Modern Love

(The post by Razib about encountering racism in the US reminded me of a short story, part memoir part fiction, that I wrote last year. I feel that fiction is a better tool to understand complex issues and tried my hand at it).

 

Imagine that you are a Pakistani man living alone for the first time in an American city. How do you cope with it? All your friends are back in Pakistan, the time difference affects your relationship with even your closest comrades and for the first time in your life, you stop berating your insomniac friends; they are all you have right now because of the eleven-hour time difference. Living alone is fantastic but it gets quite boring after a while. You go and watch a good movie, attend a stand-up comedy show and go sight-seeing. You have spent close to a month in the city and yet you don’t know anyone here. There are days when the only conversation you have is with the library staff who ask you for ID every time you enter. How long can you survive like that? You need to find people to talk to, share jokes with, learn from, cry with. Listening to playlists of your favorite music seems like a drag after the umpteenth time. Netflix loses its charm after a few weeks. Distant friends stop replying to your messages. You are studying for an exam which is unpredictable and even if you pass it, there is no guarantee that you would get the job you want.  You descend into a state of sub-clinical depression. You can’t go up to people studying in a library and engage them in a conversation, especially if they don’t know you at all. The way most people meet other people in the United States is through their workplace or in school or college. One can also find people to hang out with in bars and clubs. However, what do you do when you have no money, no job, no friends and you live in a one bedroom apartment with your brother, and his wife.

 

Your brother doesn’t have these issues; he is married, to the girl your parents chose for him. You finally understand why he never really opposed that idea. He and his wife come back from work late at night and neither of them has the energy to indulge in conversations with you. You don’t have any issues with Alcohol but you have never been to a bar alone and you tend to drink only if you have company. It’s a chicken and egg type situation. You have tried talking to random people on the street, in the metro or at the University campus where you use the library but you feel shy starting conversations with people whom you don’t know already. You decide to try the world of online dating. Statistics show that almost 40% people in the United States are meeting new people through online dating. You have read Aziz Ansari’s book titled ‘Modern Love’ dedicated to online dating and have a cursory knowledge of the whole thing.

 

You decide to launch a frontal attack and download Tinder, Zoosk and Match.com. They are the top three online dating apps in App Stores. Something’s gotta work. The first issue that you face is that of finding a perfect picture. You discover for the first time in your life that you don’t have a perfect picture, or even a good picture. You have deliberately shied away from the camera all your life and now you rue your life choices. Your friends and well-wishers have always told you that your personality is very different from your appearance. You find some half-decent pictures of yourself and upload them in hope your profile is good enough for someone to ignore your bad looks (and worse pictures). You create a profile that lists your interests, likes, dislikes, idea of a perfect date and what you are looking in the other person. You have never been in a stable relationship for long so you write whatever comes to your mind. You also buy the Service Packs on Zoosk and Match so that at least you can see who has viewed your message and the ability to send replies.

 

Valentine’s Day is approaching in a week and the sight of red balloons, gifts and valentine-themed treats at every store sickens you and worsens your loneliness. You right-swipe every second girl on Tinder, press the ‘Heart’ button on Match and Zoosk, in hope of at least having a conversation. You take advice from Aziz Ansari’s book and try sending personalized messages to everyone (after carefully perusing their profiles). It takes a lot of work though. Every break that you take from studying, every minute that you spend at home, even the time spent on the metro station, you are right-swiping, pressing ‘Hearts’ for anyone within a five-mile radius (since you don’t have a car) and with mutual interests (which you can always lie about). You have seen ‘Masters of None’, the TV show based on Aziz Ansari’s book and you think that anything could happen.

 

A few days pass by and you have received no replies, no right-swipes, a few spam messages asking you to contact girls (based in Russia) through email. You constantly alter your profile, adding new photos, deleting old ones, coming up with funnier descriptions of yourself, trying to sound funny. You discover some distinct patterns emerging from your time on the apps: Most girls are looking for Caucasian men with a certain expectation regarding income. You are a lighter shade of brown and don’t have much income to speak of. A week goes by and you are stuck in the vicious cycle. There are times when you wake up in the middle of the night and stare at the screen of your mobile. You wish you lived in the futuristic world of Spike Jonze’s movie ‘Her’. After ten days of signing up to the dating apps, you have received a total of two replies. One day, you get a reply from a girl who lives slightly further but is well-travelled (according to her pictures) and looked good. You chat with her on the app for two days and then you asked her number. She gives it to you. You think you have made it. You forget all the misery and felt on top of the world. You ask her if you can call her and she tells you to call her the next day. The next day is Valentine’s Day.

 

You are excited to talk to this White American girl for the first time. You have talked to many White, Black and Brown American girls before but never like this. Never in an ‘online dating’ context. You call her on the decided hour and she picks up after two rings. She sounds nice, your inner monologue starts. She tells you that she is a massage therapist and works at a spa. She went to school for learning massage therapy after working as a Barista for many years. She has also visited India in the past, which you think is really cool. You tell her that your best friend got married that day in India and you couldn’t have attended the wedding, even if you were back in Pakistan. You joke about high rates of open defecation in India and then tell her about yourself, how you ended up in the States and what had you done on your previous visits. She hears you out and doesn’t say much. You are about to end the call and before saying goodbye, she says, Oh and Happy Valentine’s Day. You are elated, overjoyed, over the moon. You text her the next day and she doesn’t reply. You wait for a full day, try to call her and send another text. She texts you back, apologizes for the delay and ‘regrettably informs you’ that she doesn’t feel this could work. According to her text, she wanted the relationship to be more about her than you and all you talked on the phone was about you. You suppress your anger and don’t tell her that you asked her everything about her and that she didn’t have anything to say. Your dream shatters and you are back on your knees, swiping, clicking on ‘Hearts’, changing your photos and updating your profile.

 

You also sign up for a speed-dating event in the city. Maybe in-person interaction will work better than online interaction? You arrive slightly later than the designated hour because of terrible traffic in the city. The venue is a small bar with five tables and chairs on both sides of them. There’s barely space to walk when all five of those chairs are occupied. You see that there are five ladies and seven men. You’ll have to be better than at least two other people if you are going to match. It is Darwinism at its finest. Everyone gets six minutes with each girl and then you have to move on. Everybody has ‘scorecards’ and assigned numbers. At the end of the night, you are supposed to write down your top five matches and if any of them put you in their top five, you’ll get their email and can contact them. You sit opposite the first lady. She is very good looking (and your standards are miserably low) and is wearing a low-cut dress. You can’t keep your eyes off her. She is a cosmetician with an 11-year-old son. You find it hard to concentrate on her face. You try your best though, and try to have a decent conversation. By the time you have composed yourself, your time is over. You move on to the next lady.

 

She works in marketing and seems to have an imposing, bossy personality. You try your best to survive those six minutes. The third lady is a cross-fit trainer and massage therapist. You hit it off instantly with her. She has seen all your favorite TV shows and you spend most of those six minutes talking about them. There is a break in between during which you go and talk to the ‘men’. One of them tells you that for online dating, you need excellent photos and that you should get them professionally taken. The event resumes after a ten-minute break. Your next potential match is a Nursing student. You decide to ramp up the charm offensive and do some stand-up comedy material for her (you have always wanted to perform stand-up on stage). She can’t stop laughing at the jokes and those six minutes pass by before you could even breathe. The last lady works as a data analyst and you try some of the jokes with her as well. You also talk about the city and she tells you her experience living there for the last five years. Times flies by and the event is officially over. You feel good. Even if none of them picks you as a match (and you secretly hope it is the cross-fit trainer/massage therapist). Once you get out, you are approached by a lady wearing a suit and a charming smile. She works for a company that ‘grooms’ people for dating, providing them with suggestions on how to work on their personality. You are in high spirits so instead of rejecting her offer, you joke with her, calling her the ‘Love Guru’. She gives you her company card, just in case. You take a cab, reach home and start waiting. You receive an email next day from the Speed dating company with two names and email addresses, the cross-fit trainer is not among them. It’s the two girls whom you made to laugh. You email both of them, only the nursing student replies and after a day or two even she stops. Your self-esteem goes down the gutter. You wish you were a white guy. You go back to reading Aziz Ansari’s ‘Modern Love’.

 

 

The pork episode of Master of None

The Aerogram has a piece out, Bacon & (Un)Belief: Religion & American Secularism in Master of None, which reviews The Master of None episode about religion. I kind of agree that it was a little unbelievable in relation to his cousin, and how quickly he became a porkoholic (I don’t think pork is superior to chicken, but that’s a matter of taste).

That being said I think it is important to note a personal aspect of Aziz Ansari’s relationship to religion. Here’s a correction to an article in The New York Times profiling Aziz:

In an earlier version of this article, Michael Schur, the co-creator of “Parks and Recreation,” partly described Mr. Ansari as a Muslim. Mr. Ansari describes himself as an atheist.

Aziz Ansari does not define himself from what I can tell as a bad or liberal Muslim. He says he’s not religious. He happens to be a guy who is an atheist, a very negatively viewed group, who is from a Muslim background, a very negatively viewed group. That is one way we have a lot in common.

Also, I had a bacon experience very similar to Aziz. Though in my case it was at a friend’s house where they were Hindus from West Bengal, and my friend was having bacon. My mom came over and I had a piece of bacon in my mouth. She was a little chagrined. She said I’m not supposed to eat pork products and not to do it again.

In general I still don’t eat much pork and ham. But I really love bacon, and have no problem with pork sausages.

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.