Am I, a second-generation immigrant with parents from India, an Indian-American or a South Asian American? Do I have to pick one—or can I be both?
The media has increasingly begun to focus on the issue of identity among South Asian Americans. Over the past few months, there has been tension in California about textbooks and curricula, with community advocates, organizations, and scholars working against those who are proposing edits and counter-edits about the way textbooks should discuss South Asia, its history, and its religious belief systems.
BG Sravya had a recent panel discussion in her “Brown Girl News” web series, which can be viewed above, about certain Hindu fundamentalist organizations looking for making changes to the textbooks that would erase the identity of Dalit-Bahujan castes, erase mentions of Sikh founder Guru Nanak’s denouncement of caste, and portray Islam as a violent religion. In addition, the Hindu-American Foundation, in particular, wants to refer to South Asia as India in textbooks.
But, this ideology excludes non-Hindu and non-Indian communities and people in the South Asian region. This is a way for Hindu-Indian Americans to distance themselves from other communities and people from South Asia.
My parents come from India, so for Agarwal, I would be an “Indian American.” In his editorial, he states that he and his family “regularly enjoy many aspects of Indian culture,” such as food, music, and religion. But what is Indian food? Punjabi cuisine is vastly different from Tamil cuisine, which is different from Kerala cuisine, which is different from Andhra cuisine, which is different from Maharashtrian cuisine, and I could go on, – there is no single “Indian food.”
And what is “Indian music?” Hindustani music and Carnatic music differ in so many ways. Ghazals and Qawwalis distinctly vary as well. Even contemporary music is not the same across states, across languages, and across the variety of cultures that exist in India.
And “Indian religion?” India is constitutionally secular. There is no one religion in India—people of many religions, such as Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism, to name a few—reside in India.
So let me ask, what does Agarwal mean when he states that he and his family enjoy these aspects of Indian culture? He is attempting to homogenize an extremely diverse group of people, an extremely diverse group of cultures and foods and music and religions.
The existence of a South Asian American identification should not—and does not—erase the fact that there are different identities under this umbrella. Instead, it is an attempt at being inclusive of all of these identities rather than utilizing divisive rhetoric to separate oneself.
For example, Indian-Muslims have expressed disagreement with the idea that there should be no such thing as a “South Asian American” identity, stating that the term “Indian American” does not truly fit their understanding of who they are. In many ways, they relate to others from the South Asian subcontinent who are not just Indian, and sometimes they relate to these people more than they relate to other Hindu Indians.
Saying that the South Asian American identity is valid, is not to say that the South Asian identity is monolithic; it is to acknowledge that people from the region can identify with those not necessarily from their country of origin. However, by insisting that people label themselves Indian-American or Pakistani-American or Bangladeshi-American, etc. without allowing them to make that choice for themselves, it may be assumed that one’s country of origin is all that matters.
South Asians in the United States are a minority. We are immigrants in another culture. It is important to acknowledge and understand that there are different subcultures that make up the South Asian American identification, but at the same time, understanding myself as a South Asian American rather than merely an Indian-American, allows me to place myself within the larger community of the diaspora.
My argument is not that people should not be allowed to identify as Indian-American or as Pakistani-American or as Sri Lankan-American. Instead, arguing against the South Asian American identification and calling it “political correctness” as an attempt to dismiss it is harmful and divisive.
Sanjana Lakshmi is an undergraduate student who wants to change the world, originally from the Bay Area and now studying political science and legal studies at Northwestern University. She dreams of one-day dismantling capitalism, along with, patriarchy and structural racism, and obviously she can’t to this single-handedly, so please join her. But, in the meantime, she hopes to help her community in any way she can. Lakshmi is particularly passionate about gender justice but cares about all kinds of human rights issues as well. She also enjoys Indian food, falafel, mint chocolate chip ice cream, hiking, hanging out with her dog and her family, and sleeping.
January 1, 2023January 1, 2023 7min readBy Brown boy
Wyatt Feegrado is a comedian and content creator from Walnut Creek, San Francisco, California. Feegrado moved to New York City to attend the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. Feegrado always wanted to be a comedian and grew up watching “The Last Comic Standing” with his mom — his favorites being Alingon Mitra and Sammy Obeid. In 2020, Feegrado starred in the TV show “Bettor Days,” on Hulu and ESPN+, as the character Vinnie bets on the baseball team The Astros and wins big. Feegrado also has a podcast called “First World Problematic,” along with Vishal Kal and Surbhi, where they talk about a range of topics such as racism, sexism, and homophobia, and will be dropping an “Indian Matchmaking” Reunion show. Currently, in Bangalore, Feegrado is performing his first show in India, at the Courtyard in Bangalore. He was previously on tour in the United States. He recently dropped the Amazon comedy special “Wyatt Feegrado: De-Assimilate.” Continue reading to learn more about Wyatt Feegrado.
Do you feel that your upbringing in Walnut Creek and your personal experiences are what molded your comedic style?
Walnut Creek, for people who have never been there, is frankly a very white place. I must’ve been one of four or five Indian kids in my high school of 2000. I think growing up like that, you begin to believe that it’s a bit ‘odd’ that you’re brown. Part of finding my comedic voice was changing that perspective to say; it’s not weird that I’m brown, it’s weird that you’re not. That’s the paradigm shift — I don’t move through the world trying to impress people, why should I? Who are they? They should be trying to impress me.
What was it like attending the Tisch School Of The Arts and what classes helped shape you as a person?
I hope I don’t get too much flack for this…but I don’t really think that NYU helped my career very much. Being in New York helped me immensely, it raised the ceiling on what I could achieve. I really appreciate NYU’s approach, they teach art as a fundamentally collaborative discipline, which I do believe it is. However, that’s just not how I learn. I’m a competitive person, I want to be pitted against my fellow students and prove I’m the best. That motivates me. I would say, if you want to use NYU or any art school to your advantage, understand that classes are only half of what you’re supposed to be doing. That was a pet peeve of mine, I used to see my fellow students finish class and simply go home. That’s not the way to do it in this industry. Every day, after school, I used to go to two or three open mics, send in self-taped auditions, and make opportunities of my own. You’re betting on yourself — so go all in.
What was the process of creating the comedy special “Wyatt Feegrado: De-Assimilate?”
In terms of writing the jokes, it’s the culmination of studying joke writing for 10 years. But I was approached with the opportunity in March or so, and I had my reservations to even tape a special — I’m a perfectionist so I wanted all my jokes to be some of the best ever written. But that’s just a bad strategy in terms of trying to make it in life. When an opportunity falls in your lap, you have to take it no matter what. Worry about whether you’re ready later. One time I was cast in a commercial for Facebook that required me to do skateboard tricks. I lied and said I knew how to do skateboard tricks at the casting call. I landed the commercial and then started practicing how to skateboard. I think the most important lesson in comedy you can learn is how to believe in yourself when nobody else does. I always have the confidence that I will rise to the occasion.
What was it like getting your special on Amazon Prime?
So Four by Three, the amazing production company that produced my special, has a very good relationship with Amazon, as they’ve produced a lot of content for their platform. They handled distribution for me, and together we made the strategic decision to also release De-Assimilate on YouTube. I think because of the over-saturation of streaming services you have to pay for, combined with the renaissance YouTube is having, where a lot of the content will have TV-level production value, more and more young people are turning to YouTube as their primary source of content. People are always asking who is going to win the “streaming wars.” My dark horse candidate is YouTube.
As a comedian how do you deal with hecklers?
So many comedians are mean to hecklers. I hate that. There’s no reason for that. They’re a person too and it’s not right to berate them unless they truly insulted you first. In my opinion, there are three types of hecklers — the heckler who is just too drunk, the heckler who thinks they’re helping the show, and the heckler who actually hates you or thinks you’re unfunny. I think only the latter deserves to be berated. The rest of them I try to work around, and tell them they’re interrupting the show in a way that doesn’t interrupt the show in itself.
What was the first joke you ever wrote and your favorite joke you have ever written?
Oh god this is going to be horrible. The first joke I every wrote was:
“Shawn White is a professional snowboarder, but a lot of people don’t know he is also very skilled in Curling, his hair”
That is so bad. I’m embarrassed. At least it disproves the BS some people say that “funny isn’t learnable.” That is NOT TRUE. What they mean is the infrastructure for funny scant exists. There’s no Standup Comedy Major in Art Schools or Textbooks that teach joke writing. There will be one day, but for now there isn’t.
My favorite jokes I write are jokes that I really think encapsulates the zeitgeist. My favorites on the special are the joke about how Jesus’ Disciples are Brown, and how the Vaccine is the first time anyone in the US has gotten healthcare for free.
Are there any jokes that you regret telling in front of an audience?
Of course. Referring back to my answer to the first question, any joke that has the underlying presumption that it is ‘odd’ to be brown — which is a genre of jokes that many Indian-American comedians in history have been pigeonholed into — I regret saying those type of jokes when I first started. Now I do the opposite. Sometimes I’ll do a joke about how Jesus was brown in Texas just to piss them off.
What has been your favorite project to work on?
Flying to Nashville to shoot Bettor Days for ESPN+ was great. I was just out of school at the time so it felt amazing to make money, travel, and work. Also the sets were fun and I’m still friends with the cast. And then getting to see myself on TV for the first time — thrilling.
Can you tell us more about your podcast First World Problematic?
Yes! First World Problematic is the comedy podcast I host with Vishal Kal — yes the same one that broke Nadia’s heart on Indian Matchmaking — and Surbhi, another close comedian friend of mine. We’re all Indian-Americans, and we discuss a wide variety of topics, such as dating, pop culture, and just in general make a lot of jokes. ALSO! We just released an Indian Matchmaking Season 2 reunion special — we brought back all the cast members of season 2 for a tell all! In Jan we plan to do a Season 1 reunion.
Who do you look up to in the world of comedy?
Man. I’m a student of a looooooooot of comedians. So so so many people I look up to. Steven Wright and Dave Chappelle are my first loves. When I was a kid, I used to think standup was just time pass, until one day I stumbled upon Dave Chappelle: Killin Em’ Softly on YouTube. That is what made me realize that standup can be high art. That is when I knew I wanted to be a comedian. Steven Wright is the comedian who first inspired me to write jokes, many of my first jokes emulated him. I have learned so much about modern Joke Structure from Dave Attell, Emo Phillips, Dan Mintz, and Anthony Jeselnik. Bit structure I take directly from Louie CK and Bill Burr. As for my comedic voice, I learned so much from Paul Mooney. Listening to him is what I feel really unlocked my approach to comedy, the way how he is so mean, so aggressive. He talks about white people the way the media talks about black people. I always thought us Asian people needed that, an Asian comedian that talks about Asian-American issues, but not with the friendliness you typically see Asian comedians portray. He taught me to be in your face. And Chappelle taught me how to be nice about it.
Do you feel that South Asian comedians can be easily pigeonholed?
Historically — unequivocally yes. In the modern times, much less so. I very much think South Asian comedians in some sense pigeonhole themselves, by trying to emulate past South Asian comedians, who were pigeonholed by the market. I do think now, and it is completely because of social media, there is a market for every kind of comedy. Like I said in my previous answer, I’d like to be a South Asian comedian with the confrontationality that we have historically only seen from Black comedians.
But you know who is really pigeonholed nowadays? Female comedians. This may be a tangent, but if there was a Female comedian that talked about Female issues, with the hostility towards men that Bill Burr will occasionally have towards women, in my opinion she would likely be the GOAT.
How do you feel social media such as Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, and Snapchat have changed comedy?
Social media has been a truly beautiful thing for comedy. It has completely decentralized the power structure of our business. Back in the day, if you wanted to get famous, you had to do comedy that appealed to the white men who held the power at the networks, at the talk shows, in the writers rooms. They still do control all those things, but now because of social media the people watching our stuff are representative of the population, and we can grow our followings because the market is wider. Now if you have a social media following, you have all the leverage, and therefore you see a multitude more styles of standup comedy out there. Also social media in my opinion is the third great comedy boom. Seinfeld made standup a household art form, Netflix made it possible for people to binge watch standup, and now Tiktok and Instagram have proliferated standup to the point where it is EVERYWHERE. There are more comedians than ever and there’s a bigger market for standup than ever.
Lastly, what do you hope individuals take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?
Us Indian-Americans are at a very interesting financial and cultural intersection. Indians are the richest ethnicity in America, and culturally Indian parents will generally pay for their children’s college, unlike other ethnicities. If Indian parents were to hypothetically support their child to go into the arts, just like they may support them in getting their Masters degree, I believe Indians would have an astronomically higher chance of making it in the arts than anyone else. The greatest gift you can give your artist child is financial support in the early stages, since we all know the early stages of the arts make next to nothing. We just have to get rid of the Doctor, Lawyer, Engineer only BS that I would argue is a remnant of the Caste System in India.
Also, remember to call white people Euro-Americans. It helps the movement!
Like many 90s kids, I was obsessed with Disney and the beauty of its animation. At four years old, I saw my first move in theaters: The Lion King. I spent the next year watching the movie everyday and singing along to “Hakuna Matata.” Disney was a way to relate to my peers and bridge the gap between my two identities.I remember being especially fond of Jasmine and Pocahontas. Their brown skin and black long hair matched mine. When I wasn’t watching Disney movies with my sisters, we watched Bollywood movies of the Golden Era. As the years passed, I prioritized balancing my passion for Disney with the intersections of my identities.
2022 was the first time Diwali merchandise became available in large retail stores. My town’s library even had a “Diwali” section in the Children’s section. The world is finally transforming and Diwali is becoming “mainstream.” After years of advocacy and cultural awareness, we are finally witnessing the representation of our culture, traditions and holidays. Upon hearing of JASHN Productions’ first-ever Diwali Dance Fest taking place in Walt Disney World, I immediately began planning. My passion for Disney had grown from movies to theme park adventures. Diwali, the festival of lights combined with Disney World magic was bound to be spectacular. And, oh boy (Mickey Mouse voice), did JASHN surpass all expectations.
The first event, held in Walt Disney World’s Disney Springs, was the first Diwali parade. Dancers of the many dance studios performed in 20 minute synchronized dances. Hearing Diwali announced over the PA system had me near tears. The vibration of the dhol beats within the Bollywood rhythms had the shoppers engaged. The sea of dancers adorning the vibrant colors of Diwali fit in perfectly with the Florida sun.
The real dream was seeing Mickey and Minnie Mouse on stage with “Diwali” spread across. The Diwali Dance Fest included over 400 youth dancers from across the United States. These dancers, from 17 different dance schools, specializing in a variety of different forms of Indian and Indo-fusion dance, performed in Animal Kingdom’s Finding Nemo Theatre. Each dance led the audience to different regions of India; the music ranged from classical and folk to Bollywood and hip hop.The hosts Nisha Mathur and Sway Bhatia represented the joining of both worlds. Mathur is known for her SonyTV show, “Keys to Kismat” and Bhatia is the voice of character, Karishma on the very first Disney children’s show Mira the Royal Detective. International singer and performer Raghav, ended the show with his hit, Angel Eyes as a select group of dancers performed beside him.
Hearing the Indian music I had grown up with, brought me endless joy to finally witness such a level of representation, especially in a place so special to me. Experiencing a Diwali celebration in the most magical place on Earth with all generations was one of the best parts.
An after-party for performers and families, took place following the showcase in The Lion King theater. I was dancing and singing to my favorite Bollywood hits after enjoying this Disney Spectacular. Disney has always been my happy place; Walt Disney World will forever be the place where my greatest dreams came true. From enjoying a day at Animal Kingdom, in Indian attire, with Minnie Mouse ears to dancing along to the songs that filled my home. I have experienced a level of representation I never even knew possible. I have finally seen the gap bridged between my two identities. Never have I been more proud to be an Indian-American.
The feedback from the microphone gratingly penetrated the vacant bubble I had fallen into after watching yet another performance by the youth, educating us on the benefits of Jainism. I had been daydreaming of the skits I had put on as a child, remembering the diligence with which I memorized my lines. “Why did I?” I wondered. I never truly knew what these skits were about. I knew the plot, but they all felt a little too neat to me.
Every problem had an answer; every story ended triumphantly. Victory over evil. Good deeds are rewarded. Back on stage, I saw an auntie wrapped in a sparkly red sari walking to the center of the stage, her hands folded together graciously. “Let’s put another hand together for these children!” she said, gesturing behind her. Some children sheepishly peeked out from behind the curtain. “And let’s thank their parents. Parents, it is your responsibility to bring your children to the temple. Without your involvement, our children will not know the correct way to live. It is your duty, your dharam.”
Glancing over at my mom, I could see her eyes clouding as she clapped. The weight of that word was not lost on me, and it certainly wasn’t lost on my mother. Dharam felt like a heavy word. To me, it felt like it somehow encompassed morality, duty, and culture all into one. Many religions have a version of dharam, they all define it differently, but it always seems to boil down to the same idea: a guide on how to live one’s life. I felt like it was interpreted in a much more rigid and arbitrary manner. The skit highlighted waking up early, not spending too long on your phone, and doing your homework as dharam. Growing up, some of the whims of my parents: not staying out after dark, spending too much time with our friends versus our work, and being obedient, also fell under the umbrella of dharam. Dharam was being diluted.
Dharam, when broken down into its roots, means ‘to support’. But often it would feel like the opposite of this, suffocating with heavy expectations that seemed to grow with each year. What did it mean to be a good daughter, good sister, or good person? How had a guide on how to live life turned into the only correct way to live at all?
I remember telling my mother I wasn’t sure I believed in religion anymore. My mom was driving me back from the temple, and it no longer felt peaceful to me; no longer felt right. Walking around after the pooja, speaking to all of the aunties and uncles…I felt out of place. All of them told me how lucky I was that my parents were such pillars of our faith. They forced me to promise that I would come to the temple every time I was in town when I knew deep down that I wouldn’t. It felt wrong lying; it felt wrong to pretend that I was religious when I wasn’t anymore.
My mother’s nostrils flared, but she kept her eyes on the road. She increased the speed of the windshield wipers even though it was only drizzling slightly.
“How can you say that? How can you reject a god that has given you so much?” she fumed. “You know nothing about Jainism. You know nothing about what you are just throwing away. You don’t know how lucky you are to be born into this religion.” I let her fume. My change of heart hadn’t come out of thin air. I hadn’t prayed in years. I only went to the temple for my mother’s sake. Deep down, I think my mom knew I didn’t have a strong attachment to my religion anymore, but she didn’t want to admit it. Maybe she thought dragging me to the temple would somehow make it habitual for me; a part of my routine. But religion cannot be forced, and no matter how hard I tried, it didn’t work for me.
Maybe part of the shock of my disbelief was the fact that secularism feels non-existent in India. Indian soap operas emphasized the proper actions of a good daughter-in-law, wife, and mother, and villainized those who deviated from traditional roles and values. Even progressive shows such as “Anupamaa,“ which shows a housewife divorcing her husband, entering the workforce, and creating her own dance studio, showed that divorce is only acceptable in extreme circumstances. Failing to impart these values to your children is viewed as a failure in your role of a good parent.
But my mother is an amazing mother. She raised me to learn to question the world around me. She fostered the importance of working hard and being humble. She taught me to be a good person and care for others, not because I was obligated to by my faith or karma, but because it was what I should do. She supported me and taught me to support others, which I believe is the meaning of dharam. She did not fail her dharam as a mother, but because of how dharam was presented to her, she will never know that.