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MIT blogger Ankita D. '23

Never Have I Ever…reflected on my identity by Ankita D. '23

"too indian" or "not indian enough"?

This week, I, like many other Indian American girls I know, binge-watched the Netflix show Never Have I Ever. The show, which happens to be the No. 1 trending series on Netflix right now, garnered a lot of attention for finally, finally giving South Asians the representation in media they deserve. I was, of course, hyped to watch it since I’ve never seen a convincingly spunky Indian female character, let alone a protagonist.

Sadly, this show did not meet my expectations. It did many things well and is obviously a huge step for Indians in Hollywood, but…yeah, it has a lot of issues that have prompted me to think about my culture and where I fit into it.

The main character, Devi, is an outgoing and brash girl whose two main goals are to go to Princeton and to have sex. Alright, relatable. But in an attempt to eschew the “nerdy girl” stereotype for Devi, the show’s creators center the plot development on her trying to get with the hot athlete. It’s great that they try to portray a reality where the teens who get perfect scores on their PSAT’s and participate in a host of extracurricular activities also strive to have vibrant social lives, but…at what cost??

For the record, I had no social life in high school—I took a multitude of AP classes, watched aggressive amounts of anime, and pretty much didn’t leave my house except to go to school or quiz bowl matches. Obviously, I’m thrilled to see Devi embrace a life of partying as a mere sophomore, since I only got to do that at MIT, but damn. She has to be bitten by a coyote to be relevant? She has to ditch her friends, who are grappling with serious personal issues, to go do a favor for the hot athlete in order to get a chance at kissing him? What???

I’m mad, y’all.

Also, there’s “busting Asian stereotypes” and then there’s “giving Asian characters random backstories that aren’t related to their cultural identity in a way that distracts from the fact that they’re Asian.” Indeed, Devi’s trauma is so…intense…and plot-consuming that it hinders any meaningful character development.

What I wanted to see more of in this show was Devi’s struggle between being “too Indian” and “not Indian enough,” since that’s a critical facet of the Indian-American experience. In one scene, where Devi is talking to a college admissions counselor, he tells her that she’s “just another Indian girl” unless she has a compelling narrative to write about in her application essay. That part really struck me since in my Common App Essay, I wrote about my homestay experience in Japan and how I feel more connected to Japanese culture than Indian culture as a result.

Here’s the last few paragraphs of the essay. Disclaimer: I didn’t really care about the Common App, so I kind of…spliced up some ideas from my MIT essays and pasted them together to make this. Not my best work, for sure. so don’t judge me too hard uwu

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

…I often wondered how I could be drawn to Japanese culture when the Indian one is so vibrant. How could I not feel an affinity for the whirling skirts and lively music, the colorful festivals and aromatic foods, or even the sense of community that binds families so strongly together? In truth, I wanted desperately to resonate with Indian culture, but with a Catholic background01 lol my family is from that one Indian state that has a lot of Catholic people and feeble understanding of any Indian dialect, I felt alienated from it. Since my parents gave me the independence to explore my own cultural identity, I gravitated towards Japan’s traditions, and fell in love with the intricacies of the language and the vitality of the customs. I grew to admire the people for their harmony, stalwart nature, and ability to respond to bitter adversity with focused determination. Today, I’m grateful for how much I’ve learned from the Japanese culture and the friends I’ve made through a mutual appreciation for it, but most of all for the family I’ve gained. A 6,800-mile distance is nothing when we’ve already bridged language and culture barriers and forged bonds that will last a lifetime. After all, family is forever.

Growing up, I never felt in touch with my culture. I didn’t attend Shishu Bharati, the school that teaches first-generation kids about Indian languages and culture, and only vaguely went to Indian functions and parties. I never attained fluency in Malayalam, the language native to the Indian state where my family is from, and never learned Hindi02 I know two words: namaste, and anar, which means pomegranate. I distinctly remember walking into the room where Nisha was learning the Hindi alphabet, and leaving right after a:anar either. I watched only the essential Bollywood movies03 Three Idiots, Dhoom 2, Jab We Met, PK, etc and could answer maybe three questions about Indian popular culture. And I didn’t particularly want to do any of these things since I wanted to feel “unique” and separate from the rest of the Indian community. Honestly, the derogatory comments Devi makes about the girls dancing at the Indian festival Ganesh Puja are ones a younger me would’ve made to deride my “too-Indian” peers.

In my essay, I describe how I came to embrace Japanese culture after a six-week homestay with a Japanese host family. My appreciation for it stemmed (surprise surprise) from more than just being a weeb, but from a willingness to immerse myself in a new culture since I didn’t feel all that connected to the one I was born into. I picked up Japanese with ease through my annual visits to Japan and my passion for studying the language as a means of bridging the cultural divide, and eventually was able to feel completely comfortable as a gaijin04 foreigner; Japan is super homogenous, so those who don't look Japanese won't really be treated as Japanese. watch the video 'But we're speaking Japanese! 日本語喋ってるんだけど' for more insight on this living in Japan.

…the closest I’ve felt to immersing myself in Indian culture is eating so many gulab jamuns that I grow closer and closer to becoming a gulab jamun.

Truly, the only connections I have to my culture, at this point, are food and the ideals my parents have instilled in me. I didn’t even consider joining MIT SAAS05 South Asian Association of Students because of the disconnect I feel, and I’d probably feel out of place at any of the Indian cultural events at MIT. My Common App Essay might be emo and dramatic, but it’s true: I feel more connected in nearly every way to Japanese culture.

And although I’m grateful that I found solace in another culture, I’ll always wish I were more connected to my roots. Indian culture is freaking incredible, so I hate that I felt ashamed of it as a kid. I hate that I can’t understand Malayalam, or feel comfortable in any traditional attire, or feel like anything but an outsider.

So, yeah, I’m disappointed in Never Have I Ever. The show could’ve depicted an uplifting Indian support system that helps Devi reconcile her two conflicting identities, or at least some representation of Devi and her mother understanding each other’s competing cultural mindsets that doesn’t stem from extenuating circumstances, but….nah.

I’m glad that I got to see an Indian girl be gutsy and confident on-screen, but I wish she could’ve been portrayed in a way that wasn’t cross-culturally problematic. Overcompensating for her academic success by making her entire narrative about being thirsty and desperate to party was not it, folks.

I am disgruntled and disappointed and sad that I wasn’t able to gain anything from this show. But I guess that’s my fault for hoping to be enlightened and empowered by a whimsical teen comedy just because it has an Indian girl as its protagonist.

 

  1. lol my family is from that one Indian state that has a lot of Catholic people" back to text
  2. I know two words: namaste, and anar, which means pomegranate. I distinctly remember walking into the room where Nisha was learning the Hindi alphabet, and leaving right after a:anar back to text
  3. Three Idiots, Dhoom 2, Jab We Met, PK, etc back to text
  4. foreigner; Japan is super homogenous, so those who don't look Japanese won't really be treated as Japanese. watch the video 'But we're speaking Japanese! 日本語喋ってるんだけど' for more insight on this back to text
  5. South Asian Association of Students back to text