The first time I saw anyone in the media I could relate to was in an En Vogue music video. I was 14 years old and I had never seen brown women with curves on television. I still remember the visceral thrill I felt from watching them. (To be fair, who didn’t feel that watching En Vogue?)They’re sexy, I thought, and maybe I can one day be, too. The members of En Vogue are not South Asian, but this was the first time I was faced with the possibility that someone in the media should or could look like me. My lifelong quest to feel heard or seen in mainstream media was just beginning—I wondered when would I see an actual person of South Asian descent in a movie or on TV.
I would be waiting a while. For many years, it seemed like the only South Asian character on television was a cartoon: Apu from “The Simpsons.” In the last decade or so things have changed a little; we’ve seen more South Asian characters on our favorite shows (“Parks and Recreation,” “The Office,” “Community,” “30 Rock,” “New Girl,” “Big Bang Theory”) and, most recently, shows run by and starring South Asian leads (“The Mindy Project,” “Quantico”). The notable rise of South Asians in the media and specifically on television may have reached its peak this past weekend with the release of Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix comedy, “Master of None.”
Many are calling it Ansari’s best work to date: It’s beautifully shot, witty, charming and has a great soundtrack. The show breaks ground for many reasons: a South Asian male romantic lead, stories about immigration, a diverse group of friends, and several not-so-subtle invocations of feminism. But what is most notable is how creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang have achieved the difficult balancing act of creating a fictional world that also feels real. The show ticks all the boxes of what diverse representation should be without ending up hokey or inauthentic.
For many Asian Americans and South Asians, it has almost been taken for granted that our stories were not the ones worth telling. An ethos that plagues those communities socially—keep your head down, work hard, don’t complain—mirror our media persona, as well. We are always on the sidelines. We are almost never the stars of the show. Instead, we are math geeks, spelling bee champions, grocery clerks, cab drivers, spiritual mystics or other flat and troubling caricatures.
That’s the thing about being a minority: You scrutinize the few TV shows that try to capture your experience.
Authenticity in storytelling can sometimes be a trap; if we become too obsessed with representation, we may prioritize it in the service of diversity alone, at the expense of complex stories. Yet we often hold fiction accountable to real-life standards, especially if we live most of that life never seeing ourselves in the pop culture we love. This desire makes sense: For many of us in order to connect with a character or a storyline, we need to be able to relate on a human level and sometimes that also means characters that look, feel and think like we do.
“Master of None” satisfies this craving in a way I’ve never experienced. It isn’t exactly about my life, but it is pretty damn close: I am young(ish) and South Asian, an aspiring creative born and raised in New York, living a complex life where being the child of immigrants is a part of my story, but not all of it. Most of my writing has been about dating and about race more broadly, not the immigrant experience, and it’s nice to see this complexity play out on television.
It’s refreshing after years of feeling intensely ambivalent about another show starring a South Asian character—“The Mindy Project,” written by and starring comedian Mindy Kaling. Arguably, she holds up even more of a mirror: She’s a woman closer to my age who has a body that doesn’t necessarily fit into white standards of beauty. The show trailblazed the depiction of a multilayered South Asian character on television. And yet neither she nor the show talks about race, an issue I think and talk about all the time.
Of course, no one is going to ever perfectly represent me. But that’s the thing about being a minority that pop culture either ignores or derides: You’re always on the hunt, and you scrutinize the few cultural touchstones that try to capture your experience.
In 2006, Jhumpa Lahiri published The Namesake, one of the first popular, critically acclaimed portraits of second-generation South Asian life. To me it felt simple and reductionist—I wish my biggest battle in life were with my name. (Although it was still a battle!) But South Asians and the broader community alike cherished it. A story about fitting in, about awkwardness, about navigating parents and romance set to the backdrop of a coming-to-America story—it was the perfect narrative for a community coming out of hiding in the mainstream media. The Namesake laid the groundwork for a new South Asian experience, one rooted in growing up in America. Still, I felt frustrated when people suggested my life was just like the characters in the book.
If anything, I related much more to the 2004 stoner flick, “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” starring Kal Penn and John Cho. The premise of the movie was absurd, but it offered us a fresh take on the immigrant experience set to a very American, universal theme: getting high. The Harold and Kumar franchise set the stage more than 10 years ago for a recasting of the nerdy Asian, breaking taboos (our parents don’t talk to us about drugs or sex!) and creating relatable and funny Asian American characters.
Of course, none of these depictions 100% satisfied the authentic “story of me,” and they don’t have to. They instead created space for imagination and possibility. That’s what entertainment does—it inspires us and reminds us that we are not alone. It is our right, as historically unrepresented communities, to exist in a fashion outside of our day-to-day lives. The danger of a single story about South Asians is we become reduced to certain symbolic parts of our life rather than understanding the full complexity of our experience, both as part of our own race and the human race. Ansari and Wang’s “Master of None” gives us that opportunity (albeit on Netflix’s smaller stage) while opening us to a future with more stories like it. Hopefully, networks will soon follow suit.