seeing myself on tv

Priyanka, a drag queen on Canada’s Drag Race. she describes her heritage as Indo-Caribbean. in this photo, Priyanka is wearing a blue and gold sari with one leg exposed, her black hair is styled big and parted on the side into two perfect asymmetrical swooshes. i cannot describe fashion, unfortunately. but she’s gorgeous!! Photo from RuPaul’s Drag Race Wiki, uploaded by AlexanderRous.

Even before the pandemic, television has always been my favorite form of visual media. I worked three jobs through college and was well known for falling asleep during movies. I enjoyed the theater and acted in a few small plays. I had a favorite improv troupe (it was the early 2000s). I didn’t have cable growing up. My home movie repertoire included Blockbuster rentals and sunday movies of the week. My family watched a lot of TV together.

My cultural heritage is Mexican and Sri Lankan. Growing up, it was rare to see people who looked like me. TV in the 1990s and 2000s might contain a single person of color in an otherwise-white cast. Shows that were more diverse were often the niche.

I’ve spent most of the year indoors due to the pandemic. This means I’ve been watching a lot of TV. My tastes now branch out into many genres. I’m starting to see more people who look like me, who grew up like me. Here are a few that have caught my eye recently.

Never Have I Ever: remixing stereotypes
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan plays Devi, the main character on the show Never Have I Ever. The actor is Sri Lankan, but Devi is an awkward Indian high school sophomore. She lives with her mother Nalini and cousin Kamala after the death of her father. Nalini’s mannerisms remind of so many aunties I’ve known in my life. Devi, too, is like a lot of the family friends I had growing up: very smart, but also pretty weird.

There was a “color blind” take prevalent among proto-woke white writers in a lot of 90s media. People challenged themselves by taking a white character and casting them as Black. A Black character dealing with white stories the way a white person would. It loses all the richness that comes from having characters with varied backgrounds. People are not interchangable, and neither are their stories.

I love that Devi could be in the background of another show, a naive, too-intelligent foil to a white kid. Instead, this is her show. One episode centers on the family celebrating Ganesh Puja. There’s so much story that is possible there, rather than another bake sale setting. Devi’s stories are interesting enough to stand on their own.

Monarca: know your audience
As a millennial with a borrowed HBO login, I loved watching the dripping excess of Succession. But I was not prepared to enjoy the show I compared it to: Monarca. It’s centered on a family of media conglomerate and tequila billionaires in Mexico. After the murder of their father, Ana María, Andrés, and Joaquin vie for his empire’s throne. The stories of an all-Mexican family of elites don’t play the way they do on Succession, or even Arrested Development. There’s intrigue, betrayal, and drama.

They also bypass the they’re-Mexican-but-always-speak-English trope of some US show. Though it’s a Netflix-owned series, Monarca is set in Mexico and films in Spanish. I’m glad they can find crossover success while retaining what makes them unique.

Priyanka on Canada’s Drag Race: why diversity is important behind the camera
Priyanka is a drag queen on the first season of Canada’s Drag Race. More than 150 queens have been on the many different series in the show’s universe. Priyanka is only the second person of Indian heritage to appear. It wasn’t until she appeared that I realized I had been missing more brown people in the Drag Race pantheon.

But Canada matches the Pacific Northwest bill for its whiteness. When Priyanka competed in the category Pageant Perfection, she dressed in a modern take on a blue and gold sari. Priyanka says her inspiration was her grandmother. She wanted to bring a Bollywood-style beauty to her performance. The judges, instead, raved over what they called her Princess Jasmine look. It served as a reminder that even when we stand out, we do so through the lens of a dominant culture.

There is so much TV coming out these days, it’s about time that media started to look like different people. BIPOC stars can still flounder when they’re written for and directed by an all-white crew.

I didn’t grow up with these shows, but I’m glad that they exist now. I can’t wait to see what happens next!

the cultural legacies of our elders

My achchi in a busy produce market, her face full of pleasant surprise. She is wearing a purple jacket and holding a breadfruit the size and shape of a green coconut. She’s standing in front a whole display of them, which she was clearly not expecting to see.

My achchi, or grandmother, passed away last weekend at 87 years old. She and I were 50 years and a couple weeks apart. Mourning a loved one in the age of coronavirus gives me a sense of how it must have felt before planes or trains existed. That said, I was lucky enough to see her on Zoom the final week before she passed away.

I’ve been thinking about her a lot this week. My grandparents live on through me and the rest of my family. We tell jokes like they did (though we also tell our own). Many of the things we do or don’t value have a connection to the things they did or didn’t value. Looking through old photos, I also recalled how much time we spent cooking and eating with each other.

I have a lot of memories of us spending time together while someone cooked. I remember my seeya scraping coconuts in the kitchen sink, which achchi turned into pol sambol. I found a photo of her eating a shabby birthday s’more I made for her in my college-era duplex. Another photo depicts her at my all-time favorite market in Atlanta. She’s clutching a breadfruit with obvious glee. She told me that day it had been so long since she had last seen one.

My grandparents were famous for throwing huge parties on New Year’s Eve. Dozens of friends would come over with dishes of Sri Lankan curries. We would set out a huge platter of spiced yellow rice. We’d gorge on short eats till midnight: fried mackerel cutlets, samosa-like patties, and more. At midnight, we’d sing auld lang syne and hug our loved ones before getting down to a 12:30 AM dinner.

With three of my grandparents now gone, I am reflecting on all the ways in which they aren’t. We cook parripu using my achchi’s recipe. When we don’t want to do something, we say “we’ll see…” like she used to. My family and I will tell each other the stories we remember and the good times we shared until we, too, are someone else’s fond memories.