Hasan Minhaj and Aziz Ansari: your race defines you and it doesn’t

Today I watched Homecoming King, a comedy show by Hasan Minhaj. Honestly I wasn’t going to watch it, because Minhaj’s political schtick at The Daily Show was not geared toward someone like me. That is, it’s funny to laugh along with him, but it is much easier if you agree with him politically. To me this is a major contrast with Aziz Ansari, who probably shares most of the politics of Minhaj, but who does not seem to foreground it as much.

Some of this is happenstance. Minhaj blew up on The Daily Show, which focused on politics with a liberal slant. Ansari became more well known through episodic television. That’s going to impact the sort of comedy they put out there.

But after watching Minhaj outside of The Daily Show context, and comparing his routine to Aziz Ansari’s (I’ve also watched much of Master of None), I think it is notable how differently they come off despite the likelihood that on the fundamentals they probably agree about much in American society. In short, Minhaj’s experience and recollection of racism seems much more raw to me than Ansari, who seems to have taken it more in stride.

I was encouraged to watch Homecoming King  in part because Minhaj grew up in Davis, California. I lived there for five years and one of my closest friends during my undergraduate years is a Davis native. In fact I went to her wedding in Davis during Minhaj’s senior year in high school. The centerpiece of Homecoming King happens to be about an event before prom which involved racism of a subtle but hurtful form that traumatized him in a very deep fashion. He’s talked about this incident extensively so you can Google it. But it colors all of Homecoming King.

But there are some differences between Ansari and Minhaj which I think require highlighting. Ansari is 5’6 feet tall, while Minhaj is 6’0 feet tall. Ansari is also darker-skinned, and I think I can say he is less conventionally attractive than Minhaj (readers who are attracted to men can correct me here). Finally, Minhaj grew up in very liberal Davis, California, situated between the Bay Area and Sacramento. Ansari grew up in a small town in South Carolina. I suspect that Ansari probably faced more racism than Mihnaj when he was growing up if I had to bet.

And yet of the two Aziz Ansari seems to be less deeply impacted by the banal ubiquity of white American racism. He acknowledges that it exists, sometimes in a pointed fashion. But he does not seem to let it define him.

In  Homecoming King Minhaj’s trauma from his abortive relationship with a white girlfriend scars him so much that he says he could not date white girls after that. I’m sure Ansari has experienced some level of racism against him on the dating scene. Especially in the South where when he was growing up interracial relationships were probably more taboo than in Davis. It comes up a few times in Master of None, but it’s not defining in any way. He keeps on trying to find someone he can connect with no matter their race, even if “on paper” they should be out of reach for a short dark-skinned guy.

Finally, this is a minor thing, but Ansari is more explicitly disconnected from his Muslim background. He has stated he is an atheist to the media. One episode of Master of None involves him eating pork in front of his parents. Minhaj in contrast seems to own his Muslim identity much more (albeit, of a very liberal cultural variety).

Rather than being exemplars of young brown men in the United States, the subtle differences between Ansari and Minhaj show that there isn’t one way to be brown, and that we aren’t impacted in the same way by how society views us. Like Minhaj I went to high school where I was the only brown kid. Also, like Minhaj I was called Saddam Hussein. Unlike Minhaj my town was overwhelmingly conservative, while his was overwhelmingly liberal. While my town was over 90 percent white (actually more than 95 percent when I went to high school since I’m about 10 years older than Minhaj), his was about 70 percent white. What was the difference between us? A lot of it comes down to personality.

Some liberals of a minority background feel besieged by the white majority. In contrast, many of us who are more conservative accept racism is part of life, but move on, and don’t believe it is as determinative as liberals assert. Much of this comes down to personality differences, rather than race differences. Minhaj and Ansari are both successful politically liberal Indian American comedians from a Muslim background. But how they experienced American society and present themselves still differs because they are still individuals with all the differences that entails.

Aamir Khan’s Dangal Takes China by Storm

Pakistani academic and ex-diplomat Aamir Khan is an old friend, and he recently wrote a piece on why Dangal is such a hit in China.
What do you think?

Excerpt:

But why did the Chinese fall in love with this movie? Firstly, no country in the world is more sensitive, even obsessed about the achievement of its children than China. The gaokao or university entrance examinations are a case in point. Mothers actually take their offspring to nearby hotels so that the child does not have to travel. They even block adjoining roads so that horn-noise does not distract the examinees. No amount of funds is enough and no level of effort is satisfactory to prepare these children for the future. The movie catches this collective nerve perfectly.
For Chinese viewers, even the slim-fat Aamir Khan reflects control over one’s body. That this is achieved through sheer hard discipline is both magical and achievable. Like China’s own success

At the same time, many Chinese children are being spoilt by the 4-2-1 syndrome. This refers to four grandparents, two parents and one grandchild — the latter has neither siblings nor first cousins. All six parents and grandparents spend money to pamper the “little emperors”. Thus when Aamir Khan cuts his daughters’ hair so that they can fight better, or makes them run for miles, this fits perfectly into the Chinese parental mental grooves. Fed up with Korean soaps, featuring feminized males with long nails, plucked eye-brows and rose-petal lips, Chinese parents have taken their children in droves to Dangal not only to motivate them but also to shame them.

Then, the movie itself is a metaphor for China. Like the future champions but now-penurious village girls who cannot afford to eat even chicken, China has overcome incredible odds to rise from poverty in 1978 to become a politically-stable economic juggernaut that is proud to assume international leadership. Dangal is China itself. No sky is high enough for the Chinese spirit. For Chinese viewers, even the slim-fat Aamir Khan reflects control over one’s body, achieved through sheer hard discipline is both magical and achievable. Like China’s own success.

Romanticizing the regressive

A few months ago I happened to watch the film Meet the Patels. Though you do meet all the “Patels”, the film centers around the love life, or lack thereof, of the actor Ravi Patel.

Filmed by his sister, the documentary predates Patel’s current modest fame by many years (he has a small recurring role in Aziz Ansari’s Master of None). As his life has changed in many ways, perhaps his views and outlook have too. The comments I’m making in this post are not about Ravi Patel, but rather about the views he expressed many years ago in this documentary at a particular point in his life, and how it reflects a thread of South Asian American nostalgia and romanticism of our cultural roots.

Like many young Indian Americans Patel and his sister grew up between worlds. Their parents arrived in the United States among the very first wave of Indian immigrants, which today makes them somewhat unique, as there has been a huge migration since the 1990s from India due to the H-1B visa program. At one point the matriarch of the small American Patel clan bemoans how Americanized her children are compared to many other Indian Americans, who arrived later, when various South Asian American communities were more mature.

But Ravi and his sister are not entirely Americanized. Or they weren’t. Both avoided the conventional dating rituals of American life deep into their 20s, and as of filming Meet the Patels Ravi had had only one girlfriend, Audrey. Attractive, and depicted as level-headed and kind, on paper Audrey seems to have been the perfect girlfriend. But there was a major problem with her biodata: Audrey is a white American.

Eventually Ravi broke up with Audrey because of his confusions as to what he wanted in his life, and whether she belonged in it. Did he want what all his friends had? The American dream of love and marriage. Or, did he want what his parents had? An Indian arranged marriage with commonalities of culture.

But there is more to the Patels than just an Indian arranged marriage. Ravi Patel’s parents want him to marry someone from the same subcaste of Patels from the region of Gujarat that they come from. This is entirely typical of Indian culture. But it is rather peculiar in an American context. Though in some ways Ravi finds this all strange, some part of him also entertains the idea that his parents have a mutual comfort, a cultural identity, which he envies. At one point he goes back to Gujarat to a celebration of his people, his subcaste of Patels, and he looks around at wonderment at the safety and security of being among his his kith and kin. A sense of belong clearly has come over him.

As far back as Herodotus Indian society seems to have been characterized by caste. Genetically the castes, and more precisely jatis, are very distinct. And their persistence on the Indian scene suggest some level of functional utility.

Realistically Ravi could never recreate what he felt in Gujarat in the United States because such a community does not truly exist. Yes, there is kinship among Patels, as recounted by stories about Ravi and his family on the road, staying at Indian owned motels. But in the United States the Patels are a Diaspora, an archipelago of families scattered across the 50 states.

The romantic notions that Ravi airs in Meet the Patels about group solidarity, and cultural affinity of the sort his parents have, would seem creepy and disturbing if you posited it in the context of an upper middle class WASP from New England. But the strong group cohesion evident among the Patels of Gujarat, and many Indian communities, also generates as a byproduct the sort of exclusion illustrated in the 1970 film Love Story.

And the exclusionary tendencies of middle class Gujaratis is reflected in part on the social-political nature of the state of Gujarat. It is in this state that the current prime minister of India, a tribune of lower middle class Hindu nationalism, grew up, and originally came to power and prominence. It is in this state in the early 2000s that communal riots occurred, and accusations of organized genocide against Muslims have been leveled.

The connections between liberal Democratic Indian Americans and right-wing Hindu nationalism in India have been extensively discussed. That is not what I am getting at. Meet the Patels is not a political film, it is a personal one. There is no reason that Ravi should address political topics in the documentary, and much of what I am saying here would be implicit to any South Asian watching Meet the Patels. But to many Americans these darker realities would not be visible or implied in the cultural practices which Ravi admires.

The attitudes expressed in Meet the Patels is no different from pining for the “good old days.” The reality is that the old days were often not so good. Or they weren’t how you remembered them. And just as some people pine for the days of yore, others romanticize the “homeland”, where everyone was your uncle, and the aunties took care of you when your mother was a way. But this world is in many ways fundamentally regressive and constrained, and the benefits of communal responsibility are often correlated with inter-communal tension and conflict.

Again, there is no reason that Meet the Patels should have gone into this. But I wanted to put into the record what was unsaid so that those who see in it purely a charming inter-cultural story comprehend the other dilemmas latent within the narrative.

Related: Ravi’s AMA.