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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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