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DEMBY: What's good, y'all? This is CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby, and I'm here with CODE SWITCH Tasneem Raja.
TASNEEM RAJA, HOST:
DEMBY: So Tasneem, what's going on?
RAJA: OK, so the other day I forced myself to do something incredibly mortifying.
DEMBY: OK, tell me about this.
RAJA: I made fun of the Indian accent in front of Indians who have an Indian accent. Like, not like me, an Indo-Pakistani who was born and raised in the States.
DEMBY: Right, because you, like me, we're both from the Delaware Valley. We're both from the Philly area.
RAJA: Right. And that's why I say (imitating Philadelphia accent) water ice not (imitating Indian accent) water ice.
DEMBY: You just did the little Indian accent hand-shakey (ph) thing, which is...
RAJA: I did. I actually...
RAJA: ...Didn't even realize - I didn't even realize I was doing that. And, you know, so my mom is from Karachi. My dad is from Bombay, but I've lived here my whole life. And I know you've heard me do this, I constantly make fun of the Indian accent, like all the time because it makes people laugh.
DEMBY: Is there something janky about it, though? I mean, it's like the Apu accent, right? It's like the...
DEMBY: ...7-11 - stereotypical 7-11 guy accent.
RAJA: And my parents don't even sound like that.
RAJA: That's what's especially weird about it. So I wanted to get some Indians together to talk about all of this, Indians like me who don't have accents and Indians who do.
ANUVAB PAL: My name is Anuvab Pal. I'm originally from Kolkata, India. I currently live in Mumbai, but I had an interim 20 years in the United States.
KUNAAL ROY KAPUR: Hi. This is Kunaal Roy Kapur. I live in Bombay, and I'm an actor. And I try my hand at other things, and I fail miserably.
AMITA KELLY, BYLINE: I'm Amita Kelly. I'm a digital politics editor here in Washington, D.C.. I was born and raised in Orange County, Calif., and now live in Washington, D.C. And my mom is from Bombay - not Mumbai because she doesn't call it that. And my dad is from Delhi.
RAJA: All right. So you guys, I have a clip here of one of the most famous Indians in America.
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HANK AZARIA: (As Apu Nahasapeemapetilon) Well, I don't like to leave this door, but for the next five minutes, I'm going to party like it's on sale for 19.99.
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RAJA: So that is, of course, the character of Apu from "The Simpsons," the Indian immigrant Kwik-E-Mart owner. Anuvab, can you rate up Apu's Indian accent for us? When you hear that clip, what do you hear?
PAL: Is this out of a scale - out of 10? What are we rating - are we rating it on 10?
RAJA: Yeah. Like, a zero is, like, not Indian at all. And then 10 is like...
RAJA: ...Oh, yeah, that guy was next to me at, you know, the chai shop.
PAL: I'm going to go with one because I haven't actually ever met anyone in India that sounds like that. I think somebody who was writing an animation show wanted to make someone sound like that - that's nice, but I've never met a human here that makes those noises.
RAJA: (Laughter) OK, Kunaal, what about you? When you hear Apu, what do you hear?
KAPUR: Well, I think I'd go with a five because, I mean, I've kind of heard that accent before but not exactly. I think it's a mix of many different Indian accents. And, I mean, it's so complex really, the Indian accent. I mean, it depends which part of the country you actually come from. But it's an OK generic Indian accent, I guess. I think more importantly it's entertaining and it's funny, so I don't have any issue with it.
RAJA: Right. Amita.
KELLY: Oh, God, I would have given that, like, a seven or eight. I'm sorry (laughter). But what do I know? Like, I grew up in Orange County, so my exposure to Indian accents was, like, my parents, who both lived elsewhere before coming to California, too, so their accents are kind of mixed up, too, and, like, TV and aunties and uncles. So...
RAJA: And the really interesting thing about Apu is - we should note Apu is not played by an Indian actor. That is Hank Azaria, who is Greek-American. And Azaria was once asked how the writers on "The Simpsons" created Apu. And he said, right away they were like, can you do an Indian accent and how offensive can you make it?
Hank Azaria said he based that character off of the Peter Sellers character in "The Party." Peter Sellers plays a bumbling Indian actor, and that movie was actually banned in India because of the portrayal. So it's interesting that we have these, like, very different reactions to that character.
KAPUR: Right. I honestly don't see either of the two as offensive. I mean, I think as a general sort of Indian's accent, it's fine. I mean, I really don't have an issue with it. I think Peter Sellers' portrayal also I don't find it offensive. I mean, some people find it a little offensive. But I've grown up watching that movie, and it's always been entertaining to me. Whether it's authentic or not, not really, not entirely because again, it's a sort of mix? But there's something about the lilt in the way in which they talk which I think is authentic. It's not necessarily the pronunciation of the words but the sing-song manner in which they talk which kind of makes sense to me.
RAJA: So I'm curious, Amita as someone who grew up in the States listening to Apu, what was it like hearing him as a kid and knowing that other kids in school were hearing him, too?
KELLY: Yeah. I mean, I'm so on the fence about it now that we're, like, revisiting it. But I think growing up I was always mixed between, you know, hey, at least there's somebody Indian on TV. Like, I had a friend who is now, like, one of my best friends - but thought that I was Native American until about third grade...
RAJA: Oh, wow.
KELLY: ...Because it was like that was the exposure to Indian people in Orange County.
KELLY: It's like, eh, Indian, Indian, you know? So on one hand, you're like at least there's a sense that - and this is, you know, sort of a cultural identity thing I think that happens - that you're like on one hand, at least mainstream culture's recognizing there is a country...
KELLY: ...With people. There are immigrants. But, I mean, it's the most stereotypical beyond the accent. I mean, the accent's kind of the worst part of it. But I think, you know, the fact that he was a Kwik-E-Mart mart owner and eventually has an arranged marriage and has, like, seven kids or something and is so, like, deft to every American social norm - I think a lot of that bothered me then, definitely bothers me now about the show. But I think even as a kid, I kind of picked up on that, you know, other kids - OK, so now that you know what an Indian person is, you think everyone's a cab driver or a gas station owner...
KELLY: ...Which was a big part of, like, the immigrant experience but is also very stereotypical.
PAL: We were just talking about this, Kunaal - hi, Anuvab here - where we've seen Indian uncles do Italian accents, yeah, you know? And...
RAJA: So what does an Indian uncle doing in Italian accent sound like?
PAL: You know, we - Kunaal and I had gone to Bangalore once to do a standup show. Bangalore is a city in South India which most people would know, so tech boom, all of that. And this guy, he was an older guy who was doing standup. And his whole routine was about his friend Vittorio. And he started saying stuff like (imitating Italian accent) Vittorio, how long have I been in India? And nobody understood what he was saying because he was just, like, a Middle East, Indian man making noises...
PAL: ...Because no one could tell it was an Italian. Also, I think - like, I do with agree with Kunaal that, you know, the emphasis in Apu's T's and D's - right? - (imitating Apu's accent) oh, I would not like to do this...
PAL: ...There's nobody I've ever heard talk like that. The thing is the writing of "The Simpsons" is so sharp otherwise.
PAL: Like, Apu's profession and his craftiness and all of that, like, that's - you can identify with that because it's - he's slightly deceitful and he's got his own problems...
PAL: ...Some problems at home.
RAJA: Yeah, he's a fully fleshed out character.
PAL: Exactly. From a writing standpoint, he's a lovely guy. But then there is the real Indian person I think in the United States and India, and then there is an invented fictional Indian person...
PAL: ...Like Peter Sellers doing birdie num num.
PAL: You know, just - there's nobody like that. If you came across an Indian prince, he'd probably have a British accent. But other things about that character are interesting. He's lecherous, he's all of that.
RAJA: The Indian comedian Hari Kondabolu has said Hank Azaria doing Apu sounds like a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of his father, you know? Amita, is that like - does he sound to you like a white guy doing an Indian accent?
KELLY: No, I actually didn't know that it was Hank Azaria...
RAJA: Oh, wow.
KELLY: ...Until we were just talking about this. So, I mean, it makes sense because he does, like, everybody on "The Simpsons." But the one thing I will say that I appreciated about the show that I do agree with is that I think they were very equal opportunity making fun of everybody. But I also - I mean, still in the back of my mind, though - I'm, like, especially in an American context, I think there is still a difference, in some ways it's worse making fun of people of color for some of these things because there's so much baggage.
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RAJA: All right, guys, we're going to take a quick break.
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RAJA: You're listening to CODE SWITCH.
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DEMBY: With the Olympics in Rio behind us, Latino USA takes a look at the more than 300,000 Brazilian Americans living in the U.S. For many of them, it's unclear exactly where they fit into the American tapestry. And they ask this question - are Brazilians Latinos? I've been kind of wondering that myself. Find Latino USA now on the NPR One app and at npr.org/podcast.
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RAJA: You're listening to CODE SWITCH, and we're back. I'm Tasneem Raja, and we're talking about what's so funny about the Indian accent. Joining me here in Washington, D.C., Amita Kelly, NPR politics digital editor. And from Mumbai, India, the hosts of the podcast Our Last Week, Anuvab Pal and Kunaal Roy Kapur.
OK, so I will fully cop to doing, like, a fake Indian accent on a pretty regular basis. Like, I have definitely had full-on conversations with friends, usually other second-gen Indian-Americans, where pretty much the entire time we are, like, doing this weird Indian accent. And I want to know, Amita, is that something - do you do that with your friends?
KELLY: No, I did when I was a kid with, like, cousins and my brother and stuff. I dont anymore. Buy, yeah...
RAJA: Why not?
KELLY: ...I definitely used to. I don't know, I just don't find it that funny anymore (laughter). Well, thats not really true. I find it funny, but I think I find it more offensive than I used to. And as a kid, I think it was a way of, like, kind of bonding over the fact that our parents didn't sound like our friends' parents.
KELLY: We, for the most part, grew up in the U.S. and had American accents. And they would teach us how to say things that were then mispronounced for the purpose - I mean, it was correct...
KELLY: ...English, obviously. But it was for the purpose of, like, a California elementary school, you know? It was, like, not pronounced the way my classmates were pronouncing things.
RAJA: So I - I'm sorry to put you on the spot, but will you give us an example of what you used to do when you were a kid?
KELLY: I'm trying to think - I mean, the thing is - it probably wasn't even mimicking my parents as much as it was, like, mimicking Apu.
KELLY: Like, we would do the, like, thank you, come again...
KELLY: ...Over and over and over again, which, again, is like making fun of the parody, not necessarily our parents...
KELLY: ...Or actual Indian accent, but...
RAJA: I mean, Anuvab, Kunaal, if an A-B-C-D like me - that's American born confused Desi for anyone who doesn't know - if someone like me is making fun of the Indian accent, the, quote, unquote, "Indian accent" - and I should say, I think I was basing mine on Apu as well, you know?
KELLY: Don't we get to hear yours, too?
RAJA: Oh, God, all right. So, you know, it's like - you know, (imitating Indian accent) hello auntie, what are you doing? What did you have for breakfast today? Like, what is that? Nobody in my family talks like that.
KELLY: No (laughter).
RAJA: So, Anuvab, when you hear me do that, are you just, like, oh, my God, that is so mortifying?
PAL: No, I just think you're from - like, it sounds like it's from the Emirates or, like, Saudi Arabia. It's more Middle Eastern. You know, (imitating Middle Eastern accent) what are you doing? How is it? How do you find - brother, what is going on?
PAL: You know, it seems like...
RAJA: It doesn't even sound Indian to you, right?
PAL: Aleppo. It's from Aleppo or something. You know, like, just - you know, I do think the Indian accent - Kunaal and I talk about this. Kunaal, I hope you jump in at some point and save me with an example. But we do talk about this, that the Indian accent, especially the Indian Uncle accent, is ripe to be made fun of because it isn't so much for the intonation. Like...
PAL: ...I know abroad that gets a lot of focus - right? - the (imitating Indian accent) oh, how are you? But the real mess-up is that they remove prepositions. So an Indian uncle would say stuff like (imitating Indian accent) see, (unintelligible) see what I'm saying is, no, what'll you do at Goldman Sachs? What you will you do at Goldman Sachs? It's rubbish. Startup - do a startup. See, what I'm saying is - see, no, see, (unintelligible) no, see - so it's that, right? There's no regard for grammar. There's random Hindi words in there.
PAL: That stuff is lovely, but that is so specific that I don't think it'll translate to global humor. You know, I think it's easier to just do T's and D's. You know, it's easier to just have a guy who'll be, like, hello, I am well. How are you? And then you're, like, who are you? Where are you from?
KELLY: Actually, one of my favorite - I get that I've been kind of on the, like, offended train about "The Simpsons," but I actually love Russell Peters, the comedian - he's Indian-Canadian. And he mimics his dad a lot, which sounds a little bit like what you're talking about, like, the Indian uncle. And he has a couple of, you know, kind of rants that he goes on where he talks about - one of them is about how immigrant parents beat their kids and how more, like, of his white friend's parents should have tried this...
KELLY: ...Because they would have been more disciplined.
KELLY: And every time he was about to get beaten, his dad would look at him, like, dead in the eye and point at him and say, like, somebody going to get hurt real bad. And he would, like, do this over and over.
KELLY: And it was just so...
PAL: Yeah, that's...
PAL: That's a really famous bit. We just had an American comedian down. His name was Azhar Usman. And he's - I think he's - of Indian origin, but he grew up in the United States. And the idiosyncrasies of older Indian people that he kept talking about, that was so relatable here as well because he kept saying that he was a very large man. And his parents would always make him wear his sister's clothes because they didn't want to buy two sets of clothes because they were cheap. And they just - whatever - sister was much older, and then her kid clothes, they'd give it to him. And obviously, as he grew - he was 6, he was 7 - he was cross-dressing, and he was upset about that. So he went to his dad, and he kept saying why am I wearing girl's clothes? And his dad would keep saying what's wrong in it? What is wrong in it? And he kept saying I'm wrong in it. These preposition screw-ups, that...
PAL: ...The Bombay audience were losing it because, you know, we totally relate to that because that is an actual accent observation - you know, actually not an accent observation, but a language observation.
RAJA: So, OK, one of my favorite Russell Peters bits, he's got a whole long, extended riff on the Indian accent. And he talks about situations in which he will break into it. And Russell Peters, you know, has a completely flat, you know, American-Canadian accent. You would never know necessarily that this guy is Indian until he breaks into his accent. And we've got the clip.
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RUSSELL PETERS: But Indian people know what their accent is good for and what it's not good for. We know its limitations, you know what I mean? We know it's not good for getting laid.
PETERS: It's not going to help you. (Imitating Indian accent) Hello, baby.
PETERS: Nothing's going to happen for you. But you know what the Indian accent is good for? Cutting tension. You've got a tense situation, pop in the Indian accent.
PETERS: Tension's gone. Picture a serious courtroom drama.
PETERS: Your Honor, my client (Imitating Indian accent) would like to plead guilty.
RAJA: (Laughter) That whole thing of using it to cut the tension, is that just funny that, like, you know, this guy is using this as almost a prop? I use this as a prop, you know, often around white people. Kunaal, what do you think?
KAPUR: We use the American accent for the same thing.
KELLY: Wait, now, we did our Indian accent, so I think it's only fair we hear some of that.
KAPUR: Some of the American accent?
KELLY: Some of the American accent...
RAJA: Let's go, Kunaal.
KELLY: ...That you would use to cut tension. I want to hear it.
KAPUR: What would you like me to say?
RAJA: Oh, you want - he wants a scene. OK. This is like improv now.
RAJA: You know, you're about to take a test or something, and...
KAPUR: All right.
RAJA: ...You don't know the answer.
KAPUR: (Imitating American accent) Well, I think the answer is 42, but it could be 79, not quite sure.
RAJA: Oh, my God, I give you your American accent...
KELLY: That's good (laughter).
RAJA: ...Like, a two and a half. No, I'm sorry.
KAPUR: No, not very good. I mean, I rarely find myself laughing at accents. I mean, I don't know, maybe it's just me.
RAJA: But I mean, there's also...
PAL: But also, I've had...
RAJA: ...There's also a question of in-group versus out-group here, right? Generally we're OK with someone making fun of something if it feels like - if it's of their community, right? But, I mean, the thing about the Indian diaspora is there are 16 million of us living outside the country. We are the biggest diaspora in the world according to the U.N. So how are we defining ingroup here versus outgroup? You know, are we all in the ingroup? Amita, do you feel like you're in the same group...
KELLY: I don't know...
RAJA: ...As the people you're making fun of?
KELLY: I mean, the thing I was just wondering too coming out of that question - this is sort of related - but is it the same thing - so you're saying it's kind of funny or, like, you appreciate it when people try to pronounce things. But would you feel the same way if it was, like, backwards, if they were ex-pats making fun of your accent - because I still kind of see those things as different. And I think in terms of the accent, I don't - I guess I would put diaspora, like ex-pat, in a different category than, like, born and raised in India or in South Asia...
KELLY: ...Just because of the language. I think the accent, like, the way that you experience some of the language developments and stuff and how you see them in a different context - because I think, obviously, it sounds like it's very different viewing something like Apu in a place where everybody's South Asian to begin with...
KELLY: ...Versus, like, a place like the U.S., where there's kind of a lot of baggage around names and accents and being brown and all these things.
RAJA: Right. This question of baggage kind of keeps coming up, right? And it's like, for me I know that I'm kind of doing this in a way that feels like it's out of love, not mockery. But I can also completely imagine somebody hearing me doing this and thinking, oh, my god, she's just making fun of her parents, you know? It's interesting to me that you guys don't seem to feel that when you hear it, when you hear Russell Peters or, you know, Amita or me, it doesn't seem to sound like mockery to you.
KAPUR: Oh, not at all. No. I would think it's an American person who grew up in America. You know, I think now the cultures are quite distinct, right? Like, people who spend their whole lives in America, and they have a certain perception of another country.
RAJA: Did you guys feel like the Indian accent is more up for grabs in terms of being made fun of than other accents? Like, I feel like it's not seen as out of bounds the way that making fun of, like, a Chinese accent or, you know, a stereotypical, quote, unquote, "black accent" might be. Kunaal, what do you think?
KAPUR: I hope so. I mean...
KAPUR: I mean, honestly - I mean, if it makes people laugh, I'm cool with it.
KAPUR: I guess I didn't grow up in a world where we were made aware of our background in that sense. So for me, it's something - it's just one of the other things that you can laugh at. And if people get joy out of making fun of an accent, I'm completely for it. (Laughter) I have no issues whatsoever.
PAL: Yeah, if they want to be 12 forever.
KAPUR: Yeah, if you want to be like a child about accents and all, then that's cool with me. I mean, yeah, that's what I'm saying. I mean, honestly, accents - I don't find much humor in accents. I mean, I guess it helps define character and places you come from. And in films, you can kind of define what region or where that person has grown up or what his background is. But for humor, I mean, I guess you can use it, and it's up for grabs. And I hope so because it just means that Indians are more in the limelight, and their accent is more in the limelight, and that's good.
PAL: I do agree. The statement, Kunaal, that brings up, where if you look at contemporary India today - right? - the issue seems to be the other way around, which is how little Indian-ness (ph) the urban Indians want to keep, right? So they want to sound American, right? So things like Apu and stuff, they don't relate very much here because we've invented a different language. Like, Hinglish is what is spoken in urban India, right? So people will say things like, how are you, bro? Chill (speaking Hindi) - let's chill.
PAL: How are you, bro?
KELLY: I like that (laughter).
PAL: Two Hindi words, four English words. Even movie names - Bollywood movie names, right?
KAPUR: "Love Aaj Kal."
PAL: "Love Aaj Kal," which is English, and aaj kal in Hindi is yesterday and today...
PAL: ...Right? And then they have movie titles like "Jab We Met" - Hindi and English, when we met. And then people go throw in American terms all the time like bro, relax, chillax, chill will...
PAL: ...You know, which is just a amalgamation of, I don't know, everything they see online. And it's just - so when these people hear a very Indian accent, like, they start thinking, like, whose accent is this? Is this, like, some sort of a religious mystic or...
PAL: ...Who is this guy?
KAPUR: You know, I honestly think that when we were growing up, there was a certain snobbery about the kind of English that upper-class India spoke - urban-upper-class India. And there was a certain snobbery about the way we spoke English because we just assumed that we spoke it well. And there was a certain snobbery about how, like, vernacular accents were treated because anyone who had a vernacular accent, you'd kind of look down on them and you'd say, oh, he's a verney (ph) - he doesn't cut it, you know?
And I think in the last 10 years, what's happened is that it doesn't matter anymore what your English accent is. It's what you say, right? It's the content of your words, no matter whether you're speaking Hindi, Gujarati or you're speaking English in some weird Indian accent. It's the content of the words.
So people have started kind of disassociating class with accents here. And it's actually a very interesting thing that now there's a reverse snobbery taking place, where people now look - I mean, it's almost as though if you have a very polished English accent, you belong to a class of society that's got a silver spoon in their mouth and they've had it easy.
RAJA: That's really interesting.
KAPUR: And also there's a sort of reverse snobbery about it now.
RAJA: It's not as authentic?
KAPUR: It's not seen as authentic. It's not seen as real Bharat, as real India, you know? It's seen as colonized people...
RAJA: Oh, wow.
KAPUR: ...You know, and as people who...
KAPUR: Yeah, so, like, privileged upper-class, colonized people. So - and that, again, is a very small population of even our cities, you know, the ones who had convent education or whose parents have been exposed to cultures around the world. So there are many, many different levels within English accents in our country...
KAPUR: ...As well, you know? So...
KAPUR: So - I mean, so everyone's dealing with their own sort of problems with the accent they grew up with, you know? And I think that there's only so much you can do to kind of - maybe not - you can't whine about it too much because that's your upbringing and that's the world you grew up in. But again, I think the focus has to be on content rather than accent.
KAPUR: I don't know, but I think that, like, India is now at a stage - and especially urban India - where we don't speak any language properly anymore.
KAPUR: So I don't have command over any language. Like, my English is OK.
KAPUR: I mean, I can get by.
KELLY: Or maybe there's no such thing as, like, speaking a language quote, unquote "properly." I don't know.
KAPUR: There isn't any such thing. And I'm just saying, what's happening in India is that because it's become such a khichdi (ph) in all of our cities. A khichdi in the sense that there's, I mean, there's dal and there's rice and there's - so, I mean, like, if you...
PAL: It's a mishmash.
RAJA: A mix of - a hodgepodge.
PAL: A hodgepodge.
KAPUR: A hodgepodge, yeah, like a big stew.
RAJA: A dish that kind of has just everything in it.
KAPUR: It has pretty much everything. So that's what's happened in a lot - and that's what young people are growing up with, right? Like, you just - you understand Marathi - like some amount of it - and you don't speak it, you know? But then you obviously speak English. But in India, what would happen is that you'd speak a little bit of Marathi, you'd speak a little bit of Hindi and you'd speak a little bit of English, and you'd kind of get by. And that would be - your accent would be these three, four languages sometimes. And actually, you can't speak any one of them properly.
KAPUR: And that's what's really sad, I mean, in a sense. And that's what fascinates me about many parts of the world where - that have either faced colonial sort of rule or have been occupied in foreign powers - and they don't even have complete command over the French language. So then you have a rise of different languages coming up, you know? Like, and it's so heavily accented that it's like a separate language altogether.
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RAJA: All right, guys, I think that's a good place to wrap up. So thanks so much to Amita Kelly, who is a digital editor on the NPR Politics team, and Anuvab Pal and Kunaal Roy Kapur. Thanks so much.
PAL: Thank you so much for having us.
KAPUR: Thank you. That was lovely.
DEMBY: All right, y'all, that was CODE SWITCH editor Tasneem Raja.
RAJA: And thanks to our guests Anuvab Pal and Kunaal Roy Kapur, actors and comedians in Mumbai, whose podcast is called Our Last Week. It can be found at the Audiomatic website.
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DEMBY: Our editors are Tasneem Raja and Alicia Montgomery, and our producer is Walter Ray Watson. But I want to pause right here real quick to acknowledge that this is Tasneen's last week with us.
RAJA: That's right. My soon-to-be husband and I are moving to Texas. I'm going to pick up some long-neglected writing projects, and I will be rooting for you all from my sunny front porch with some sweet tea in hand.
DEMBY: That sounds so much fun. But seriously, thank you for rocking with us. I appreciate you.
RAJA: Thank you. It's been great.
DEMBY: So you should take us out the rest of the way then.
RAJA: All right, all right, let's do this. You can find us on Twitter - @NPRCodeSwitch. And we love hearing from you. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Original music this episode is from Ramtin Arablouei.
DEMBY: All right, y'all. Be easy.
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