Aziz Ansari and I both look Indian, but there is a difference of day and night in our upbringing. He was born in an American hospital, and I was born 10,000 miles away in a small hospital in Lucknow, India. He grew up in America, and I moved to America when I was 30. He is a comedian, and I couldn’t have dreamed of choosing comedy as a career growing up in India. According to my parents, it is not a respectable enough profession.
The relationship of parents and children in Indian families is one of the subjects in Ansari’s new show, Master of None. I quite liked the episode in which his real parents play his TV parents. I was touched by Ansari’s tribute, on his Facebook page, about how much he enjoyed working with his parents and how much they have sacrificed so he could have the amazing life he has — and his admission that in the past he hasn’t always been the best son. “I felt like a total piece of garbage for all the times I haven’t visited my parents,” he confessed.
This made me wonder about my own relationship with my parents and my relationship with my daughter, who is 6 years old — and the inevitable clash of American and Indian values.
The other day, my daughter was doing something in her room and I asked out of curiosity what she was doing. Her response left me speechless.
She said, “It’s not your business.”
It wasn’t her intent to hurt my feelings. She just wanted some privacy. I wondered how my parents, who still live in India, would react if I’d said the same thing to them.
First of all, I cannot imagine uttering those words to them. Telling them that what I do is not their business is not just saying they don’t need to know what I am up to. Those words echo a larger and deeper meaning — I‘m excluding them from my life, they shouldn’t worry about me and my well-being.
If I said “it’s not your business” to my parents, this would be the highest degree of insult to them. Their life’s hard work, sufferings and efforts to raise me would crumble in one instant. My parents, like most parents in India, were heavily invested in their kids. They often said, “Our only property is our kids,” which sometimes bothered me. I often felt obligated to live their dreams, choose the career they wanted. I understood they wanted us to have a better life than theirs, but there were times I felt suffocated.
My wife is an American who grew up in rural Pennsylvania. She loves her parents, and her parents love her. But when I first came to the States, I remember how my wife would call her mother and her mother would sometimes say, “Can you call me later? I’m watching my favorite show right now.” My Indian mind couldn’t fathom that a television show can be more important to a mother than her daughter.
Meanwhile, hardly a day goes by when my mother doesn’t call me from India to ask if I have eaten well.
I know my daughter is too young to understand how I felt when she said, “It’s not your business” to me.
I also know that although I grew up in India and have Indian values, I am raising my kid in America. She goes to an American public school, has American friends and watches American TV. I want her to be an independent woman, but I also want her to have some of the values I grew up with. It is a difficult balance.
American parents are more oriented toward developing independence in their children. The reverse is true in India. My wife left her home when she was just 18. My parents were hugely upset when I wanted to move out of their house at age 30.
As I try to make sense out of all these differences, I must admit that Aziz Ansari’s comments about his parents were reassuring to me. I would like my daughter to grow up feeling the same way about her parents as Ansari now does about his.
Maybe I should ask if he could talk to my daughter.
Deepak Singh is a writer living in Ann Arbor, Mich. He tweets as @deepakwriter.