TV Shows, Pop Culture

‘Master of None’ really, truly gets the immigrant kid experience

For once, their story is not a tragedy. Their accents are not a joke.

Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix show has its flaws. Most of its women are fairly two-dimensional characters, and nearly all are white. Sometimes the editing could be tighter. And it’s more “Girls” funny than “Parks and Rec” funny. But in its depiction of the immigrant experience in the U.S., “Master of None” has crafted the truest representation of myself and of my family I’ve ever seen on television.

I say “the immigrant experience,” but I should really say an immigrant experience, because they vary so widely from person to person and circumstance to circumstance. Immigrant narratives on television lack this variety and nuance. They usually fall into one of two categories: comedy or tragedy.

Either we get the bumbling immigrant who doesn’t get American culture and ha ha, isn’t it funny that he has an accent, too (“That 70’s Show”, “Aliens in America,” “Modern Family”); or immigrants are reduced to a sad, endlessly marginalized group that escaped their horrible home countries to come to the United States and fail at living out the American dream, often becoming criminals in the process (“Orange is the New Black,” “Breaking Bad”). The relationship between those immigrants and their American children, who experience a kind of identity shock similar to that of third-culture kids, is rarely explored with any depth.  

That’s where “Master of None” comes in. The relationship between Dev Shah and his parents (beautifully portrayed by Ansari’s actual parents, which adds another note of bittersweet sympathy to their relationship with their on-screen and real-life son) is central to the show and vital in understanding Dev’s character.

It also rings true to my own relationship with my parents.

Both my parents are immigrants, but I was born in Boston, a city famous for both kicking off the American Revolution and pretending it isn’t racist. They left Morocco to study and live in Europe for nearly a decade, and then they left Europe in the hopes of finding a job in the United States. Their story is not a tragic one; their accents are not a joke. They’re sometimes easy fodder for racist insurance brokers or customer service representatives, but my parent both speak multiple languages fluently. It’s neither funny nor their fault that their English doesn’t sound Middle American. It’s just evidence of the hard work my parents put into learning yet another language.

It’s true, of course, that many people have come to the United States as refugees of some kind. But the portrayal of this as the sole sympathetic immigrant narrative in popular culture flattens immigrants and their children into two-dimensional objects of pity. It strips them of their complexity and fails to explore anything about an immigrant except for that tragedy. Here, “Master of None” succeeds: we get both Dev’s parents’ narrative and his Taiwanese-American friend Brian’s parents’ narrative. The two play off and into each other without claiming that either one is the only valid immigrant experience.

On his personal Tumblr, Ansari says that casting his actual parents to play his on-screen parents became, more than anything, a way for him to hang out with them. This is similar to the relationship between millennials and their parents everywhere, but Dev and Brian complicate and deepen it. Sometimes, you just don’t see your parents enough, and you should feel guilty about that—doubly so when you know they live in a country thousands of miles away from the one in which they were born and raised, in a culture often openly hostile to them, and in a place typically far removed from any family or childhood friends.

At one point, Brian’s father asks Brian to pick up some rice from the story. “Sorry, I can’t,” Brian replies, telling his father that he doesn’t want to miss the trivia questions that play before a movie’s trailers start. The show cuts to Brian’s father deciding to move to the U.S. “I will have opportunity [in America],” he says. “I will have a better life.” Later, proudly, he and Brian’s mother discuss their business. “All our sacrifice is worth it,” they say. Brian, they promise themselves, will have a better life.

“Master of None” points out the sacrifices that immigrant parents make for their ostensibly unappreciative American children, but it also emphasizes the love that nevertheless exists between both generations. Sometimes they don’t understand each other, but that does nothing to lessen the tenderness and depth of the emotion between them.

The show’s immigrant narratives are neither tragic nor comedic; rather, they are vivid and varied, at once hopeful and bitter, full of both sacrifice and love. The show invokes empathy and sympathy for first- and second-generation immigrants instead of pity. This is a complexity rarely afforded to characters of color on television, and even less rarely afforded to their brown, accented-English-speaking parents.

While the hopefulness in this version of the immigrant narrative isn’t necessarily truer than the tragic narrative, “Master of None” gives its immigrant characters much-needed depth and helps to fill out the picture of them in the media. In doing so, it shows immigrants not as some poor or funny other, but instead as richly-detailed human beings, worthy of both empathy and love.

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    Nidale Zouhir recently graduated from Columbia University, where she majored in Postcolonial Affairs and CSS Profile Studies. These days, she spends most of her time tweeting about the 2016 presidential election and binge-watching "Chopped." She will happily argue with you about the best soccer player in the world, the actual definition of "feminism," and the most entertaining spin off of "Million Dollar Listing."