I’ve been meaning to reach out to you for a while now. I even contemplated writing you a very thoughtful instagram DM about how much I enjoy and appreciate your work and everything that you do to represent the Indian-American community. But the thought of sliding into your DM’s weirded me out a little. So instead, I’m going to let you know in the most normal and least awkward way possible: a very public Michigan Daily article. Plus I’ve missed a few meetings and haven’t written in a while, so this works on multiple fronts.
Funny enough, I was introduced to you by my Dad. For context, my Dad is a lot like Najme, in the sense that he’s a Dad, he’s Indian and still works with the intensity and passion that he had when he immigrated to America. He might be one of the hardest working people I know. Actually, on second thought, that might be my mom, considering that she had to raise me. But we digress. My Dad usually comes home from work and enters our house on what seems to be a very serious conference call, or he is just upset about something. Therefore, I was quite surprised and a little concerned when my Dad came home laughing on a fall day during my junior year of high school. He then told me to stop working on my math homework because he heard a really funny story on the Moth radio hour where the comedian was speaking Hindi and that I had to hear it. Now, for anyone who has parents who are engineers or maybe just Asian can appreciate the rarity of this moment. On most days, the opposite would happen and my dad would start teaching me how to do my math homework because of his lack of faith in my public school education.
He led me to our home office, found the story on the Moth’s website and soon enough, your voice started playing from our home computer as you told your prom story. On my first listen I remember thoroughly enjoying the story, but I remained skeptical. On one hand, there weren’t a lot Indian-Americans in show business. So as much as I enjoyed your story, I wasn’t sure if I’d hear anymore of your material in the future. On the other hand, I was very convinced that our prom experiences would be entirely different and your story was just an outlier. And even though I didn’t have a “trusty huffy,” when I found myself driving back home in my mom’s Chevy Malibu at 2 a.m. in drenched clothes after playing hours of BeanBoozled in my friend’s basement, the only thing I thought about was your story (you can imagine how my prom night went).
Since my junior year, you’ve also delivered with your time on The Daily Show, your Netflix special Homecoming King and now with Patriot Act. Listening to your work eventually opened my eyes to something unique. It was the first time I had heard a person talking about their cultural identity in such a confident and relatable way. And even though I felt like I had a pretty good understanding of my culture, I still had a really hard time trying to express it and talking about it with other people, especially when I started high school.
People don’t give you enough credit for how well you talk about your identity and the Indian American community. Being a second-generation immigrant is a very personal thing and can turn out to be an incredibly strange to talk about. Especially when you’re growing up and trying to figure it out for yourself. For example, in elementary school, one of the most common questions I’d get asked is why I didn’t eat beef. I’d also occasionally get made fun of whenever my mom would pack me Indian food for lunch while all of the cooler kids ate their Lunchables and wore clothes from the Gap. But in hindsight, you’ve got to give kids that age the benefit of the doubt. No matter how sensitive the topic, if an elementary schooler sees something they haven’t seen before, they’re going to ask you multiple inappropriate questions and throw tantrums for fun. They’re just curious kids who don’t know any better.
My dad’s job took my family to Bangalore, India for three years, which meant that I would attend middle school in India and move back to Ann Arbor halfway through the eighth grade. Questions of my cultural identity never really came up, because for once, I was part of a majority. I went to an international school where most of my issues came just from the experience that is middle school. Plus, I got really familiar with my culture and where my family was from. I got to experience a lot of the same things my parents did growing up. It was the first time I got to celebrate holidays with more family members than just my parents. When it was time for me to move back, I was a little nervous and sad because of the relationships I’d lose. But for the most part I knew moving back to Ann Arbor would be like a homecoming and that I could just pick up my life from where I had left it. However, I had not thought about how much living in another country for three years could change you.
I found this out in the most brutal and uncomfortable way possible. My very first class on arrival was Ms. Jender’s American History class. We were learning about the Trail of Tears and she asked the class for a volunteer to read a passage. Obviously, no one immediately volunteered and so Ms. Jender decided to wait until one of us did. I made the mistake of breaking the deadlock and read a passage that described some pretty horrifying things in a very thick Indian accent that I had picked up (Like, I’m talking multiple c’s guys). But by the time I was done reading, I looked up and the whole class held in their laughter. They all finally broke, when a guy from the back of the class said “Hey Apu! Thank you, come again!”. And at first I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But in hindsight, that guy was just a dick, there really isn’t a doubt in my mind about that.
In fact middle schoolers are probably the most terrifying people you could interact with. This isn’t solely from experience with dealing with other middle schoolers, it’s also from thinking about the stuff I was capable of doing myself. They’re at this weird age where we’d expect them to be at least a little mature, but anyone who does expect this is almost immediately disappointed.
Ironically, my first week in Ann Arbor was probably the week I felt most away from home. It was like everyone forgot that I had lived the majority of my life in Ann Arbor. Every teacher introduced themselves to me deliberately speaking in slow motion and over-enunciating every word assuming I didn’t know English. A kid also told me they felt bad for me because they had seen Slumdog Millionaire. The funny thing is that when I had just moved to India and told people I was from America, everyone would look at me surprised that I wasn’t overweight because they had seen the movie Super-Size Me. When I then tried to explain to them that Ann Arbor was actually a nice place and that it was near Detroit, they would then respond in horrified expressions because the movie 8 Mile was somehow popular amongst middle schoolers in India. So the stereotypes really go both ways on this one.
When I talked to my parents about this, my dad didn’t really react and told me to just wait it out and that things would come around. My mom, on the other hand, reacted in a completely opposite way. We started listening to NPR a lot more in the car and she would often make me repeat sentences or short phrases in Terry Gross’s accent. Using this accent, she also refused to talk to me in Hindi around the house (this rule excluded my dad or relatives on the phone). She also bought me a lot of clothes from American Eagle because she thought that would help. And for my first two years of high school, it really became a situation where I’d leave my cultural identity behind at home and when I went to school I just tried to do normal high school activities and do anything I could to fit in.
But something strange happened sometime between my senior year of high school and now. All of a sudden I’m really having my moment as a person of color. Going to college in Ann Arbor while also being from here has been a somewhat interesting experience. Because besides being deprived of fun, spontaneous college memories because your parents want you to live at home, I’ve been able to have very different relationships with this city as I age. And I don’t know if it just took 2-3 Indian restaurants or more hot yoga places to open up, but suddenly the cultural identity that I have worked to keep low-key has suddenly become very interesting to all of my friends. My friends come over to me and ask me questions about my culture (that aren’t offensive), like I’ve been leaving them out of the world’s best kept secret. Earlier this week in one of my classes, my friend asked me where’s the best place to get Samosas in a manner that someone would buy drugs at a public library.
Other questions/remarks include “Hey I love the food at Cardamom, you must be so lucky eating Indian food at home” (I am lucky to eat Indian food at home because my mom makes it. And according to her if your favorite Indian dish is “Chicken Tikka Masala” or “Butter Chicken” from Cardamom, then you really aren’t eating Indian food. I’ll let you figure the rest out). “Where’s the best place to get Chai tea” (If you call it “Chai tea”, then you don’t deserve to know). “Is hot yoga, like, authentic?” (I don’t actually have an opinion on this one, so I guess the verdict is still out on this.) Now that I’m writing all of this down, I’ve realized that I’ve really become a real life version of a Yelp page for all things Indian. And honestly, I don’t mind it that much. I love the fact that I can share my culture with different people. Just make sure to give my reviews 5 stars, don’t be shocked if I don’t know something and don’t be awkward about it. I’m not an encyclopaedia and nor should I or any other person of color be obligated to talk about their culture if they don’t want to. But I did start to sort of act like one. Maybe just a little.
Therefore, last summer when my parents told me that we’d be going to India for a short trip I got really excited. It had been around 5 years since I had lived in India or had seen any family or friends that lived there. So naturally, I got kind of emotional and really felt that this trip had a lot of meaning. If it took me 5 years to finally get free enough to make the trip, I wasn’t sure when the next time would be. I felt like LeBron going back to Cleveland.
As soon as we landed and walked out of the airport, I thought to myself that there’s nothing much more that feels like home than 103 degree weather and 99 percent humidity. Laws are more like suggestions in India, which means traffic laws are almost non-existent. The taxi ride from the airport to my grandparents’ house felt like real-life Grand Theft Auto. When we first got into the taxi, the music playing was an unrecognizable hindi song. The taxi driver then glanced at me briefly in the rear view mirror and changed the radio station to a more mainstream Bollywood station that I recognized. But then he stared at me through the rear view mirror and saw the Michigan Crewneck which I was wearing. This prompted him to change the radio to a station that played “In My Feelings” by Drake. As I got to my grandparents’ house and started speaking to my cousins in Hindi, they cut me off in mid-sentence and said “Ok, you know we’re just going to speak English while you’re here because listening to this is pretty rough. You’re way too American.” And I swear, I was so uncomfortable for the rest of the night. First of all, I never said my Hindi was perfect. If anyone had bothered to look at my resume, it says “Working Proficiency,” in the sense that it works and it’s proficient in getting me where I need to go. But it really made me think for a while: if I’m Indian in America but American in India, then what exactly am I?
I’ve finally realized that the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. In fact, many second-generation immigrants face this question and have to deal with navigating between these two identities until it becomes a unique blend of the two and becomes their own identity.
Over the past couple of years, people have talked about going to family gatherings over Thanksgiving and always avoiding the one relative that keeps up with current events through Trump’s Twitter account and also believes in UFOs. I’ve never really experienced this feeling because Thanksgiving in my family is basically my parents and I spending the day cooking and then watching the first two Godfather films (no one likes the third one). But earlier this year when Modi got re-elected in India, I finally had my Thanksgiving moment and it really did feel like being in a Jordan Peele movie. Slowly, family members started trying to convince me that Modi was a completely ethical leader through Whatsapp messages. It was all very uncomfortable (especially since I replied with a link of your episode on Indian elections, Hasan). I’m not an overtly political person who spends my free time protesting or sharing a bunch of CNN headlines on facebook. But it does concern me that two of the world’s largest democracies are being run by people who preach intense nationalism and focus more on trying to find differences amongst groups of people rather than unifying communities.
The reason why I’ve written this rather lengthy letter is to thank you, Hasan, for two reasons. The first is that on your show you bring a lot of controversial and important issues that we should know about to light. Yes, your show does feel like a Drake concert, but it also feels like a town hall where you’re bringing people together from different backgrounds and you’re telling us why we should care about those issues as a community. The second is that you talk about your experience as a second generation immigrant and growing up as part of a minority, a subject that I thought made me quite different from my peers, in such a relatable and accessible way through comedy. The fact that you are getting laughs from people who could be a part of two completely different communities shows that we may be more alike than we think. This idea is very important for the world that we live in today and that not enough people realize. I can’t wait for the upcoming season.