Jordan News | Latest News from Jordan, MENA
January 17 2022 8:51 PM ˚
e-paper Subscribe Sign in My Account Sign out

’90s Sitcoms Shaped Me as an Immigrant Child. What if They Hadn’t?

SITCOMS ASSIMILATION
As a young girl, I emulated characters from shows like “Saved by the Bell” to act American. If only “Never Have I Ever” and “Ramy” had been around back then. (Photo: NYTimes)
  • +
  • -


NEW YORK — Hanging upside down on the monkey bars of my elementary school playground in Missouri, I practiced a morsel of slang I found so intoxicatingly American that I had to have it for myself. I repeated the phrase, “Say what?” — an expression of shock I had heard many times on TV — over and over to no one. I tried curling the end slyly into a question or dropping it in a deadpan. I tried comically extending the “whaaaat?”اضافة اعلان

Recesses came and went, and my quest to perfect it continued. I had convinced myself that delivering these words with the same lax-lipped American insouciance that the kids on my favorite family sitcoms had would transform me into a bubbly all-American girl who laughed down hallways with pals, instead of a Lebanese oddball whose classmates steered clear of.
I planned to debut it at lunch — toss it out coolly, as if it had just dawned on me. Those in earshot would surely throw their arms over my shoulders, enamored, as they did on “The Cosby Show” or “Saved by the Bell.”
But as I hung there with blood pooling in my head, it never came out quite right. It sounded, well, rehearsed, and nagged by an Arabic accent.
I did eventually say it. And the words I had agonized over landed with a thud, drawing nothing more than a couple of perplexed glances and some snickers. I would have to pick another phrase and try again.

I worshipped at the altar of the late-1980s, early-90s TGIF lineup, replete with era-defining catchphrases minted by young children or nerds. “You got it, dude.” “Did I do that?”

But I was most fixated on the slang kicked around by the teenagers, who embodied that all-American fantasy. What they said was almost insignificant, though, compared with how they said it — the intonations and mannerisms that brought these words to life. I tried emulating them all: ultracool like Denise Huxtable, ditsy like Kelly Bundy, sarcastic like Darlene Conner, polished like Whitley Gilbert, dreamy like Angela Chase, or with a stoner affectation and hair flip like any of the surfer dudes that peppered shows at the time.

It wasn’t that English wasn’t a part of my home life. My parents, both graduates of the American University of Beirut, were fluent in English and other languages as well. Missing was that laid-back nature I found so seductive. Like many immigrant children pulled between cultures to the point of splitting, I was compelled to pick a side and stay there. The line I longed to cross, though, wasn’t necessarily between brown and white; it was between American and foreign.

My young mind didn’t differentiate between white and Black TV families. In prime time and in reruns, I watched “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “A Different World,” “Martin,” “227,” “Family Matters” and “Living Single” as eagerly as I watched “Family Ties,” “Growing Pains,” “Full House” and “Roseanne.”

On sitcoms such as these, the kids lollygagged around, propping skateboards by front doors before sitting down to dinner tables piled high with pizza boxes. The grown-ups moved with a distinct ease and playfulness, without a trace of the formality I saw in my relatives. And I glimpsed an adulthood where high-fives and squeals of delight replaced three kisses on cheeks.

I long looked back on these shows warmly, light- but big-hearted comedies that provided comfort anytime. But in recent years — with popular new series that feature immigrant characters with edge, charisma and wit — a whiff of resentment has started to invade my fuzzy feelings. It became inescapably clear that the few such TV characters of my childhood, particularly those who sounded foreign, served one purpose: the punchline.

On “Perfect Strangers,” which I adored as a girl, Balki Bartokomous was a childlike sheepherder who arrived to Chicago from a strange land, the fictional island of Mypos, where telephones and indoor plumbing were scarce. He had bizarre, silly traditions and garbled American idioms with an exaggerated, mysterious accent. His catchphrase: “Don’t be ridiculous!”

On “That ’70s Show” (which debuted in 1998, more than a decade after “Perfect Strangers”), Fez’s real name was considered unpronounceable by his friends, so they used the word for a hat worn by men in some Muslim countries.

Even as I laughed along, I saw reflections of myself in the ways these characters were othered, and the same kind of cheap jokes that were flung at them had long been flung at me. Being un-American, it seemed obvious, was not an option.

Eventually, practice made perfect. As I absorbed the Americanisms coming at me through the screen, I purged my own accent one word at a time. If you heard me today, you most likely wouldn’t detect a shadow of my origins. And that has served me as well as I hoped, granting me all the benefits given to someone who sounds like everyone else. But at what cost?

Assimilation is often hawked as an either-or proposition, but a recent wave of comedies has all but abandoned that tired route by incorporating the immigrant experience with charm, nuance and honesty, both captivating me and picking at my scab of regret.

“Never Have I Ever,” on Netflix, stars Maitreyi Ramakrishnan as Devi, a first-generation Indian American teenager. Devi’s life is a hodgepodge of Indian and American dynamics, but she does more than juggle cultures. She juggles boyfriends, friendships and emotions, and wrestles with anger and grief over her father’s death.

“Ramy” is a daring, at times twisted dark comedy on Hulu created by and starring Ramy Youssef as a Muslim American man who is struggling with his faith and the tribulations of adulthood. And “Master of None,” on Netflix, spent two seasons focused on Dev Shah, a 30-something Indian American man from a Muslim family. Dev, played by Aziz Ansari, is trying to sort out his future, professionally and romantically, and not exactly succeeding.

I realize I’m mourning an alternate version of myself who fills my head with questions: What do we surrender — incrementally, unwittingly — in pursuit of assimilation? How do we lose and find ourselves in it? What do we forfeit as individuals, as a family and as a people? And who gains what from our losses?
I forgive myself, mostly, for the choices I made, and I marvel at my adaptability, driven by a sense of survival. But an intrinsic part of me was mutated in ways that can’t be reversed. And in the end, I’m not sure if anyone won.

Read more Trending 
NEWS RELATED TO