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While binge watching Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Netflix-based co-creation Master of None, I fell in love with the storyline, the cast, and the quirky, true-to-life randomness of the show. However, it wasn’t until I had a recent conversation with a group of Indian-American childhood friends that I realized why Master of None is so popular with millenials.
We were having a conversation about office holiday parties when one of our friends told us that the theme for her office party this year was "Bollywood."
If this same conversation had happened amongst our parents, I don’t think they would have an issue with it. In fact, they would have been elated at the idea of dressing up in various Indian attire and “sharing their culture.”
However, in our group of friends, the first response was a collective sigh, followed by many questions and concerns.
The consensus we came to is that it’s a lose-lose situation. If my friend were to dress up in her Indian attire of choice, she would be one of a few who wore that attire. The others would be Indian colleagues who were actually from India, not a group she felt like she fit in with. If she wore Western attire, would she be judged for not wanting to show her culture? What about if they went out into the city that night? Would she need to change?
I don’t know about you, but for those of us who don’t normally wear saris and lenghas, it is difficult to manage wearing those outfits on public transportation.
And what does "Bollywood" even mean? Most Bollywood movies now depict actors and actresses living abroad, wearing Western clothing, and speaking English 50% of the movie. Even the songs are no longer just in Hindi. So what does it mean to dress up as Bollywood? Does it mean dressing as the aforementioned real 2015 Bollywood, the old Bollywood of the 60s, or whatever the common Western notion is of Bollywood as having a “lot of colors?”
To my friend, her office party was bringing up her middle school identity crisis, which I can definitely identify with having faced many of my own.
In the grand scheme of life, these are not the questions that keep you up at night, but they led into a deeper discussion about identity and why we, as opposed to our parents, had so many issues with a Bollywood theme.
Third culture kids — people who spend a large part of their developing years growing up in a culture outside of their parents’ culture — face identity issues that have spanned pretty much our entire lifetimes. We’re not Indian. Nor are we exclusively American. And our hyphenated labels don’t fully explain what it means to constantly move through cultures. We straddle so many lines.
Master of None has been lauded for many things, including its depiction of a diverse cast, issues related to immigrant stories, and racial biases in certain industries. However, I don’t think that’s why I watched the entire first season in a weekend instead of studying for an upcoming exam. It’s because Aziz has done a phenomenal job, being a third culture kid himself, at depicting what it means to be Indian-American right now in 2015. The show is real, so real sometimes that you cringe when Ansari's character, Dev, spends 45 minutes Yelping the perfect taco stand in New York City, or Googling “Can you get pregnant from pre-cum?”
We all need role models who look like us, but Dev brings us our own messy, sometimes superficial, and often privileged stories of navigating adulthood in a way that validates our experiences. As the children of immigrants or immigrants ourselves, we know what was often sacrificed and the struggles our parents faced. We know, but we cannot understand, because personally, I will never go through those same issues.
The episode “Parents” touches on how Dev and his Taiwanese-American friend, Brian (Kelvin Yu), learn more about their parents’ childhoods. The episode is a stark contrast between first world issues and the struggles our parents faced navigating an entirely new country at the same age we are now. Dev and Brian’s biggest problems in the episode are not being on time to see the movie trailers before a movie.
Ansari and Yang further tease out nuances of dating, family relationships, and finding your own path in a way that resonates with a lot of us – many who haven’t seen our stories portrayed in a genuine form in popular culture.
When Dev is hesitant at telling his parents about his girlfriend, he hits the issue spot on. It’s not about him being secretive or ashamed. It’s just not something you do lightly and off the bat. It means something more to share that relationship with your parents. In the end, his parents respond in the sweetest way, again a real-life depiction of how we sometimes don’t give our own parents credit for understanding our current lives.
There are lots of little nuances, that maybe when my non-Indian friends are watching get lost or seem boring, but I’m internally snapping or nodding my head in happy agreement. There’s something raw and beautiful about seeing parts of your own story exposed on a big screen through someone else’s experiences. Master of None recognizes how our dynamic identities are complicated, but definitely not drawbacks. For 20-somethings growing up Indian-American in the US, we are finally at the point where we can come to terms with what it means for our identities to fluidly move between spaces, cultures, and mindsets. Ansari’s show validates those identities, and that’s the crux of why it makes my heart happy when watching Dev’s journey. That and the social commentary. The really on-point social commentary.
While Bollywood-themed parties are not a huge deal, identity definitely is an important aspect of why "themes" like that can be confusing and mildly irritating to some of us. For all of us third culture kids, we still have a lot of figuring out to do, and Dev Shah helps us all along by representing pieces of the stories we haven’t been able to tell or were afraid of voicing.
So I’m still waiting to see what my friend chooses to wear for her Bollywood party. Aziz, if you read this, it sounds like a perfect storyline for a Master of None episode.