“The Summer Film School”
It has been a summer of starting R on the classic American middle class steps to adulthood. Interning (involving a short separation from the family), job skills training (you may spot him as the lifeguard at your local pool), SAT prep, and his first college tour.
It’s a lot.
So every evening, to cope with our sense of eventual separation, R and us parental units pile into the living room and indulge in really old (read: 90s) tv shows. Our standards were so low back then—the picture and sound quality were terrible! We have never really done anything “normal” like that, just sit and watch tv, because it’s not something A likes to do, and his noise levels always made it impossible to process anything. As the years have gone by, we’ve all retreated to Netflix on personal devices. It’s amazing to me that we even bothered to keep a tv in the house given the situation, but I’m glad it’s finally being used.
The fact that R is always willing to watch my favorite old shows really touches me, and reminds me of how I used to watch the old Indian movies my mom loves because it helped me feel connected to her, and understand the influences that shaped her. Just like R and me, my mom and I did not grow up in the same countries, so it was entirely possible for us to have nothing but culturally expected stuff in common. But Indian cinema was a mix of forces even back in the 50s and 60s. It was a fascinating melange of homegrown and international viewpoints; of real life and the aspirational dreams of post war Indians; of synthetic-fabric-clad, beehive-hairdo-sporting women who shimmied to jazzy beats and kept families together with their unimaginable personal sacrifices; of dapper men who enjoyed a glass of brandy and fell for the girl next door while espousing lofty nation building ideals; of beautiful, classically trained voices singing of impossible love. It was irresistible.
Who were the villains in those old movies? As I understood it, they were the antagonists of Ramayana and Gita-based dharma; they were against Hindu-Muslim unity; they lauded their own self interests at the expense of the poor; they degraded women; they fell into the trap of western materialism and forgot the soil of the motherland. And so much more. There was a whole world of admittedly simplified but revealing cultural critique in these movies. Of course we were being asked to overlook the oppressive, punitive sexism, and the parental abuse couched as love and heartland values, much of which is still a problem in movies and soaps today, not to mention real life, plus so many more social issues that I cannot possibly address in a short blog post.
Very importantly, my siblings and I were growing up in a country that can be rather racist to South Asians. Access to Indian culture, both classical and popular, gave me refuge from the sense I had growing up that we were objects of contempt, merely to be tolerated, constantly reminded of our perceived physical ugliness, supposedly lesser contribution to economic productivity, and apparently our tendency to rowdiness. Oh, and just in case we didn’t know it, we smelled bad, our desserts were too sweet, and our languages sounded ridiculous.
I feel the same forces at work between R and me when we dissect the shows and movies we watch. He is very righteous, and won’t watch anything overtly violent or rapey towards women, but we are also quick to point out “soft” sexism as plots unfold. With the American shows, we talk about family dynamics, class issues, bigotry, unexamined xenophobia (such as in Gilmore Girls), attitudes towards immigrants, immigrants’ internalized self-hatred, and so much more. He sees a lot of unexamined xenophobia in school too, and we draw those parallels. Our favorite shows are the ones that don’t go for the obvious displays of patriotism and nation-worship. Too much cultural supremacy embedded there, we do not wish to partake.
Kids today are so amazing; they don’t shy away from bettering themselves. I am very honored to be part of R’s intellectual journey. While it might be “easier” for him if I could just exhort him to accept the realities around him, neurodiverse kids already know the world isn’t so simple. When I hear people lament about how we are all separated by -isms and hyphenated identities, I have to smile at the inherent privilege in being able to say that. Diversity is not the weird cultural appropriations and erasures that pass for acceptance; it is more important than whether a white, Christian, neurotypical, cisgender, heterosexual gaze finds us worthy; it is more life sustaining than the asinine question of whether we are consciously adding to some colorful tapestry—that is such a problematic metaphor of assimilation. I am proud to be almost done raising a child who wades into the swamp and fishes out his own truths. His own survival has always mattered. Him knowing that is worth infinitely more than tokenism.