By Justin Sidhu
Every ounce of media we consume — from our Instagram feeds to the shows we binge on Netflix — fundamentally shapes the way we perceive our individual and collective realities. With a worldwide perspective of different cultures at our fingertips, it has become exponentially easier for us to visualize and understand our similarities and differences from one another. But it is what we see and what we discuss in our circles, at school, at work or with our friends and family, that forces us to mentally, emotionally and critically engage with our surroundings and with ourselves.
This isn’t necessarily a voluntary or conscious process, however. From birth, we are essentially sponges who absorb everything around us, for better or worse. Our biological and TV families alike impact us and construct our identities before we can comprehend them. Being born into our respective circumstances, the early associations and conscious traits we exhibit emerge from forces completely out of our control.
I grew up watching people on TV who mostly didn’t look like me. And the ones who did — the Tom Haverfords and Kelly Kapoors of the world — felt more like token Desis to me than they did true examples of people from my background. While these characters were pivotal for even getting our foot in the door in terms of representation, they only began paving the path to what is possible for South Asians in popular culture.
From the moment we’re born or arrive in this country, we simultaneously exist in two cultures that don’t accept us for who we are. To people back home, our background growing up in the United States bars us from truly becoming anything more than the “cousin from America” in their eyes. To the diverse but undeniably white-dominated nation we are raised in and formed by, we are never fully accepted because of the color of our skin. We have two feet on platforms that never feel like solid ground, no matter how desperately we try to find our footing on either one.
South Asian-Americans exist in an idiosyncratic intersection of the larger cultures we occupy by nature and by nurture. We move through life confused about where we should be, yet we can never come to terms with the reality of not quite belonging anywhere. It is this internal struggle with an inexplicable contradiction that drives us to develop our own identities and carve out our own lane.
This is where I feel the range of popular culture and art rooted in the experience of being South Asian-American falls short. Today, we have access to a polarized spectrum of available options — American actors of South Asian descent in television and film are mostly depicted either as the aforementioned “token Desis” with no meaningful connection to their roots, or as the hyper-realized caricatures made for white audiences to interpret our context through the lens of awkward cultural differences. What we don’t see, and what need more of, are good-faith explorations into the internal battles we all face with our multicultural contradictions and with ourselves as a result.
We don’t need to spell out who we are or where we come from — seeing those characters embedded in popular culture ignites something within us. For many of us, it is our first glimpse into the ocean of possibilities that exists beyond the pond of expectations our parents indoctrinate us with.
And that expectation isn’t a death knell, nor is it a purely evil outlet of our parents’ tyranny over our life and career choices. It’s rather a reaction to the hardship and adversity faced by the generations whose immense sacrifices and perseverance against discrimination made it possible for us to live here. I cannot comprehend my parents’ fearlessness in leaving behind the familiarity of life back home to enter a completely alien world just so I could have a chance at pursuing opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be afforded to me.
What distinguishes us from those who brought us here is the goals we are set up to aim for. Coming to this country, our parents’ mission first and foremost was survival and stability. To achieve this aim, they played the roles that were expected of them in the professional and cultural contexts alike. This was made tangible by initiatives such as the H-1B visa program and implicated in our rejection from American society at large.
Often the only way our parents could enter this country was through the avenues of skilled labor in a certain subset of industries at the level of middle management at best. Alongside these glass ceilings that existed in their workplace, they were told to keep their heads down and remain consumers — “assimilators” — in the cultural economy.
The glass ceiling has begun to crack and shatter on the professional side. Google CEO Sundar Pichai recently appeared in front of Congress amongst three other executives of the four most powerful companies in the world. South Asians have gained a rock-solid financial footing in this country and only continue to thrive in this avenue as Indian-Americans have become the highest earning ethnic group in the United States.
However, this economic rise to power reveals a glaring asymmetry in our cultural influence and prowess. First-generation South Asian-Americans — my generation — have been sold this warped perspective of the American Dream since birth only to be sorely disappointed by it as we grew up to realize there is so much more to life than becoming a carbon copy of our parents.
While our parents got their foot in the door and provided for our livelihood, we are now presented with the unique opportunity of self-actualization. We are free to pursue our wildest dreams and reimagine what is possible in the scope of our lives. We are afforded much easier routes to becoming artists, filmmakers, photographers, musicians, writers, designers, performers, and all kinds of creators. We don’t need to keep our heads down and assimilate and mindlessly mirror our surroundings. We are in the place our immigrant parents could never reach — the space where we can define ourselves and give future generations the ability to dream big, as well as the tools to make those dreams a reality.
I want to channel that spirit of self-actualization into an art form, made by and for South Asian-Americans. I am writing a pilot for a TV show focused on the South Asian-American experience, and I’m looking for like-minded people to provide ideas and guidance as I work on this passion project. I want to do everything I can to create the best possible depiction of our unique cultural experience. I don’t want to have to explain a single frame, a single word of dialogue or a single article of clothing to any viewer of any origin.
This project will solely contain the voices of South Asian-American creatives. This is intended to be a gateway to breaking us into the industry. In the best possible scenario, I want an entirely brown writer’s room. I want all episodes scored by musicians of our origin. I want an intense focus on strong characters who experience narratives that are at once distinctive and relatable.
I want to showcase the developed yet overlooked subculture we belong to by deconstructing it and examining it from within. This project is about showing kids that the way they grew up isn’t weird because it’s not what’s on TV. It’s about making a statement on what it’s like to be one of us, and how creating a presence on the economic landscape of this country was just the beginning.
My name is Jaspreet (Justin) Sidhu. I am a multidisciplinary artist native to the San Francisco Bay Area and am currently based in Washington, DC. I believe art is how we share and interpret the complex stories that comprise our lives, as well as the world around us. My greatest passion lies within consuming and producing those narratives. I graduated from UC Berkeley in 2020 and am currently pursuing creative projects in writing and photography while working full-time; in the future, I am looking to expand into film and music. To connect with me, please reach out to me via email at at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram at @justin_sidhu.