The In-Between World of the Indian Diaspora in the United States

As an Asian American who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, I don’t remember seeing many American kids who looked like me on television, in film, or in books. There was Margaret Cho’s character on the short-lived show, All-American Girl–I think I saw every episode, but there was only one season. There was Trini Kwan on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. (“Of course she was the Yellow Ranger,” my Asian American studies colleague wryly noted.) And there was Claudia Kishi in The Babysitters Club, who was Japanese American and incredibly stylish, and as the pinnacle of Asian American teen sophistication, “inspired an entire generation of Asian American writers.”

I’m relieved that now that I’m a mom, my tween daughter can see Asian Americans on screen and on the page more than ever before. From family sitcoms like Fresh Off the Boat and Kim’s Convenience to graphic novels like Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese, depictions of Asian American people are not only more common, but more complex. Never Have I Ever, Mindy Kaling’s new Netflix comedy about the misadventures of an Indian American teenager in Southern California, exemplifies how Hollywood has made tremendous progress in featuring more Asian American characters. Just as important, Hollywood has made great progress in portraying more diverse Asian American characters. On Never Have I Ever, there are Asian Americans of Indian, Filipino, Chinese, and Japanese descent. There are Asian American characters who excel at school, but also at sports and in theatre. There are mixed-race characters, foreign- and American-born characters, and straight and queer characters.

In particular, I appreciate the show’s attention to an often overlooked dimension of Asian American diversity: religion. Over the past half century, the United States has become increasingly multireligious, and the shifting demographics owe largely to Asian Americans, who are the most religiously diverse racial group in America. By and large, however, most Hollywood depictions of Asian American families do not engage in religion at all. When they do, the characters are often Christian, or they deploy problematic “Oriental Monk” tropes. (See, for example, my discussion of Marie Kondo last year.) In contrast, Never Have I Ever doesn’t shy away from portraying religion. Beginning with the opening scene of the first episode, the show portrays the rituals of an American Hindu family, and religious beliefs and practices are a central feature of the plot and the characters.

To explore how Never Have I Ever engages in themes of religion and race in contemporary Asian American life, I curated a roundtable discussion with several colleagues who have expertise in the fields of Asian American studies, religious studies, and film studies: Dr. Rupa Pillai, lecturer of Asian American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania; Dr. Himanee Gupta-Carlson, Associate Professor of Literature, Communication, and Cultural Studies at SUNY Empire State College; and Dr. Swapnil Rai, Assistant Professor of Film, Television and Media at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

A warning: this roundtable contains a few spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the show yet–and we recommend you do!–consider saving this thoughtful analysis until after you’ve watched the series.

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