Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 September 2020

I'm a first-gen Indian-Filipino: I related to Mindy Kaling's 'Never Have I Ever' so much it made me sob

Never have I ever felt so 'seen' by a TV show ...

Jasmine Shewakramani at 17, left, and Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, right, in 'Never Have I Ever'. 
Jasmine Shewakramani at 17, left, and Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, right, in 'Never Have I Ever'. 

I wasn’t always sold on Mindy Kaling.

When her first show, The Mindy Project, came out in 2012 it was all my colleagues at work could talk about. They kept encouraging me to watch it because, and I quote, “She’s so you! Mindy is you!”

I would always roll my eyes and explain that they only thought that because, like me, Mindy is Indian. And I was probably one of the few Indians they knew in Manila.

So, when I started watching the first episode of Never Have I Ever, I knew to expect the Mindy brand of humour and storytelling, which can be cringey, but relatable, but I truly did not expect it to have such an impact on me ...

I never really think about the fact I'm the child of immigrants. My father emigrated to the Philippines from India in the ’70s. He married my mother in the early ’90s, and they’ve both since settled in Manila. My sisters and I went to local Catholic schools; we speak fluent English, Tagalog and some terribly broken Hindi at home.

Growing up meant having one foot firmly in one culture and one in another. It meant feeling neither here nor there and having to shift as appropriate. And because my family is so non-traditional, I wasn't even raised in the "normal" way, so I always off-handedly tell people I'm a "terrible Indian".

It turns out, Never Have I Ever gave me representation, and validated the experiences I had growing up. I didn't think I needed this. But I did.

Here are the things that really connected with me as a first-generation Indian-Filipino …

1. The main character Devi is stuck in the middle, just like me

Devi, the show’s lead character, is a teenager who grows up Indian-American, and her Indian upbringing (and parents) are often at odds with her American environment. She says she's caught between being "too Indian, or not Indian enough." Any child of immigrants can probably relate to this misplaced sense of identity, and of not knowing where you belong, but desperately wanting to fit in somewhere.

2. The little details felt like they were straight out of my life

There were so many moments I could relate to: seeing Devi get dressed up for Ganesh Puja, dealing with the ubiquitous Indian auntie posse, meeting her cousin's arranged fiance, or dealing with her mother's strictness.

3. Devi's also a 'terrible Indian'

But also, just because she's Indian doesn't mean she has to be the saree-wearing, perfectly coiffed heroine who randomly can dance Bollywood moves really well. Devi is, by definition, like me, a "terrible Indian", too. She wears miniskirts, doesn't seem to speak the language, is kind of awkward and scoffs a cheeseburger instead of chole sometimes.

4. The handling of grief is very relatable

While Never Have I Ever is largely a comedy, a lot of the show deals with Devi and her mum Nalini's unresolved grief over the traumatic death of Devi's father, Mohan. Dealing with grief is already hard, but it's even more difficult because of their different approaches.

Devi has a therapist to try to come to terms with her dad's death, but Nalini doesn't believe in therapy, and thinks it's for white people.

In one scene, though, Nalini opens up to Devi’s therapist and shares how hard it is navigating this alone. These are thoughts that don’t often get shared between Indian families, but it was a great way to show that sometimes we need to pay attention to the things left unsaid.

5. The patriarchal figure is a positive one

We also need to highlight the fact Devi has a good dad. It's nice that Mohan, as an Indian father, is represented as the very definition of non-toxic masculinity: encouraging his daughter to play the harp and help him plant tomatoes in their garden.

I sobbed through the last 10 minutes of the final episode. It hit that hard

A flashback scene implies Nalini is unable to have more children, but Mohan assures her that Devi is enough. He found joy in being a girl's dad and showed it. Making a whole new life in another country is difficult, and Mohan is the glue that keeps their family together. If you’re a first-gen with a loving dad, these moments will touch you.

6. It reminded me to have empathy for my parents

Finally, the show also presents the fact immigrant parents are just trying their best. And here, I take from real life. My parents were so strict when I was growing up, and there were times when it was so hard to convince them to let me do things I thought I should be doing, such as going out with my friends, having a later curfew, or getting to experience prom. These were things they didn't have growing up.

With age comes the wisdom that they were coming from a place of care and concern. It's not easy to be so far away from family, which they were. I sobbed through the last 10 minutes of the final episode. It hit hard, relating to the experiences of a first-gen who was trying to grow up the best way she could while keeping her family together and getting through grief.

Jasmine Shewakramani today. Courtesy Jasmine Shewakramani  
Jasmine Shewakramani today. Courtesy Jasmine Shewakramani

There are so many ways to label Never Have I Ever: it is an exposition of grief, an exploration into Indian culture and a presentation of complex mother-daughter relationships.

It's 2020. Parasite won Best Picture at the Oscars. Kumail Nanjiani is going to be a superhero. BTS is the biggest boy band right now. There is, finally, room for us at the table

The surface plot of Devi wanting to turn her high-school life around and become cool is pretty shallow, but it’s the in-between moments in which the show truly shines. There are so many problems with Devi as a lead; she's not perfect and has anger issues.

I really didn't think I needed Never Have I Ever. But my God this show made me feel seen. It seems, we’re finally not reducing Asians to caricature on mainstream TV. We need more shows that highlight the complex identities of migrant children of Asian cultures and present them as normal, valid experiences.

It doesn't matter if they're Filipino, Korean, Indian, Chinese, Japanese or a hybrid of them all. It's 2020. Parasite won Best Picture at the Oscars. Kumail Nanjiani is going to be a superhero. BTS are the biggest boy band right now. The world is so much smaller each day. There is, finally, room for us at the table.

Updated: May 18, 2020 08:08 AM

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