.
Me: What do you see as your role for the Indian and Southeast Asian community in the Bay Area?
Shreeja: I put myself in my listeners’ shoes. I tell people, ‘You are trying to build a home here for yourself, and it’s a new country, and you are still listening to Indian music and talking about stuff back home as you are trying to settle down. I can help you with some of the mistakes you will make here. There are people who understand what you are feeling. We all know about America, and we want to move here for the opportunity and to discover it. But it can also be quite intimidating and scary as well. You don’t wear the clothes that people here wear. Some words are considered inappropriate here … ‘
Me: Like what?
Shreeja: Like ‘shit,’ no one uses it in everyday conversation. In India my sentences are peppered with the word shit. When kids from here go back to India, you have to explain. Also ‘stupid.’ Here I don’t find that used too often, and if you say that in school, you are in big trouble. In India, if you ask me, I am being very affectionate, but here you don’t call anyone stupid. ‘Freaking out.’ Here that means, ‘I don’t know to fix this.’ In India it means ‘Let’s have a great time.’ It has a connotation of celebration. In India it’s more British English, but the man on the street wants to speak in American English because it is considered way cooler.
Me: Why did you leave India?
Shreeja: It just happened. A Dubai radio station advertised in an Indian newspaper in Delhi, and my dad saw it. I was there for two-and-a-half years. I have family and friends who had moved to Dubai and the United States. They brought back a bit of their life to India when they came, and also American movies were very big (in India). I remember (seeing) “Pretty Woman” and “Dirty Dancing.” The whole family, everyone—brothers, cousins, uncles—all of us—went to watch “Titanic.” So Hollywood and Hollywood music were with us.
Me: Why did you leave Dubai?
Shreeja: You can’t apply for citizenship. You can buy property now, but at that time it was unusual or unheard of. You were in many ways at the mercy of the employer. The job got you the visa, and if you lost your job, it was like losing your right to stay in that country to a major extent. We (she and her husband) were very sad to leave, but we didn’t want to find 10 years down the line it was not working.
Me: Why did you go to Canada instead of returning to India?
Shreeja: Once we had experienced a different life and culture, we thought we can fall back on India, but we were in our 20s with no kids and not afraid to try stuff. Even today I think if I didn’t have this feeling of being settled with my job in the radio business, and my husband said, ‘Let’s try the East Coast,’ I might.
Me: It seems exhausting to fill three hours of programming a day. Is it?
Shreeja: The biggest thing is the passion I have for it. I am always excited about what I’m going to bring tomorrow. I do think I have always been an extremely talkative person to the point of being annoying. I wouldn’t wish myself on anyone for more than three hours.
Me: What is your daily life like?
Shreeja: I get up a 4:45 a.m., or my alarm is set for that. I do hit the snooze button before I drag myself out of bed. I love the show, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But I am not a morning person at all. I leave my house by five minutes of 6. The commute is close to an hour coming from the East Bay. Once I’m done with the show, there are commercial spots to lend your voice to or a guest that comes in live for an interview. It is also a lot of reading online. There is a lot of information out there, but not everything is fun. The news is negative, unfortunately, but relentlessly negative is not life. I want to see positive because I need something to look forward to.
Me: What are your aspirations for yourself and your life?
Shreeja: I love radio. I am hoping that the station will grow. I have seen how the everyday interactions have grown, how starting from a handful of people to so much more. Whether it’s people from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Fiji, I have people from all of these countries interact with me regularly. The Indian community is still the most sizable. It’s a huge ecosystem, and it is very exciting with the Facebook and Twitter interactions. It is fascinating how people respond immediately to what I say, and they like it that I go back on the air and share what they say.
(Photo courtesy of Shreeja Sharma)