Growing Up Brown. A Personal Reflection to “Never Have I Ever”

I spend an entire night binge watching Mindy Kaling’s teenage angst dramady “Never Have I Ever” on Netflix. The aftermath was me, with a swollen face and red eyes recovering from the emotional whiplash I suffered from watching this series. The morning after I told my American-born-to-Indian-immigrants husband that he needed to watch it, and began crying telling him the tale of Devi. He unsuccessfully tried to hide his fear that it was going to be “one of those days” with his crazy wife.

As a first born Indian girl of immigrant parents watching this show elicited an intense range of emotions. It included everything from discomfort, shame and anxiety to joy, love and pride. Many have tried to represent American-Indian culture in a watchable format and have failed. It was invigorating to see it captured so well and more honestly than I expected.

I laughed out loud at the references to the “itchy saree”, fondly recalling all the times I yelped in pain while my Mom helped me pin and tie an intricate and uncomfortable Indian outfit. She would TSK loudly as I came down the stairs in my finished product, proclaiming that I wasn’t wearing enough jewelry or make-up. Meanwhile my dad excitedly made me pose for ridiculous photos, making me stand at various angles, having me set my chin on top of my fist for an Olan Mills worthy portrait. I would spend entire nights itching from the embroidery of the clothing, making note of the rashes and marks on my body after stripping it all off in my bedroom at the end of the night. Then of course I would leave the clothes in a heap on the floor for my Mom to deal with, having no idea how to fold 7 yards of material after it had been wrapped around my body several times over.

As a teenager I went through the usual angst of western high school culture, trying day and night to project coolness. Meanwhile at home, I was communicating in a language that was not technically my primary tongue, eating smelly food my friends didn’t eat. I would go to “Gujarati School” and “Jain school” on the weekends when my non-Indian friends were having fun or playing sports.

What made me sad however, is that the issues and cultural dilemmas faced by Devi in “Never Have I Ever” seem to be almost identical to my own stressors as a young teenager growing up in Toronto almost a generation and a half later. Like we haven’t learned anything from our missteps. I immediately identified in the first two episodes with the young girl who felt out of place, ugly, and at times too Indian and at other times not Indian enough.

The Gunesh Puja episode briefly highlighted the popularity contest that was arguably worse within the Indian community than in high school. The Aunties trying to one-up each other at cultural events hosted at local community centers or high schools. The beautiful Indian kids congregating in quiet corners or outside the building. To me, the girls always seemed so posed and skinny. The bad boys were so cool and unattainable, some of whom had been clearly told by their parents that they were the best thing since baked naan.

I longed to be part of those circles, but retrospectively now realize I never would have achieved that level of popularity as I had convinced myself that I was not good enough to belong. Some of the Aunties had told me as much. They reminded me when I had “gained some weight” or when my outfit wasn’t put on correctly. I had been told that the hair on my head was too curly and frizzy, that I had too much body hair and that I was a little overweight. I still remember my parents enrolling me in Indian dance competitions with the cool kids who all seemed to have awe inspiring dance skills. I, on the other hand, was so physically inept that they shoved me in the back of the dance routine, put me in boys clothes and had me pretend to play fake Dhol drums for the duration of the song.

I constantly felt desperate to have my ugly duckling to swan conversion. I begged my parents to buy clothes that weren’t from the Canadian equivalent of Walmart and fearfully asked my mother if I could shave my legs and wax my mustache so the kids would stop making fun of me. I thought maybe, just maybe, if I did those things the cool Indian kids would accept me. Then I wouldn’t need to worry about high school because I would find my place with “my people.” Eventually I found my crew amongst the children of my parents’ friends, and we shared many of the common struggles of being Indian and all the things that came with it, offering me a support system and place to feel I belonged.

What seems to come along with being a kid with Indian immigrant parents, no matter what the generation, is the instillation of shame and guilt that Indian parents have mastered. While I laughed at Devi’s every attempt to be cool or rebellious, the desire for parental approval was a thread that ran throughout the episodes and struck a chord, over and over again. Even now at the age of 42, I know my whole life has consisted of a host of decisions that ensured I didn’t disappoint or bring shame to my family. As a kid, when I broke a dinner plate, I cried. When I got a B+, I cried. When my parents found out I was talking to a boy they didn’t approve of, I cried. When I snuck off to an all ages club and locked my keys in the car necessitating a call to my dad to bail me out, I cried. I literally feared their disapproval and disappointment every waking hour of my life.

I also grew to care so much about the outward appearance of my family, even when I knew our lives were excessively imperfect. We struggled financially, however my father did everything he could to ensure we didn’t feel different than our family friends. As I grew older, I began to understand and know better. At the age of 16, I took a job at McDonald’s to help my household (and make money to buy cooler clothes and wax my body). My parents had me hide this job from all of our family friends, especially the Aunties. What would they say when they heard our vegetarian family was allowing their daughter to work at a place where they served meat, worse yet cow flesh? One day, guests were coming to our home and would be arriving right at the time I would be coming home from my shift in the Drive Thru. This necessitated a quick fire change in my car from my stinky, greasy uniform to a salwar kameez, strolling into our dinner party without ever missing a step.

All of these things together, really made me hate being Indian some days. I wanted things to be easier. I just wanted to be…White. I grew to resent my brownness for a period of time. That was until we moved from Toronto to the United States in my late teens. Without my Indian community, I floundered. Found myself at times in situations I didn’t want to be in. I missed my past life, friends and even the Aunties. I found myself appreciating being Indian and the community it afforded me and found that so confusing after years of being resentful.

Looking back, I never strayed in striving to keep my parents proud. I studied hard, kept my nose cleaner than Devi did, stayed away from boys and went to all the Indian functions. When I grew up I continued that trend. I went to college (to study and not mess around with boys as my mother instructed), became a doctor and financially independent. I said the right things and acted the right way. I was a really good Indian girl.

As I grew as a person and got older, the insecurities tried to linger. Even when I took one step forward towards self-confidence, I was pulled back as they were ingrained into me. We were all taught that the steps in life were to go to school, get married and have children. But as a young adult I struggled with dating. All I wanted was for a boy from a nice Indian family to ask me out. New Aunties and my relatives would try not infrequently to set me up with “a nice boy” in another state or even another country. It was once suggested to me by one Aunty that I give up and marry a DJ she knew in India who needed a Green Card, because although I was smart I shouldn’t be choosy or expect to marry someone attractive because I was chubby myself.

After finally growing up and shrugging off the Aunty naysayers, I set off to find love on my own. I had finally found my style and I was a doctor after all! But after a string of failed attempts, I succumbed to my parent’s requests to help me “find someone to walk with in life and settle down”. So in between going clubbing, drinking cocktails and making out with white boys, I went on an endless number of first dates with the now grown Indian bad boys — until I met my husband. And thankfully by then I had realized that I actually deserved respect. He was a skinny, tall Indian boy and he was actually kind of…cute. This was in direct contrast to what I had been told I deserved by some of the Aunties my whole life. Our parents had put out matrimonial advertisements without our knowledge, introduced us electronically and the rest is history. We went on a blind date, which led to a fast courtship, a big fat Indian wedding and two resultant children.

What tugs at me after watching “Never Have I Ever” is that if Devi is still suffering the same dramas I dealt with over 20 years ago, how should we be doing better for our brown girls? I especially want to do better for the two beautiful mini me’s currently running around my house. I want them to feel like they belong in both cultures but wonder how I will achieve that. My husband struggles with the language and we admittedly do a bad job of exposing them to our Indian heritage.

I secretly want to instill in my kids the fear, guilt and shame that led me to be a “good girl” but can’t decide if that makes me a bad mother. My own mother was loving but tough, and I cried to the point of dehydration witnessing the interactions between Devi and her mother, knowing now that my mother’s actions were done intentionally to raise a child with an instilled moral compass, discipline, respect for others and intelligence so that I may have a better life than they did. What’s difficult now to reconcile is that despite all of my teenage insecurities, I am a highly successful adult. So while I was resentful back then, I now see that my parents clearly did something right. I see the amount of love it took to parent me through all of their struggles while adapting to a new culture.

The question now is, how do Indian American, or other immigrant, families continue to instill important values in our children and pass down our cultures without weaving insecurities and confusion into our kids? Maybe some element of this will be easier now that culture is cool? What I do know is that Kaling’s show made me reflect on my past in a way I never have before. Instead of wincing thinking about my teenage years I find myself smiling and finding appreciation for my culture, so I guess I should thank her for that.

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