When a brown guy likes a white girl

NEW YORK • I never told my Bengali parents about my first kiss. I was 14 and we were in the basement of my house in Howell, New Jersey. Her name was Sharon and she had braces. It didn't go well. Sorry, Sharon.

They never knew about my high-school crushes, my dates at Applebee's or my first couple of girlfriends.

I hid all this because I knew my parents wouldn't approve. They had an arranged marriage. In India, where they grew up, choosing your life partner was uncommon.

Right after graduating from college, I finally mustered the courage to introduce my mother to my longtime girlfriend, Michelle, hoping that after four decades in the United States, my mother might be ready for the idea that (a) I had chosen my own girlfriend and (b) my girlfriend might be white.

This is America, after all. You are exposed to choices. You can say what you want, read what you want and eat what you want. (Actor and comedian Aasif Mandvi writes in his book No Land's Man that his father brought his family to the US because of brunch.)

I was optimistic about how the dinner at my mother's apartment would go and it started off well.

Michelle brought flowers. But my hope was misplaced.

The dinner was mostly me being a nervous chatterbox, trying in vain to spark conversation between two people with little in common.

My mother didn't talk much, if at all. She grew up in a different culture and a different generation. She was too polite to say it, but I know she wanted my partner to be Indian, like us. She wanted someone who understood her world. That wasn't Michelle, or Sharon, or anyone else I had chosen.

Crossing the cultural divide can be lonely, particularly when you're growing up in a mostly white town. Especially when few television shows and films tell stories of people who look like you.

The Big Sick is a welcome exception.

The romantic complications of South Asian children who grow up here have rarely been displayed as vividly as in this film, which tells the story of a Pakistani comic and Uber driver in a relationship with a graduate student, who is white. Starring and co-written by Kumail Nanjiani, who was born in Karachi, it explores the South Asian identity in depth and speaks to conflicts that many of us face growing up in America.

The film is about Nanjiani's real-life courtship, break-up and eventual marriage to Emily V. Gordon, his wife and co-author (played by Zoe Kazan). And even though no one I've dated fell into a coma, as Gordon did, Nanjiani's struggle was a recognisable one.

He wasn't the first to tell a uniquely South Asian story, of course.

Kal Penn explored similar themes in the 2007 film The Namesake, based on the book by Jhumpa Lahiri. Ravi Patel lays this conflict bare in his 2015 documentary, Meet The Patels, in which he allows his parents to arrange a marriage for him, at the expense of his true love at the time, a writer named Audrey Wauchope. And there is Aziz Ansari, who stars in Netflix's Master Of None and dives into this subject in episodic format.

But a number of South Asian women have expressed a reaction completely different from mine, seeing The Big Sick as yet another movie that portrays South Asian women as inherently less desirable.

Tanzila Ahmed, writing for The Aerogram, a South Asian culture site, summed up the critique this way: "Once again, Muslim Brown women were crafted as undesirable, conventional and unmarriageable for the Modern Muslim-ish Male."

The word "erasure" comes up frequently in the criticism and it's neither new nor unfounded. Beyond a few notable exceptions - such as Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project and Brown Girls, a coming HBO show featuring a Pakistani-American lead - there isn't enough representation of brown women onscreen. Ansari faced that complaint after Master Of None was released; his character often pursues white women.

The critique of The Big Sick as contributing to stereotypes of South Asian women is surely understandable.

Nanjiani's mother, played by Zenobia Shroff, lines up women for Nanjiani, hoping he will find one of them suitable for marriage.

At least one of the choices, played by an actress with an ethnic accent, can be reasonably seen as a caricature, as she tries overly hard to impress Nanjiani as a fan of The X-Files.

The inherent awkwardness of an arranged first date around the family dinner table is highlighted.

In my eyes, the point wasn't to relegate South Asian women to a punchline, but to add levity to a story in which Nanjiani struggles with a choice that could isolate him from his family.

When my brother, Sattik, who is 10 years older than me, married Erica, a white woman, they had a Catholic ceremony.

My mother was devastated. She wanted an Indian wedding. I asked why it was important.

"Because we are Indian. I am Indian," my mother said.

South Asian weddings, generally, are about a marriage of two families, rather than two individuals. My brother's wedding went on, but my mother never fully embraced the nuptials.

"Shambo, I want you to have an Indian wedding to an Indian girl," my mother said to me, using a childhood nickname. I was 19 at the time and thought: "Not gonna happen."

I was frustrated and baffled by her mindset. I am sure she felt the same about mine.

I have since dated South Asian women and been very happy. I may very well marry one and have the wedding my mother wants for me. But if I do, it will be because the woman is someone I want to be with and who wants to be with me.

Nanjiani's film explored that freedom to choose - one brown guy's experience crossing the chasm between two very different cultures.

Faulting him for telling his story feels like a kind of erasure too. I am also not going to deprive Gordon her due because it is her story as well.


• Sopan Deb is a culture reporter for The New York Times.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 30, 2017, with the headline 'When a brown guy likes a white girl'. Print Edition | Subscribe