On TV, Immigrants' Kids Mine Cultural Convergence As part of a new NPR series on the U.S.-born children of immigrant parents, Neda Ulaby talks to three actors of South Asian heritage — asking how inhabiting two worlds helps them shape the characters they play.

On TV, Immigrants' Kids Mine Cultural Convergence

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More than a million people immigrate to the U.S. every year. Their children - born in the U.S. and connected to two cultures - are the focus of a new series at NPR News. It's called Immigrants' Children, and it's an occasional look at how they make their mark and the issues that confront them. We'll start by turning on the television.


I: Unidentified Man #2: I've run out of time. By giving myself abilities, I've signed my own death certificate.

MONTAGNE: "Heroes," "ER," "Top Chef" are just some of the shows that have featured actors of Indian descent. NPR's Neda Ulaby talked with three children of Indian immigrants who are finding ways to tell their stories on TV.

NEDA ULABY: Unidentified woman: We're rolling, cameras up.

ULABY: Working insanely hard, she says, is part of her immigrant family's legacy. So is bringing bits of her own story to the screen.

MINDY KALING: You know, I wrote an episode called Diwali. Diwali is a Hindu holiday in October, of like, the festival of lights. It was kind of the perfect meeting of both being the child of immigrants and writing for a comedy show.

ULABY: In that episode from the first season, Kaling's idiotic boss insists on calling a staff meeting about Diwali.


STEVE CARELL: (as Michael Scott): Tonight, one of our most ethnic coworkers, Kelly, has invited us all to a Diwali celebration put on by her...

ULABY: Kaling's character, Kelly Kapoor, is not exactly a poster girl for staying in touch with your parent's culture.


KALING: (as Kelly Kapoor) Diwali is awesome. And there's food and there's going to be dancing, and oh, and I've got the raddest outfit. It has...

CARELL: (as Michael Scott) Kelly, why don't you tell us a little bit about the origins of the holiday?

KALING: (as Kelly Kapoor) Uh, um, I don't know, it's really old, I think.

ULABY: Her sense of being an outsider in American culture persisted even though she lived in it every day. She never saw a family like hers on TV. That gave her a dual perspective she uses now in her writing.

KALING: "The Office" is just observational comedy. And growing up and observing how your parents are not the same as other people's parents and just the tiny things that make them different than sort of like the quote, unquote "normal-white American parents," your perspective on things gets really, like, sharpened.

ULABY: But Kaling is nothing like Kelly Kapoor. What you don't see on TV is her edge.

KALING: The everyone-against-me mentality is to me the thing you learn the most as a child of immigrants. Get up, brush your teeth, be a good kid, go to school, everyone's against you, come home, we're all going to have dinner together, no sex, no drugs, do your homework, everyone's against you, and it's such a funny - it's a really funny thing. And it's not a negative or sad, like, don't be depressed about it, but, like, everyone's against you.

ULABY: What perfect training for Hollywood.

KALING: Yeah, right, it is.

ULABY: Mindy Kaling's real name is Vera Mindy Chokalingam. When she started doing standup in New York, the MCs could never pronounce Chokalingam, so they made fun of it. Eventually she changed it.

KALING: I don't know, necessarily if like, you know, a generation from now if Indian kids would have to do that, if that maybe people will feel more ashamed about mangling a person's name instead of taking the time to learn it. But as a performer, it's like I didn't have a lot of time to sit and think about like the politics of it.

ULABY: Actors change their names all the time. Children of immigrants often feel their birth name can intimidate or confuse other Americans. Actor Kal Penn's parents are also from India. He changed his name too, sort of.

KAL PENN: Kalpen Modi, just, it's a cool name, but I also felt like it was a little specific.

ULABY: It's better to have a general name that doesn't box you into one ethnic group. Brown actors switch back and forth, playing Mexicans, Arabs, even Italians. Right now Kal Penn plays an Indian American named Dr. Lawrence Kutner on the Fox medical hit "House."


PENN: Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): I'm not going anywhere until you explain why my daughter has a bandage...

ULABY: There's no way you can realistically set a TV show in a hospital without Indian doctors. That's partly because of a 1965 change in immigration law that drastically changed the professional demographics of this country. For the first time, Asians, Africans, and Middle Easterners were encouraged to move here and work.

PENN: My parents came along with a number of Chinese American immigrants, Korean Americans.

ULABY: Kal Penn teamed up with a Korean American in the movie "Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle." It was the first mainstream hit starring two Asian- American Actors.


JOHN CHO: (as Harold) We're so high right now. Oh dude, I don't know about you, but I'm (beep) hungry as (beep)

PENN: (Kumar) Yeah, no (beep) dude, let's eat.

ULABY: The instant stoner classic reflected a side of America you could see on any college campus, but rarely on screen. Like Kumar, Kal Penn faced pressure from his immigrant parents to pick a more conventional career.

PENN: What the heck are you doing? We didn't move to this country for you to be an actor.

ULABY: (Unidentified Man): What the hell?


PENN: (as Ahmed) I won't hurt any of you, but I will if you don't do exactly as I say.

ULABY: Some of Penn's friends questioned his choice to play a terrorist on a few episodes of "24." That role, like many others, was written for a sort of undefined ethnicity. Let's call it generic brown. Actors call it the ethnic part. They tend to have names like Fez(ph). Vik Sahay has played plenty of them. He's an Indian Canadian actor on the NBC show "Chuck." He plays a smug computer geek who works at a store scarily like Best Buy.


VIK SAHAY: (as Lester Patel) Dude, the guys at the Sbarro even named a pizza after you. No sauce, no toppings, nothing but pure cheese. It's called the loser.

ULABY: Computer shows are like doctor shows, says Sahay. You've got to cast an Indian. That doesn't mean the writers necessarily bother with back stories about Gusharat(ph) or Bengal. But Sahay says, a good actor builds that in.

SAHAY: And so it feels like with every role I'm doing, whether it is of East Indian descent or not, I am reaching back into my own history, my relationship with my parents, who they are, my own ancestry, I guess, and bringing little portions of it.

ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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