In the last 10 months I have found myself doing a lot of South Asian work. The only other time I worked on a South Asian piece was in 2013 – a musical called Bunty Berman Presents.
And in that instance I was one of the very last people to get an audition because no one knew I was South Asian.
How could they?
90% of my professional NYC career has been in Middle Eastern work. And because people still can’t comprehend global intersectionality no one would guess that I could possibly be something else.
I remember the occasions on which I was called in for South Asian roles and the behind-the-desk folk were confused why I was in front of them. Never mind that they were the ones who called me in…
I didn’t look stereotypically South Asian to them (read: dark skinned). And I didn’t have a South Asian name (back when I was still using Greene as my union last name).
Mind you, I was sometimes having these issues when I was called in for Middle Eastern roles but less so.
I can’t fully blame the industry or pull the race card out of the well-worn deck. The reality is that I never really told people I was half South Asian. And the only ones who knew were usually other Desis who clocked my Desi features or those who caught me in a weak moment of openness.
I was raised to be ashamed of my South Asian heritage. My mother loved Bollywood films growing up in Lebanon. I think she always wanted to marry a man who was like the heroes in those films. So when she met my father in Kuwait it was a fait accompli.
But I was raised very Lebanese-Armenian. My father never taught me about my Desi cultural heritage. I never learned the language. I knew virtually nothing. And he didn’t seem particularly bothered by that. Even the two times I went over to the Motherland I was confused why I was there. I couldn’t make the obvious connection.
This was compounded by how low status South Asian people are in the Middle East. They are usually domestic workers and treated as no better than slaves. They are afforded little to no dignity – a problem that still exists today. They are often abused, overworked, held hostage via passport control, derided, and made to be objects of jokes.
Jokes that my Lebanese-Armenian relatives perpetuated – usually in the form of the stereotypical accent and head wobbling. Things my father never protested.
Apparently my aunt had a rather unkind name for me as a child that essentially boils down to being a dirty-blooded Muslim mutt.
They thought it was endearing.
That my mother never defended my Desi culture or pushed me to connect with it is something I will be always be confused by. Surely she would want her teenage obsession passed down to her kids?
So all throughout childhood I was to refer to myself as Lebanese-Armenian, even with my very stereotypical Desi last name which was supplanted by my very Lebanese first name and very Armenian middle name.
This derision was made worse when I arrived in America where South Asians were always the objects of jokes (see Apu as a starting point). And by then I was fully entrenched in never talking about that part of my heritage. The deep shame had taken deep root.
It is only in the last year, and especially in the last few months, that I’ve tried to connect with that heritage. My father passed away years ago so there is no lifeline there. I have an uncle who I’ve reconnected with who has been lovely with answering questions while begging me to go back to the Motherland.
One of the interesting things I discovered was how much Partition affected that side of my family as I found out I wasn’t merely Pakistani but also Indian. Because why would my entire cultural heritage not thoroughly be affected by war and conflict?
I am enjoying the change of material. I am finding the community to be kind and supportive in ways that my other cultural communities are not. I am currently working on another South Asian piece. And I am finding it very difficult.
For the first time I am suffering from Impostor Syndrome. Something I had only heard and been curious about. And you know what they say about curiosity….
It is actually quite a terrible feeling to be in a room full of your cultural siblings and not be able to speak the language, to understand the cultural in-jokes, to play a character that you feel completely incapable of doing so honestly. This piece is so ensconced in South Asian-ness that I can’t hide like I did in previous pieces.
The feelings of dread and guilt are immense. With so much authenticity around me all I can offer is a generic accent (and let me assure you that just like the Middle East there are several dialects and regional accents and multiple languages).
I am, honestly, not equipped to deal with this feeling and unsure how to progress. The only thing I feel is regret when I hear my Desi mother tongues, anger at my family and my home countries for making me feel shame, bitterness that I didn’t have the foresight to know better and do something sooner, and sorrow mixed with joy when I hear the other actors singing in a style that should have been made accessible to me as a child.
Thankfully my part is quite small so I won’t have to worry about screwing it up too much. And right now I keep telling myself that as an excuse to hang on to my cultural and professional sanity. I am trying to use this as a way to continue researching, and discovering, and asking the questions while wondering if it’s all too late and futile to do so.
I have zero answers. Much anger. Deep curiosity. And sorrow-joy to nudge me along what is sure to be a very long road of re-discovery.