Aziz Ansari’s New Series Gives Overdue Peek Inside Lives of Immigrants
America may be a country built on immigration, but you’d never know it from looking at our television shows. Despite that more than 41 million immigrants are living in the United States and first- and second-generation Americans make up one-quarter of the country’s population, immigrant stories are still scarce on-screen, which is why the new Netflix series Master of None is so remarkable.
The show, created and written by comic Aziz Ansari and former Parks and Recreation writer/producer Alan Yang, stars Ansari as a 30-something New York actor struggling to obtain work, find love, and get along with his family. That he is Indian American and most of the rest of the cast are also people of color is noteworthy, but it’s the way the show features his heritage that is unusual.
On Master of None, many of the plot lines concern the romantic foibles of the millennial generation. Is it the chivalrous thing to do to pay for Plan B emergency contraception when the condom breaks during a one-night stand? If texting is meant to make communication easier, why does it make dating so much harder? But there are also episodes devoted to life as an Indian American. In one, Ansari delves into the difficulties of trying to find work as an actor of color, especially when he won’t do a stereotypical Indian accent.
“When I first started acting, I did have to deal with things like going to auditions and them asking that I do an accent, and me feeling a little uncomfortable about that, and having friends that were Indian actors that did do accents,” Ansari recently told Entertainment Weekly. “And it wouldn’t be me really judging people who do accents but kind of being even more frustrated. Sometimes a minority actor—that’s all you’re thought of. It’s like, ‘Well, if we need someone Indian, we’ll call that guy.’ Know what I mean? So many times in movies and TV shows, the straight white guy, he’s the everyman. That’s who everyone has decided is like everybody. But he’s not everybody. He’s just not.”
The past year has been a good one for visibility of actors of South Asian descent, even if the recent Hollywood Diversity Report by UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies notes that only 4 percent of roles on scripted shows are played by Asians. There are many South Asian faces on your television beyond the stereotypical Apu on The Simpsons (who is voiced by a white actor), from Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra’s stateside breakout role on Quantico to Sendhil Ramamurthy’s return in Heroes Reborn, Mindy Kaling’s starring and show-runner roles on The Mindy Project, and Kumail Nanjiani’s triple duty on The Grinder, Silicon Valley, and The Meltdown With Jonah and Kumail.
But those roles often feature characters that are the single Asian on the show, which Ansari has criticized, and they often downplay the actor’s nationality. In some ways, that’s a good thing—it’s obviously a sign of improvement that the sexy romantic lead or competent crime solver can be a person of color without comment. But why do we have to ignore the particular backstory or experience that comes from being a person of color, especially when that person is the child of immigrants?
To that end, the best episode of Master of None’s 10 is “Parents,” which explores the gulf between immigrant parents and their American children.
Ansari’s real parents play his parents in this episode, and the stories they tell, including how his mom spent her first day in America sitting on the couch crying because she didn’t know anyone and how his doctor father was left out and discriminated against at work, are adapted from real life. The crux of the episode is that Ansari’s Dev and his Taiwanese American friend Brian, played by Kelvin Yu, realize that they both know little about their parents’ lives before they came to America. So they invite them to dinner, ostensibly to thank them for all they sacrificed so their sons could have easier lives and to encourage them to share their stories.
Both fathers lived in abject poverty. Brian’s father had to kill his pet chicken for food. Dev’s dad wanted to play guitar and aspired to attend medical school, but he was forced instead to first go work in a zipper factory. As Dev’s father’s visiting friend reminds him, if his dad hadn’t come to America, Dev would probably be working in that very zipper factory instead of auditioning for movie work.
In addition to making space for immigrant stories on television, the episode also dramatizes the gulf between first-generation parents and their second-generation kids. The kids often understand little about their parents’ sacrifices, and the parents often don’t understand the decisions or priorities of their children, who were raised in such different circumstances. (For example, the episode opens by juxtaposing scenes of Dev not having time to help his father set up his new iPad with scenes from his dad’s hardscrabble youth.)
These kinds of stories and this kind of specificity would not be possible on a show not run by two children of immigrants. As cocreator, Yang, who, like the character of Brian, is the son of Taiwanese immigrants (and whose own father had to kill his pet chicken to keep from starving), recently told Terry Gross on Fresh Air: “The germ of that episode actually started when I was sitting in Aziz’s hotel room, and we were trying to work on the show, and I told him this story [about my dad’s chicken]...and now his son gets to sit in a hotel room with a famous comedian and work on a TV show with him. And it was just so staggering. And Aziz had similar stories about the sacrifices his family had made. And it’s just something you kind of take for granted sometimes as the children of immigrants, and it’s very legitimate. All of the emotions in that episode are very real, because I’ve felt that guilt before and think Aziz has too.”
We don’t know if Yang and Ansari have ever personally expressed gratitude to their parents for those sacrifices (though given how stoic they depict their parents on-screen—Brian says his white ex-girlfriend’s mother hugged him more during one meal than his parents did in his whole life—it seems unlikely that they would have such a touchy-feely exchange). If not, this show makes for a moving thank-you note.