In a land of immigrants, the vigorous use of hand-gestures is a great way to communicate with a person whose language you don’t speak. Which is how I get by when I bump into my friend Monica’s mother on the road outside my suburban home in a sleepy town in the San Francisco Bay Area. Aunty has, on several occasions, tried to teach me a smattering of Telugu, as she wants very much to communicate with me, but I’ve been a bit of a disappointment on that front. Of course, our inability to speak the same language has never come in the way of my enjoying piping hot dosakaya pappu at her home.

I can say with full confidence that I’ve had greater exposure to cuisine from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana while living in Silicon Valley than I did when I lived in India. My vocabulary now includes MLA pesarattu (green moong daal dosa stuffed with upma), a dish believed to have originated in the canteens of the State Legislative Assembly in Hyderabad, that has made its way across every dosa diner in the Bay Area.

Six years ago, an analysis of US census data showed that Telugu was the fastest growing foreign language in the country. Meanwhile, reports over the last decade show that the city of Hyderabad has sent more students to the US than any other Indian state. Of these students, the vast majority studied science, technology, engineering and math.

In Silicon Valley, both these statistics converge. I’m very willing to believe the data, given that I hear Telugu at every turn – in parks, gardens, restaurants, outside my son’s school and on the trail that leads from home to school.

A friend, whose family had migrated from India to Pennsylvania, had her first culture shock when she moved to the Bay Area not so long ago. Her parents moved to the US from Tamil Nadu, though her family was originally from Andhra Pradesh. The language she spoke at home was a hybrid of Telugu and Tamil. This was not something she was particularly conscious of while growing up in a Jewish neighbourhood in Pennsylvania, where she thought of herself as just another white girl with brown skin.

But in the Bay Area, surrounded by recent migrants from India, she suddenly found she had to explain precisely where she was from, why her Telugu wasn’t Telugu enough and why, despite having a name and skin-color that matched those around her, she spoke with an American accent.

MLA pesarattu served at Arusuvai Virunthu, a Tamil restaurant with a large Telugu clientele in the San Francisco Bay Area. Courtesy Arusuvai Virunthu via Anahita Mukherjee.

The explosion of Telugu speakers in Silicon Valley is a relatively recent phenomenon. Twenty years ago, a non-profit called Silicon Andhra first began a Telugu language teaching programme in the Bay Area called Manabadi, with 300 children. Today, the organisation runs an accredited programme with 11,000 students registered at 250 locations across the US and Canada.

When I moved to Silicon Valley, I expected I’d encounter engineers from all the states south of the Vindhyas, given the region’s affinity for engineering. I was, however, surprised at meeting more Telugu speakers than Kannadigas – which seemed odd, given that Bangalore is widely considered India’s Silicon Valley.

“Why are there so many Telugu speakers here?” I asked Anand Kuchibhotla, CEO and president of the University of Silicon Andhra, the first university founded by Indians in the US. The institution, based in the Bay Area, offers courses that range from computer science to kuchipudi dance.

Kuchibhotla believes the influx of Telugu-speakers in Silicon Valley may have to do with a combination of rather contradictory factors. While there is a tremendous thrust on education and engineering across Andhra and Telangana, the region is largely agrarian. Across undivided Andhra Pradesh, he says there is no place besides Hyderabad that provides quality employment in tech. Meanwhile, he points to flourishing opportunities for techies in Karnataka, because of which many don’t want to leave the city.

As engineers from Andhra and Telangana look to move out of their states for jobs, Silicon Valley is an obvious destination. Engineering colleges in Andhra and Telangana cater directly to the needs of Silicon Valley, with an emphasis on software engineering. Many mechanical, chemical and other engineering departments in these colleges are on the verge of closing. So closely does the region mirror Silicon Valley that Andhra engineering colleges now offer courses in artificial intelligence.

Chandrababu Naidu, the former chief minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh, has also been widely credited with attempts to woo global tech companies, turn Hyderabad into India’s next IT capital, and set up more engineering colleges across the state. Naidu has even toured the US in order to seek investment in Andhra’s IT sector.

As a result of the region’s emphasis on engineering, when techies from Andhra Pradesh land in the Bay Area, they often have a ready-made community, something I witnessed first hand at a Telugu friend’s 40th birthday party in Sunnyvale. Nearly all those who attended the party were classmates who had studied with her in India.

A musical performance at the University of Silicon Andhra in 2017. Credit: Rama 56, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

A competitive spirit and the obsession with education among the Telugu community may have a lot to do with the fact that many, like Kuchibhotla, watched their grandparents struggle in the field of agriculture, and wanted a different life for themselves. Studying engineering was a way out for them. Education was the sole focus of his childhood. “It was all about writing entrance exams,” he said.

In 1987, when Kuchibhotla moved to the US for a master’s in engineering, he was the second person to do so from Machilipatnam in Andhra Pradesh. His move inspired his brother and sister-in-law to pursue higher education in America, too.

Today, he says that every other household in the region has at least one family member in the US.

The same can be said of Chittoor, a town in Andhra Pradesh that borders Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. “Growing up, we had only two career options – medicine and engineering,” said my friend Deepthi, who grew up in Chittoor and now lives in the Bay Area. “Many parents would rather their children chose engineering, given that medicine is a tougher choice, and it takes a lot longer for medical students to settle down in life. So my father chose engineering for me. He made what he thought was the most practical choice, based on what he saw around him.”

Given the number of families with children in the US, she says there is frequent travel between Chittoor and Silicon Valley. Whenever Deepthi wants something from India, she doesn’t need to wait too long to get it. After returning to the Bay Area from a vacation to India, her eight-year-old daughter Maanya found she had left her favourite ring behind at her grandparent’s home. Though the ring was made of fake metal and was worthless moneywise, it had deep sentimental value for the little girl who was upset without it. So Deepthi called her father and asked him if there was anyone from his town traveling to the Bay Area. In two weeks, Maanya had her ring back.

Kuchibhotla, who encounters Telugu-speakers on a daily basis – tellers in grocery stores, servers at restaurants and his doctor at Kaiser – never imagined there’d come a time when, living in America, he wouldn’t need to speak English.

Anahita Mukherji is an award-winning Indian journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area.