Am I too normal?
And is it because I'm Indian?
Welcome to the second issue of Lychee, an advice column for South Asian Americans. We answer questions that range from the salacious to the serious, gathered from conversation with friends, academics, and industry experts. Got a question you want to see answered? Ask below.
This week, a reader asked: I feel like I’m boring… and it might be because I'm an Indian man. Is it too late to become more interesting? (Do you have a different answer? Write back and I'll feature you in the next newsletter.)
I live in NYC, make money, go to bars, hang out with people, try to date (before the pandemic, of course) etc, but I can’t help but feel “basic.” I really link this to being Indian. I grew up with parents who didn’t drink and I didn’t date or start drinking until I graduated from college. I was pretty into school and actually religious (Hindu) for a really long time. I grew up in a super American suburban neighborhood so that stuff didn't really fit in. In terms of extracurriculars, I like movies but I’ve never taken the time to use them to develop my personality. The things that I do with my parents (I sing Hindustani music) don’t really register with my peers.
Now at 26 I can’t help but feel behind when it comes to socialization. I had one relationship last year with a white girl but we eventually drifted apart because she said we didn’t have enough in common. I don’t really like Indian girls or only hanging out with Indian people but I know that limits my options. I had the last straw in February, when I went out for drinks with my coworkers and one of them said that they were surprised that I drink. I feel like I’m a stereotype, dorky, makes a lot of money, quiet, no personality. How can I be more interesting?
There may be a more surface level, easy answer to your question than the one you'll get here. Like get a Criterion Collection subscription or read a lot of Pitchfork or something. But I don’t think superficial changes will get to the root of the problem, which is that you find yourself boring.
One of the reasons that this is the case is probably because you are an Indian man living in America. No, Indian men aren't inherently boring. But you’ve been victim to a certain washing that has led you to repress the intricacies of your personality — your knowledge of Hindustani music, your devotion.
The good thing is that this isn’t entirely your fault. Some part of it is conditioning from this “American neighborhood” you’ve been brought up in, which expects your inner life and family life to look a certain way. Because these parts of your life are different from the norm, it's almost as if they don't exist. Cathy Park Hong summarizes it best about Asian Americans in Minor Feelings: "We have a content problem. They think we have no inner resources.”
In the fabric of white society, most of us Asian Americans are acknowledged as diligent hard workers, and often little else (“dorky, makes a lot of money, quiet, no personality,” as you mention). Maybe you’ve had your interests rejected when you've displayed them, and have been conditioned into accepting this as fact.
And this is sort of the American status quo — even I've experienced this, raised in diverse Queens. As a kid, I was so self conscious about my dorkiness that when I transferred into a white middle school in Northern Queens where I was one of few Indian people, I very dramatically transformed from two-braided teacher's pet with a too-big backpack to class-cutting, barely scraping by 12-year-old.
But this is where the solution — for my inner adolescent and for you, normie — comes in: a lot of this is in our control. We can choose whose opinions we value. And if we devalue the opinions of those within this racist system who choose to flatten our experiences, we also take away power from the same people who exhibit violence against Black people and others. Repeat this to yourself: you may be boring, but you're still able to “make good money, go to bars, live in NYC." You have power.
Becoming more interesting starts with reworking your image of other Indian people. As Hong puts it, “instead of solidarity, you feel you are ‘less than’ around other Asians, the boundaries of yourself no longer distinct but congealed into a horde.” You’ve been made to believe that you’re boring, so in groups of people who look like you, you project these feelings.
And on and on. But if you keep indulging those feelings, you’ll eventually disappear, and so will the rest of us. Again, Hong: “When I hear the phrase ‘Asians are next in line to be white,’ I replace the word white’ with disappear. Asians are next in line to disappear. We are reputed to be so accomplished, and so law-abiding, we will disappear into this country’s amnesiac fog.”
When I brought your question to the lovely poet Prageeta Sharma, she asked: “Are we Indians supposed to expect that people want us for our beauty or our success? It doesn’t necessarily seem as if we think people want us for our inner life or our personality.”
Normie, don't be ashamed to share that depth, and to ask your friends and the people you date to attempt to understand these things about you. That’s half the reason representation (so often criticized as meaningless) matters. Seeing people who look like us in contexts we haven't historically belonged in helps us remember how much more we have inside of us. That part, at least, is easier than ever. “This would be a hard question to answer five years ago,” Prageeta added. “Luckily, you’re in new territory.” There are a whole set of new South Asian entertainers — mostly men, each unique, none perfect — who show you new ways that you can be yourself, beyond just your labor: Hasan Minhaj, Kumail Nanjiani, Dev Patel.
Reworking this story of being an Indian man in America is step one — learning to catch yourself when you start to spin the yarn of boredom with yourself, or embracing the things that have helped shape your childhood and who you are today.
Then, of course, are things you can do to make yourself more interesting. This advice is well worn — read widely, interact with people unlike yourself, get deeper on the things that interest you.
And if at the end of all of this, you find that you're still a little boring, maybe it's time to let it ride. There are far worse things to be.
Some internet reads:
Hua Hsu's The Stories We Tell, and Don't Tell, About Asian America — on second generation immigrants, “They feel “psychically ‘nowhere,’ ” ill-equipped to deal with the subtler yet still existing barriers to assimilation.”
Cathy Park Hong's Minor Feelings — on feeling less than whole, “If Whitman’s ‘I’ contained multitudes, my ‘I’ contained 5.6% of this country.”
Prageeta Sharma's Belonging as Consequence