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Never Have I Ever May Not Represent My Brown Experience, But It Represents The Brown Experience of Others

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Three of the main South Asian characters of the Netflix series Never Have I Ever standing in front of a orange/pink/purple screen.

Turning on the TV growing up, I rarely saw anyone who looked like me. When dressing up as Disney princesses, my friends and I used to fight over Princess Jasmine because her olive skin and dark hair best resembled us. Flash forward a few years later, and my representation was only mildly upgraded.

Phineas and Ferb gave me the nerdy, bullied Baljeet with his stereotypically thick Indian accent. Jessie gave me Ravi, another nerdy, bullied brown kid. He was also the only one with a stereotypical accent despite all his siblings being adopted. Years past and the media continued to feed me inaccurate representations of my culture and myself. 

When Mindy Kailing’s Never Have I Ever was first announced, I was through the roof. I was finally ready for an experience that encompassed my identity as an Indian-American teenager. However, while I was watching the show, I felt that certain aspects of my brown experience were perpetuated incorrectly.

There were times where I could not understand Devi or her mother’s actions. I couldn’t identify with the way Devi felt about her culture. 

While Never Have I Ever doesn’t entirely encompass my brown experience, it does succeed to encompass the brown experience of others in five different ways.

1. “Devi, make sure to favor your left side.” 

I was taken aback the first time I heard this line. I found it shocking how Nalani, Devi’s own mother, could say something so hurtful regarding her daughter’s physical appearance. My brown mother has never commented on my physical appearance in such a manner.

However, while I may not have experienced this personally, emphasis on physical appearance is still a pressing issue within the brown community.

In the South Asian community, colorism is a rampant issue. Being a light-skinned Indian myself, I have often been praised for how “fair” and “beautiful” I look. However, many of my dark-skinned friends have struggled with being perceived as beautiful by their community. Sometimes even by their own family.

They are often told that they are “undesirable” or “dirty” due to the color of their skin. They are told to drink less tea, stay in the shade, or drink lemon juice to make themselves lighter. Even Indian companies hire famous Bollywood actors to promote face-lighting products. 

Even within the show, Kailing subtly draws attention to this stigma within Indian society. In the very same scene, Nalani tells Kamala, Devi’s light-skinned cousin, that “all her sides are equally beautiful.” Immediately after telling Devi, who is darker-skinned, the opposite. 

2. “I thought I came to America for the education, but my favorite part is the ice cream. There are so many flavors here. Way more than pistachio.”

I found this line from Prashant to be the most problematic line in the entire show due to the sheer inaccuracy of the statement. Historically, India has always been known as the world’s flavor and spice hub.

Growing up, I would spend many summers at my grandparent’s house in New Delhi. My grandfather’s favorite pass-time was taking my sister and me to the market to buy ice cream. The shopkeeper would fill our baskets with choco bars, lychee bars, cola pop, and my personal favorite, Mango Duet.

To this day, I still have barely scratched the surface of all of the flavors posted on the shopkeeper’s wall. 

Prashant’s statement may not be an accurate representation of the amenities offered in India, but it does represent the thought process of many new brown immigrants. A large part of the immigrant experience is comparing the resources and opportunities of your homeland with the country in which you just arrived.

Some brown immigrant families might praise the “sizes of the bags of chips” or the “cleanliness” of American streets. Conversely, some may choose to focus on how there is “less empathy” or “less of a community feel” in the United States as compared to India. 

3. “Yes, you look like a careerist western woman, which you obviously are, but they don’t need to know that yet. Kamala, his family wants to see that you can cook, clean, and cater to all their son’s needs.” 

Nalani said this statement to Kamala while preparing for the first step in Kamala’s arranged marriage process, a video call with her Prashant, her prospective suitor’s parents. The purpose of the video call was so that Prashant’s parents could see whether Kamala met the requirements for a potential match.

After this conversation, Nalani told Kamla to change from her “careerist western woman outfit” to the traditional Indian sari. I found it difficult to believe that Prashant’s parents would not be interested in the fact that Kamala is a biologist pursuing her Ph.D. in Caltech.

Growing up, education was always considered something that was invaluable in the South Asian community. Academic achievements, such as entering a prestigious college, were always talked about (sometimes a little too much) regardless of gender.

However, I realized it did represent the deep-rooted sexism and general patriarchy that many brown women face in the South Asian community. In many South Asian families, there is also a very clear double standard between women and their brothers, fathers, and husbands.

A man is lauded for working long hours and praised for his prestigious job, while many women are ostracized for doing the same. They are encouraged to leave their job to take care of their family or perfectly manage both. If a woman fails to do any of the following, she is seen as a failure.

Never Have I Ever touched on this aspect of a brown experience that often goes unnoticed within the community through this interaction. 

4. “If you’d like to go to Elenor or Fabiola’s house to do something fun like practice PSATs, you have my permission.” 

At first glance, this line truly upset me. I felt as if it perpetuated the stereotype of the “Asian tiger mom,” who only cared about grades and could not understand any other use of their time.

I felt anger rising in me because it made it seem as if all brown parents fell into this category when, in fact, when my parents were the opposite. My parents had always encouraged me to follow my passions. They unconditionally supported me and trusted me to find my own path. 

In frustration, I sent a message to one of my close brown friends, venting about the problematic nature of this line. “I felt that she wasn’t strict enough,” replied my friend. “I guess it’s because I grew up with a real tiger mom.” 

Many Indian kids do have parents who fall into the tiger parent category. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It is because they want the best for their child’s future. The most tangible, almost guaranteed path to this is through academic and professional success.

In many Asian countries, the education system is set up to be exam based. To enter the top programs and colleges, you would have to score well on a series of exams.

Portraying this aspect of Devi’s mother’s personality was not in fact, perpetuating into a stereotype, but it was portraying a brown experience that many Indian American children experience. As tough as Nalani was on Devi, she loved her just as much. 

5. “Aunties are older Indian ladies, who have no blood relationship to you, but are allowed to make, but are allowed to have opinions about your life and all your shortcomings. You have to be nice to them because you’re Indian.” 

I would be completely lying if I said that this quote doesn’t reflect my brown experience. I have definitely faced my fair share of aunties, who have also made passive-aggressive comments about my life and shortcomings.

On the other hand, I was also lucky enough to meet aunties, who have shown me great warmth and compassion. Since most of my family is in India, these aunties became my family in the United States. They have supported my family and me when we have most needed it.

However, I know that not every brown kid is fortunate enough to have adults outside of their immediate families with whom they experience a genuine connection. Too often, brown kids are trapped in communities and social circles built upon envy, pride, and ambition.

The competitive nature of adults in these communities can make every interaction with an adult feel like an assessment or judgment for these kids. This causes many brown kids to seek out ways to detach themselves from and escape their brown communities. Thus, preventing them from fully accepting and embracing their heritage, like Devi. 

Never Have I Ever may not represent the entirety of my brown experience, but it does represent the brown experience of others. Representation is not a bathing suit from a shopping channel that claims to be one size fits all. It is not possible for a single show to represent the vast experiences of every brown person that is part of the South Asian diaspora.

However, what it does do is pave the way for more stories centering on the lives of South Asian Americans. Never Have I Ever is the first show to feature a brown teenager growing up in the United States and is top-ranked on Netflix. It, therefore, proves to Western mainstream media that South Asians can be the main character.

They can move out of supporting roles like Baljeet or Ravi that have no function other than for comic relief. This show may not represent your brown experience or my brown experience, but it paves the way for a multitude of brown experiences to be told in the future. 

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Culture

A New Home for Asian American Representation in Hollywood

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Kelly Marie Tran on MTV International.

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After the onslaught of negative reactions to Mulan (2020), Disney’s recent film announcements offer new hope for Asian representation in the entertainment industry.

From Raya and the Last Dragon to Shang-Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings, Disney has opened up a larger space for Asian Americans to shine, but can they do it right this time?

Here are a few movies that offer a new home for Asian American representation in film. 

Mulan in Crisis 

Over quarantine, Disney+ users dreamed about the promise of greater authenticity and Chinese representation in the live-action of Mulan

The film had an aggressive campaign of staying true to the original ballad of Mulan, and established a more serious approach than its animated companion. 

Soon after its release, however, audiences were sorely met with lackluster characterization and collapsing themes of Asian female empowerment.

In addition to the outrage concerning main actress Yifei Liu’s support of Hong Kong police, Mulan (2020) suffered from its generalization of Chinese history and glorification of outdated values. 

An overwhelming backlash, in this case, was inevitable. The Asian American community responded with a plethora of media criticizing Disney’s failures with Mulan

As Disney enters a new era in the streaming industry, however, there has been some hope for growth in its relationship with Asian representation. 

Disney Plus on all platforms.

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Raya the First 

Though some have pointed out its stylistic similarity to Avatar: The Last Airbender, many others have applauded Raya and the Last Dragon for its introduction of Southeast Asian representation into the animated sphere.

The new film portrays Raya, a fictional Southeast Asian warrior princess, who must search for the last dragon in order to save her world. 

Throughout its trailer, Raya and the Last Dragon hints at a variety of Southeast Asian cultures.

Producers have claimed inspiration from countries such as Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and others, but many viewers have recognized the film’s direct representation of Filipino design and culture.

While the ability to openly point out such specific cultural moments paves an optimistic path, another question arises in Disney’s choice for a film that works to “blend Southeast Asian cultures” rather a distinct country.

This particularly speaks to the ways in which Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander communities are too often consolidated as one culture. 

Whereas films like Mulan enjoy the cultural specificity of being Chinese, Moana and now Raya and the Last Dragon must settle for a more generic representation of being “Southeast Asian” or “Pacific Islander,” as opposed to Filipino or Tongan. 

2019 Hong Kong anti-extradition law protest with an ambulance driving through a crowd of people.

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This also comes with the replacement of half-Filipina Cassie Steele with Vietnamese Kelly Marie Tran.

While Raya and the Last Dragon has been largely recognized for its distinctive Filipino references, the film continues to largely err on the side of mixing (and potentially confusing) a variety of Southeast Asian creatives. 

In the midst of such a struggle, however, Raya and the Last Dragon nevertheless represents the beginning of Southeast Asian involvement in the film industry, with hopes for more to come. 

Shang-Chi and the Legend of Yellow Peril 

Marvel’s latest Shang-Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings also provides a new avenue for Asian representation, especially in the superhero realm. 

Simu Liu, set to play Shang-Chi, has been a longtime favorite in the Asian American film industry.

From acting in short films with Wong Fu Productions to playing the sweet but arrogant Jung on Kim’s Convenience, Liu is a familiar face in the Asian American community and reflects their desire for diversity on camera. 

However, there is hesitation about rehashing the damaging Asian stereotypes from the original Shang-Chi comics. Inspired by the age of martial arts films, Shang-Chi echoes the era of Fu Manchu and Yellow Peril, when Asians were essentially characterized as purely evil

Fu Manchu represented the culmination of America’s anti-Asian, anti-immigrant anxieties and fears. In the comics, Shang-Chi is the son of Fu Manchu and equips his martial arts to destroy his father.

Such a relationship spoke to the utilization of the “best” parts of Asian culture (a.k.a martial arts) to take down the “worst” parts (acting or looking “too Asian”).

This divisiveness ultimately denounces an Asian identity, uplifting only that which is “best” in the eyes of others. 

Knowing this history, Shang-Chi holds the potential to backslide in the same ways that Mulan (2020) did, by focusing too much on a presumed perspective of “authenticity.”

In the making of Shang-Chi, Disney must pull from contemporary Asian America, rather than its past.

Simu Liu speaking at Comic Con San Diego.

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As Simu Liu has pointed out, however, there is hope! Both Shang-Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings and Raya and the Last Dragon have released their massive inclusion of a largely Asian and Asian American cast and creative team.

This means that, in contrast to Mulan’s implementation of solely Asian actors, these two new films will be written and creatively produced by the same people it seeks to represent. In this way, Disney is truly learning from its failure with the live-action Mulan (2020).

Though there has been some early criticism for the next two films, a positive anticipation flourishes in Disney’s changes for greater Asian representation in film and media.

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Culture

Different Ways to celebrate Christmas-Comparing Christmas Traditions Across the Globe

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Four girls holding candles, singing Christmas carols.
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Christmas caroling, gingerbread houses, eggnog and candy canes are an indication that the holiday season is upon us. In the U.S. and certain other countries, we have traditions like setting out milk and cookies for Santa, lining our mantels with stockings, and hanging wreaths and bright lights outside. But many other countries around the world have their own unique traditions to celebrate this most wonderful time of the year. Let’s take a look at some of the different ways other cultures embrace the magic of Christmas. 

Region of Puerto Rico 

In Puerto Rico, Christmas is an extravagant, go-all-out type of holiday. Christmas celebrations start the day after Thanksgiving and last until the beginning of January. An important holiday tradition is caroling, referred to as a parranda, meaning the gift of music. The parranda isn’t your average Christmas caroling excursion; there are maracas, guitars and tamboras involved, making it all the more festive. In many cities, fireworks are set off each night in celebration. Some special holiday foods in Puerto Rico include lechón asado (a pork dish), tembleque (coconut pudding), and coquito (a coconut-rum drink).

Australia

Christmas is a holiday that is typically associated with winter. But in Australia, Christmas takes place in the summer season, swapping snowmen for sandmen. The beach is a very popular destination on Christmas day, filled with live music, barbeques, and decorated trees in the sand. If you’re lucky, you may even see Santa Claus, better known as Father Christmas in Australia, surfing the waves. Australians also celebrate the holiday season by gathering in large groups to sing Christmas carols with candles in hand. This tradition is known as ‘Carols by Candlelight.’

Finland

Rovaniemi, located in Lapland, Finland, is a city noted for its holiday spirit. In fact, Rovaniemi is the official hometown of Santa Claus. Santa’s post office (it’s a real post office) is open year-round, collecting letters from thousands of children. The subpolar climate of Rovaniemi makes the city a winter wonderland for several months. Christmas theme parks filled with reindeer sleigh rides and Santa and his elves make for a wonderful holiday experience.

Mexico

In Mexico, the Las Posadas celebration begins on December 16th and ends on Christmas Eve. Communities dress up and reenact Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem in search of shelter. There’s music, parties, and holiday foods such as buñuelos, a dessert made of fried dough and topped with cinnamon sugar or syrup. On Christmas Eve, the party culminates with the breaking of piñatas.

A tree ornament in the form of a globe.
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Germany

Germany has a rich history of Christmas traditions, some more terrifying than others. In Germany and some other European countries, the Krampus, an evil demon-goat creature, is rumored to be Santa’s evil relative. Krampus punishes children who misbehave, and if you’re in Germany, you may see people dressed up as Krampus wandering through the streets and scaring bystanders. On a happier note, Christmas markets and holiday shopping are all the rage in Germany. In the city of Nuremberg, Christkindlesmarkt is a famously large Christmas market, attracting millions of visitors each year. Famous holiday foods at this market include gingerbread, bratwursts, and fruitcake. 

Japan

Although only a small fraction of the population of Japan is Christian, the spirit of Christmas is still in the air. In Japan, millions of families celebrate Christmas with a special tradition: a chicken dinner, typically from KFC. Santa Claus has been traded in for Colonel Sanders. In some ways, Christmas in Japan is celebrated in the same way that we celebrate Valentine’s Day. Rather than spending Christmas day with family, couples go out for romantic dinners. 

Netherlands

In Amsterdam, Santa Claus is not the only one to deliver presents — Sinterklaas, a Santa-like Nordic figure, also distributes gifts to children. Sinterklass sails from Spain over to the Netherlands to deliver presents on December 5. Santa then arrives on Christmas day to fill childrens’ shoes with gifts. Another important Christmas tradition in the Netherlands is gourmetten, a big dinner where meats and vegetables are grilled at the table, and underneath the grill or hot plate, tiny pans filled with sauces and cheeses are broiled. These dinners somewhat resemble an indoor barbeque.

Iceland

In Iceland, the Yule Lads, 13 mischievous troll-like figures, deliver gifts to children or give them potatoes if they have been naughty that year. Starting on December 12th, a different lad visits each night leading up to Christmas. Children leave their shoes out on windowsills in anticipation of the Yule Lads’ visits. Grýla, the mother of the Yule Lads, is a scary troll rumored to eat misbehaving children. 

While many Christmas celebrations and family traditions are on hold due to Covid, it’s always nice to reminisce on the pre-Covid holiday seasons, as we hope to resume the celebrations next year.

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College Voices

Hanukkah: 8 Things You Might Not Know About the Eight Nights

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A closeup of candles burning.

It’s finally the holiday season here in the US, and all the signs are upon us. Christmas music is playing in most public spaces on the rare occasions we leave our homes, decorations and Christmas trees are going up in private and public spaces, and anticipation of that one magical night is high. Or, it is if you’re Christian.

Jewish people living in the United States, while the world around them gears up for Christmas, celebrate Hanukkah while simultaneously weathering the yearly bombardment of questions and assumptions about what the holiday is like.

There are a lot of misconceptions about what Hanukkah is actually like from people outside the Jewish community, so to help with that confusion, here’s a list of common mistakes people make about how to celebrate Hanukkah, and some general fun facts about a common Jewish holiday.

1. It’s Not “Jewish Christmas”

This is likely self-explanatory, but it’s important to cover. Because of its closeness to Christmas during the year, Hanukkah has become perceived as the “Jewish Christmas”, a holiday with equivalent importance to Christmas, which is not true at all. Christmas is one of the most important holidays in the Christian tradition, commemorating the birth of Jesus. Hanukkah is not on par with that importance.

2. It’s Actually a Minor Holiday

This is the big one that trips non-Jewish people up a lot: Hanukkah is not a big deal at all for Jewish people. For Jews, all the important holidays are tied directly to holy or important days, like Rosh Hashanah, which celebrates the Jewish New Year; and Yom Kippur, which is a day of mourning and remembrance. Hanukkah has no associated holiness to it, making it a very minor event in the Jewish Calendar.

A menorah with two candles burning, one in the middle and one on the far right.
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3. Hanukkah is About a Rebellion and a Miracle

Part of the reason why Hanukkah is actually not very important is that the story it commemorates is not part of important Jewish traditions like The Torah. Hanukkah celebrates the rebellion and reclamation of Jewish land and temples by a band of rebels known as the Maccabees. Once the rebellion succeeded and the temple was reclaimed, the Jewish people wanted to relight the menorah (that branching candle holder that’s associated with Hanukkah) inside to reconsecrate the temple, but all the special oil they burned in the menorah was destroyed. They only found a tiny jar which held barely enough oil to last a night. Amazingly though, the small amount of oil burned for eight days and eight nights, giving the Jewish people time to make more oil. This is the miracle of Hanukkah, and why Jews celebrate by lighting Hanukkiah for eight nights. Pretty interesting, huh?

4. There Aren’t Christmas Levels of Gifts

This isn’t true for all families, but for the most part, Hanukkah is a more low-key affair than Christmas. Most Jewish people give smaller gifts across the whole of the eight nights, with maybe a few larger items in there, but not an overflow of gifts every night.

5. Shockingly Enough, Gift Giving Isn’t Even Traditional

This might be surprising even to Jewish-Americans, but gift giving during Hanukkah is not actually traditional! There is no significance to gift giving like there is to other parts of the Hanukkah tradition, and in fact, it’s almost entirely a Jewish-American behavior. Why? Because of Christmas. Sometime around the 1920s, American Jews began buying gifts for their children to celebrate Hanukkah so they wouldn’t feel left out when all their peers got Christmas gifts, so it’s largely an American invention.

6. But Eating Fried Food is Traditional

Everyone always focuses on gifts and lighting candles, but it’s interesting to note that another tradition in Hanukkah is eating fried food. “Latkes”, a kind of fried potato pancake, are associated closely with the holiday, but they’re actually important because they’re fried. The tradition relates back to the story of Hanukkah and the oil that burned for eight nights. To honor this, Jews eat fried food like latkes and “sufganiyot”, fried donuts that are often jelly-filled. That’s one thing Christmas and Hanukkah do have in common: they’re both incredibly healthy holidays. 

A large sculpture of a menorah outside in the snow.
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7. Blue and White Decorations Aren’t, Though

If you’ve ever seen any decorations for Hanukkah you’ve likely seen strings of blue and white lights or decorations, as opposed to the normal red and green of Christmas. Surprisingly, though, there’s actually no association between Hanukkah and blue and white. Blue and white are important colors for Jews, as the traditional prayer shawl called a “tallit” is usually white with stripes of blue on the ends. Hanukkah decorations in blue and white are another tradition that started in America because of Christmas. To not feel left out of the Christmas spirit, some Jews began decorating with blue and white, but outside the US, this isn’t a common behavior at all.

8. Hanukkah is “The Festival of Lights,” but ‘Hanukkah’ Means Something Different

Finally, it’s important to think about the most important part of Hanukkah. The lighting of the menorah is the most crucial tradition of Hanukkah and the main way Jewish people the world over celebrate the holiday, which is why the holiday is affectionately called The Festival of Lights. The word ‘Hanukkah’, however, actually means ‘rededication’ or ‘consecration’, to commemorate the consecration of the temple by the lighting of the menorah in the Hanukkah story.

In 2020, Hanukkah runs from December 10th to 18th, so if you know anyone Jewish who observes the holiday, wish them a happy holiday and a good new year to come. Hopefully, you understand at least one Jewish tradition a little bit better now.

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