This contains spoilers.
A brown-skinned man sits at the supper table with his two sons, his wife busy in the kitchen. “Is there anything you want to do tonight, go out? See your friends? You should, it’s fine,” he tells his oldest. The boy gives a pained smile and says it’s fine. His parents wouldn’t understand. How could they? They didn’t grow up in America and they sure as hell don’t know what he’s been through.
This scene is not from my teen years, though, at least on the surface, it could have been. It’s from the finale of HBO’s The Night Of, after prosecutors dropped manslaughter charges against Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed). He’s back in his Queens home after months in prison, hair buzzed and body bulked, a copy of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild the only possession he brought back with him. Under the dim lights, Naz picks at Pakistani food with fingers tattooed with the words “SIN” and “BAD,” a black crown inked on his neck.
In the fictional homes I flipped through growing up, dinner scenes made me feel so foreign. (What is meatloaf and why was everyone having it but me?) The American dining table was an arbitrary place to dump exposition, a setting for children to stage protests by leaving their food untouched and marching to their rooms, a safe space for frank family conversations. That’s not what my house looked like.
My family wasn’t white. We ate Indian food, often for the only time that day, with our hands. My mom sat down only after serving us first. My brother and I spoke English, my parents responded in our mother tongue. The table existed in a universe of its own—after trying all day to be an American and fit in, here I was reminded that’s not exactly who I was.
“As a child of immigrants, and second generation, you have this big identity crisis,” Ahmed told The New Yorker. The Night Of, an eight-hour procedural about the brutal stabbing of a woman and a bleak look at the U.S. criminal justice system, captures this identity crisis and translates the feeling of being brown in America—or rather, being caught between generational shades of “being brown”—into a reality of American life that’s rarely shown on television.
Based on the British series Criminal Justice, The Night Of was moved to New York City and the main character was converted from white to Pakistani-American, because in New York, most taxi drivers are not white. Naz is a confident outsider. Like any twentysomething he is down to make the American Dream a reality by getting laid (he succeeds). But despite being born and raised in America, Naz is presented to us as others see him: a foreign guy, the stereotypical brown kid.
In the first scene of episode one, the camera spots him as he takes notes at a calculus lecture. In Jackson Heights, he visits the aunties at a sari shop who call him “bachelor #1.” And when he sits behind the wheel of the cab he stole from his father, the image—a brown man staring out the window of a yellow car—is familiar. It goes on: he sits on the bench and watches basketball practice and, in episode two, he’s given a Harvard sweatshirt to wear in prison.
To understand Naz as a child of immigrants, you must also understand his parents Salim and Safar Khan (Peyman Moaadi and Poorna Jagannathan). The two are not conservative Muslims and have lived in the United States for decades. Still, they tiptoe through the justice system like they are fresh from Pakistan.
“Hi, we’re here to see our son,” Salim says at what turns out to be the wrong Manhattan precinct.
“Was he a collar?” an officer asks.
“What, yes, he called us.”
“Was he arrested, I’m asking.”
“I’m sorry, no. Yes, but it was a mistake.”
Salim fumbles through the conversation, giving his name to the officer instead of that of his son. I found myself feeling protective of Naz’s parents—the nervous way in which they speak to those in authority and the readiness to trust someone who speaks the same language and offers to save them thousands of dollars. For Salim and Safar, there is a sense of entitlement missing, a lack of white privilege—or American privilege. It reminded me of hearing my parents’ voices reduced to a whisper when speaking to police officers, or speaking to the person taking an order at the McDonald’s drive-thru—because when speaking into a microphone, all the other end can hear is your accent.
When Naz and his parents sit down at tables and have conversations, there is sometimes an invisible wall between them, and sometimes it is honest and confessional. Reunited at the precinct after the murder, Safar brings a dish wrapped in tin foil. “This is all a mistake, you have nothing to do with what they’re saying,” Salim says. “Listen Baba, they’re not lying. I was there,” Naz says, before realizing that the conversation is being recorded and switching to Urdu. It’s second nature for the family to change languages when trying to hide something, though unlike when eavesdropping and talking about a nearby table at a restaurant, here the police can just translate what’s being said.
When his parents go to Rikers Island, the conversation is blunt, or at least as blunt as it can be when telling your immigrant parents about a time you had sex: “I liked her. She liked me. We drank. We went to bed,” he says. Then later: “I’m not a murderer…I’m so sorry I did this to you.”
In a show about sex and murder, it’s these quiet scenes of an ordinary brown family that have stayed with me. They may seem mundane, and that’s fine because they are. The relationship between Naz and his parents is not the crux of a very special episode about immigrant life, and it is never played for subtle fish-out-of-water laughs. Instead, the realistic portrayal is close to what Ahmed called, in a powerful essay titled “Typecast as a Terrorist,” the Promised Land—“where you play a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to his race.”
In episode one, before the infamous cab ride and the drug addiction and the blood spilled from a fellow prisoner’s jugular, Naz eats with his family. His dad asks he where he’s going, and he says he’s got a “thing” with the basketball team. His mom doesn’t approve of going to “a party like that.” He pushes her, saying it’s the “black party” that makes her uneasy.
It’s a powerful thing, I think, that some can watch this scene and see a brown family eating supper with their hands, while others see the identity crisis: a second-generation man fighting for his place in a nation that sees him as foreign, while his immigrant mother questions whether she really knows who her American-born son is.