How to be South Asian on American TV

In this blog entry, anupama jain, author of How to Be South Asian in America reflects on how South Asians are represented in American television.

In a course I am teaching this semester, students pair literary analysis with pop culture projects concerning Asians in America.  Topics have included Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the TV programs Glee and Modern Family, and Jackie Chan movies.  Recently, a student presented on Outsourced, providing an overview of the TV show, clips, and some background information, including that Outsourced is the longest running show to date that has multiple South Asians as major characters.  With over two million South Asians (from India, Pakistani, and other countries abutting the subcontinent) in America, I wonder why the first popular show about South Asians on American TV is set in India.  Also, although the actors are North American or British, they must adopt Indian accents for their roles as call center employees being managed by an Anglo-American boss.  The show is made in America, stars many American actors, and is in many ways about America, or at least the stereotype of the “ugly American” abroad.  Why, then, doesn’t it have any representations of South Asians in America?


I think the answer is that race continues to be such a fraught issue in the country that it takes up all of our attention when thinking of minority groups and we understandably want to avoid the vast potential for discomfort.  Furthermore, given the relative absence of Asian Americans in pop culture, each representation has too much influence and historical stereotypes continue to haunt us such that it can seem impossible to avoid generalizing or caricaturing.  From the few episodes I have seen, I have concluded that Outsourced is not particularly funny because it basically makes the same few jokes repeatedly, but I have not found it racially offensive, as have some other viewers.  Those connected with Outsourced have apparently been surprised by that response, according to an NPR discussion about the show.  Denying that the show is racist, they have pointed out how many Indians are involved with it and note that its aim is to humanize people who might otherwise simply seem to be threats for American workers losing their jobs overseas. 

I appreciate such a goal and I hope the show has that positive effect.  At the same time, I believe it is necessary to “humanize” South Asians in America, as well.  It is true that they are a relatively new Asian immigrant group, but their collective experiences have already become part of that grand narrative of the nation, The American Dream.  This means that their stories are likely of interest to many of us who live in the United States.  Still, TV and film producers continue to feel that there is a limited audience for projects focusing on South Asians in America.  What makes a TV program set in India seem more appealing and relevant for American audiences than a show about Americans?  On the one hand, “going global” can have many positive repercussions and lead to expanded worldviews, thus richer explorations of the human condition.  On the other hand, staying close to home in exploring difference and diversity is also important, however much it may give rise to fears of offending or being offended.

I think it would be absolutely fabulous to have a show on American TV that stars many different American characters, none of whom would come to be seen as representative or interpreted as the only way to be American, especially for those like Asian Americans who are otherwise rather rarely the focus of pop culture.  This would be my pitch:  Golden Gates– A group of ambitious college students in the San Francisco Bay Area discover that learning is a lot harder than they ever expected.  The fictionalized location is one in which there are realistically likely to be multiethnic groups of friends and where a variety of intriguing and unique stories are to be found, for example about West Coast culture, or how to raise a family in an expensive urban environment, or about the nation’s first gay neighborhood (The Castro), or involving the very visible homeless population.  These are just a few aspects of the setting that could provide a wonderful framework for a TV fiction in which Americans of various races live their interesting and complicated lives.  For those who are minorities in the U.S., these lives will usually involve some confrontation with issues of race and culture but they are not reducible to them. 

When viewers watched this TV program, they would not be thinking about South Asians, or other minorities, as people far away but instead as people right here, in America.  Rather than feeling concerned about reinforcing or breaking stereotypes, of offending the groups depicted in the show, people could focus on creative storytelling and solid entertainment.  That’s a show I’d like to see.

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