Interview: Comedian Akaash Singh

21 Apr

Originally published at Brown Girl Magazine

I discovered Akaash Singh the way I find most things these days: through Twitter. Writer Anand Giridharadas tweeted about seeing his show and I immediately emailed him to request an interview. I discovered he only lived one subway stop away from me in Brooklyn and I met the almost 28 year old Singh at my favorite coffee shop to discuss his burgeoning comedic career.

How did you get started in comedy?

I was pre-med all through college. [Singh was born and raised in Dallas.] I took the MCATs and took a year off after graduation to apply to medical school. During that year off, my two best friends [from high school and college, respectively] decided to move to LA. It was only because we went together that I [felt comfortable] pursuing comedy after only performing in school talent shows. My day job was as a salesman at Verizon Wireless, I was the worst.

I didn’t know anyone in comedy when I moved to LA. If you’re going to do this, you have to make sacrifices. When my friends were out partying, I was working.

I would watch my favorite comedy specials over and over again and memorize them. Comedy is a science, you have to study to figure out why things are funny.

How did your family feel about you becoming a comedian?

My mom said, ‘I would rather you know you can’t do it than wonder the rest of your life if you could.’ Her approval was all I needed. My dad basically said, ‘I think you are an idiot but I can’t stop you because you’re an adult.’

Eventually I worked my way up to bigger clubs. I moved to New York in 2008 because everyone told me “You get funny in New York, you get famous in LA.”

You talk a lot about racism in your act. 

I can’t not talk about racism. I feel in our culture, you’re either white or black. At times in my life I’ve been really white, other times I’ve been really black. I was made fun of for that. I’m just now trying to figure out where I’m from.

How does your family feel about your career now?

First I told my parents not to look me up, but my mom ended up seeing a clip of me online. She liked it and said she was glad because she had no idea what I was doing! Even my dad said I’ve gotten farther than he thought.

How do they feel about the language and topics in your act? I was a little shocked when I saw your show (see video below).

With a desi audience, I’m going to be more cautious. But I’m always going to cuss onstage.

What advice do you have for other South Asians who want to pursue nontraditional careers?

Listen to your parents. I admire people who are doing the traditional thing as much as they admire me. If I had the 4.0 and perfect score, I would be a doctor right now. If I knew how hard it was going to be, I don’t know if I would have done it. You have to be delusional to go into comedy.


The next day, Akaash emailed me to say he had been thinking about advice to give South Asian women in particular. His advice, edited for brevity:

“First, be comfortable in your own skin. Personally, I think that starts with being proud of your roots. You’re Indian (or Pakistani, or Sri Lankan…), and that means you’re from a beautiful place with a beautiful culture.
Second, don’t get happiness confused with pleasure. Things like smoking, drinking, and partying may give you short term pleasure, but they won’t provide lasting happiness. Understand the difference between the two, and always chase happiness.”
Visit, subscribe on Facebook, follow @akaashsingh on Twitter. 

Menstruation: Shame and Joy

9 Dec

Originally published at Brown Girl Magazine

Amongst many South Indians, the first menstrual cycle in a girl often calls for much joy and celebration as it indicates that the girl is now a ‘grown up woman’, with her womb ready to ‘receive’. At the same time and in a seemingly contradictory manner, it is customary for the women to be barred from entering the kitchen to cook during menstruation. Although some view this as the period when a woman is allowed to rest and be relieved of her domestic duties, she is not allowed to touch anyone or enter the temple or perform any religious rituals.

-Sarita Manu, “Pure or (im)pure?”, HRISouthAsian Blog

I got my first period when I was twelve. Small and underdeveloped, I could pass for nine. Though I was emotionally mature, and had already defined myself a feminist, I was confused by the conflicting messages I received from my family.

My mom insisted on calling India to inform relatives immediately, much to my embarrassment. My dad, traveling on business, was also immediately notified and called me the next day, asking me if I was eating well and vaguely telling me it was “important now.” I received gifts and jewelry from extended family and noticed my mom’s aunty friends giving me knowing smiles.

I knew the event was important in some way and though I thought I understood the mechanics (having read Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret in elementary school), I still wasn’t quite sure why exactly I was being treated so differently. The next year would bring more puzzling changes as a result of my new status as a woman – albeit one who still looked like a young girl, who still wasn’t able to swallow ibuprofen to treat cramps.

I remember my mom chastising me for pointing out a scar on her bare arms while we happened to sharing an elevator with a man in the local community center. The resulting explanation of why one shouldn’t call attention to exposed skin in front of a strange man left me confused and hurt. As did my ban on attending temple with the rest of the family, just because it was a certain day of the month.

As I got older, I understood the bans on makeup and the fear my mom displayed when I talked about boys from school after I “officially” became a woman. But as the confusion disappeared, anger arrived in its place. I repeatedly questioned my mom and other female relatives – why did they refuse to make prasadam while on their period? Why did they – god-fearing, devout – women refuse to participate in poojas during “that time of the month”? Who was stopping them, and why? Why would God, who supposedly granted women the power and honor of bearing children let the process that allowed them to create shame?

I still haven’t received a satisfactory answer. Possible explanations offered don’t soothe me: that historically, the only break from housework a woman would receive was during her period, that offering women a rest is out of respect to her sensitive state. Maybe in ancient times, but now?

This article, posted on HRI Institute for South Asian Research and Exchange’s blog, showcases a presentation entitled ‘Feminine Representations and Themes of Resistance in Nepali Art.’  Installations included a woman sitting in a makeshift hut, alone, as many women are still required to (1). Another depicts a mannequin with red strings (red is notably the color of celebration in most South Asian countries) that turn into cloth lotuses – paradoxically, as lotuses are often used in Hindu ceremonies (2).

My mom knows my feelings on the topic and knows I don’t agree with her sticking with tradition. But it still happens – a few months ago, attending temple for a Carnatic music concert, I got my period. My mom refused to let me ask any of the other women for supplies, even though we were on our way out, and hushed me when I mentioned the problem.

I know there are many more sides to this issue. I know women are celebrated and respected in India and Hinduism for their fertility and not all women feel ashamed of their menstrual cycle or even adhere to the ancient traditions described above. But as Sarita Manu mentions in the conclusion of her blog, it will take more than education or awareness to stop thinking of menstruation as an impure process.

I hope this starts a discussion.

Images above via

Movie Review: Abu, Son of Adam

27 Nov

Originally published at Brown Girl Magazine

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to attend the opening night film of the 8th annual South Asian International Film Festival,  Abu, Son of Adam.

The theatre was packed as Abu made its American premiere. Though my friend complained the dubbing of the film in Hindi (from the original Malayalam) was inaccurate, it didn’t bother me.

Abu, Son of Adam, is the story of a humble salesman and his wife whose lifelong wish is to make the Hajj pilgrimage. He slowly sells his prized possessions to pay for the trip. Through this planning process, his life in Kerala’s verdant Malabar region is – his hardworking nature, the respect he has earned from wealthier community members, his livelihood a relic of earlier times.

Seeing Abu’s childlike wonder upon receiving his first passport, even going so far as to gently scold his wife for touching the pictures invited laughter from the audience. By the end of the film, I was sure disaster was inevitable and the calm ending was a surprise.

Variety said “The film has a tendency to shy away from overt dramatic conflict, as Abu’s gentle decency sees him escape or mollify one practical or personal opponent after another. As such, he’s a more admirable protagonist than he is a compelling one…” I agree, though I sympathized with Abu’s desire to earn the money for the trip himself, I wanted to see anger or sadness as he faced his inability to do so.

I wish the couple’s family life had been explored more. Allusions are made throughout the story to the couple’s only child, a son who has abandoned his parents to start a new life in Dubai. The son no longer speaks to his parents, ashamed of his humble background, though his mother hears tidbits of his life from friends and neighbors: a new baby, a new job, each new accomplishment hurting his mother left behind.

Reading of Abu‘s low national box office numbers was unsurprising, as the film moves at a steady pace, no thwarted love stories or fight scenes to be found.

The film is India’s official entry in the foreign language film category of the 84th annual Academy Awards. Though the film has its flaws, I hope Abu, Son of Adam is given a chance as Abu’s graciousness and piousness is a representation of India I am proud of.

Photo from film courtesy of Deccan Chronicle 

Brown Girls Behaving Badly

30 Jun

Originally published at Brown Girl Magazine

I guess it was inevitable.  Now that brown girls are reaching adulthood, free from our strict upbringing, some negative attention was bound to strike our model minority image. But the last few weeks have brought some unfortunate scandals.

If you’re even a casual Internet user, you have probably come across the cell phone video of a young Indian woman berating a Metro North train conductor, using winning phrases like, “Do you know how well educated I am? Do you know what schools I went to?” Apparently the woman was speaking loudly and allegedly profanely on a cell phone conversation so the conductor asked her to keep her voice down. This simple request was met by yelling in an over-enunciated accent about her superior education and a demand for her money back before exiting the train in a huff.

Unfortunately in this public age, the young woman’s name and Internet history was quickly revealed. As an NYU graduate, her “well-educated” claims were swiftly mocked by Internet commenters. Even more unfortunately, many commenters felt free to insult the young woman’s ethnic background (the words “curry eater” were used as well as putting down her parents owning gas stations). Though the woman’s actions were deplorable, it was remarkable to see how quickly the conversation moved to insults based on the woman’s race. A sad reminder that as much as we try to assimilate, South Asians are still very much the “other” in American society.

The next story broke a few days ago. A young Indian woman working in Los Angeles met director Quentin Tarantino at a Hollywood party, went back to his place, and indulged his well-known foot fetish before returning home and emailing fifteen of her closest friends about the experience.

The email was leaked to major websites (whether the leak was intentional or not is being debated) and the woman’s picture, work history, Tumblr, even an old Wheel of Fortune appearance were quickly found.

Like the Metro North train experience, Quentin Tarantino’s date was put down for her writing style and confidence.  Shades of racism colored both events: the train conductor who was spoken to harshly was black and Miss Hollywood mentioned “hordes” of Asian girls in Las Vegas and bragged about her former black boyfriend in her email.

These stories are different, of course. Perhaps the train passenger was simply having a bad day (though her reaction was unspeakably rude) while the Hollywood email writer was almost certainly seeking attention.

Sepia Mutiny breaks down the race issue better than I can do here, but I think the main take-away from both incidents is that although brown girls on the cusp of adulthood may be assimilated and successful, we are still seen as South Asian first and as representatives for our culture. This may be unfair, but until we actually live in a post-racial society, we should remember our actions do not occur in a bubble but affect the perception of our entire race.

*I’ve chosen not to use the real names of either girl, because I truly feel sorry for their loss of privacy.

Image above via

Picasso Blue Nude on right via

On wearing bright colors

2 May

Reading this Persephone Magazine article where a self-professed ‘fat girl’ explained why she likes wearing bright-colored tights despite the stares she gets for showing off her not-skinny legs reminded me of my own hesitation to wear bright colors because of my dark skin.

Most of my work wardrobe is black. Not because of its slimming effect, but because I feel it makes me blend in to the crowd.  Despite the exhortations of friends and my mother to wear jewel tones, which pop against my deep brown skin, I usually resist. My mom bought me a white dress for Easter and even though it looks great on me, I kept staring at the contrast between my dark legs and the white fabric when I tried it on. 

Yes, logically, I know that my skin will look dark no matter what I wear. But I still cling to my neutral tones, believing they somehow make my “otherness” less obvious.  I’ve changed a little, trying on bright camisoles under dark cardigans -inspired by my fashion icon Michelle Obama. She’s not afraid to wear whatever makes her look beautiful, others be damned.

I know this post will sound trivial to some. But I doubt those people have never been the sole brown face in a crowd of white, over and over and over again. It takes its toll…

Images from the Michelle Obama Look Book

Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month

1 May

When I was a kid, taking standardized tests always meant filling in the Asian/Pacific Islander bubble for the question about my race. Now, as I begin to apply to jobs and graduate school, ‘Asian’ is its own category – often with subcategories listing various East and South Asian countries. (I’m sure Pacific Islanders are similarly relieved to not be lumped into the Asian group.)

As May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, I’m working on a series of posts about famous Asian Americans here and for Brown Girl Magazine.

Asian and Pacific Islanders officially encompasses all of the Asian continent and the Pacific islands of Melanesia (New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands), Micronesia (Marianas, Guam, Wake Island, Palau, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia) and Polynesia (New Zealand, Hawaiian Islands, Rotuma, Midway Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, French Polynesia and Easter Island).

Happy first day!

Girl likes Indian food, what can I say?

30 Apr

Aziz Ansari has been killing it lately on Parks and Recreation. He’s always hilarious, but the above clip puts him into one of my all-time favorite sitcom characters. I hate when Indians anglicize their names so normally his character changing his name to ‘Tom Haverford’ would give me pause, but as usual his explanation makes me love him more (From):

LESLIE: You’re not from here, right?
TOM: No, I’m from South Carolina.
LESLIE: But you moved to South Carolina from where?
TOM: My mother’s uterus.
LESLIE: But you were conceived in… Libya, right?
TOM: Wow, no. I was conceived in America, my parents are Indian.
LESLIE: Where’d the name Haverford come from?
TOM: My birth name is Darwish Sabir Ismael Gani and I changed it to Tom Haverford because, you know, brown guys with funny sounding Muslim names don’t get really far in politics.
LESLIE: What about Barack Obama?
TOM: Fine, Barack Obama. If I knew a dude named Barack Obama was gonna be elected president, yeah, maybe I wouldn’t have changed my name.

Never fall in love with the Jersey Shore

17 Apr


I loved Jersey Shore when it first premiered. I laughed through every episode and promoted the show’s merits to my dubious friends. I even defended the show from media attacks in this article and speculated about spinoffs for different ethnicities. I was convinced the show was campy fun, sweet junk food for the brain.

The second season dissolved into a live breakdown of a destructive relationship. The third season continued the drama of Ronnie and Sam, two individuals who couldn’t be less suited for each other. Possible drug abuse and physical abuse occurred behind the scenes. I was shocked MTV continued to the center the show around the pair, without a suggestion that such behavior was not normal, and not entertaining.

The third season also brought out the extreme sexism of the show’s males. Always hovering in the background, the men clearly had double standards when it came to “hooking up” and weren’t shy about sharing their opinions.

To my chagrin, a catalyst in yet another Ron/Sam fight was a former paramour of Sam’s, an Indian American friend named Arvin. I was not pleased a member of my community was associated with the negative turn Jersey Shore had taken.

Arvin Lal and Sammi "Sweetheart"

Surprisingly, Arvin contacted the editors of Brown Girl Magazine last week and suggested an interview. Though I planned to seriously question his pride in appearing on the show, Arvin was extremely polite and respectful during our phone conversation. I wish him the best of luck in his future endeavors.

Talking to Arvin convinced me the cast of Jersey Shore are all good kids at heart, but have been twisted into caricatures by their extreme popularity. The group travels to Italy next season and though I might regret it, I’ll still be watching.

Read my interview with Arvin here.

Breast cancer is not sexy

17 Apr


Yesterday, while driving downtown, I saw a display of bras outside a store window – advertising a future Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Walk.  I rolled my eyes, like I usually do when I see breast cancer awareness reduced to attention-grabbing titillation – most of which do nothing to actually help breast cancer patients or research.

Despite the slew of stories every October (Breast Cancer Awareness Month) and all year, exposing these “awareness” techniques as unhelpful and even harmful to cancer patients, they continue.

I find these campaigns even more harmful when they involve teenagers. The latest story I’ve heard comes from Clovis Unified School District in Fresno, California which banned plastic bracelets reading “I love boobies.” Other school districts have suspended students for wearing clothing with similar slogans.  As Jezebel’s Sadie Stein writes:

 These schools aren’t, presumably, anti-cancer-awareness; they’re opposed to a deliberately cheeky, arguably problematic marketing ploy specifically designed to appeal to teens. And if such bracelets are disturbing class — or starting “conversations” with a different bent entirely — surely it’s within the school’s purview to ban them without looking like bad guys. After all, if the message is that powerful, so’s the double-entendre’s other meaning, and that’s the kind of thing that can degrade an atmosphere — fast.

I find it hard to believe teenagers are so concerned about the rapidly increasing rates of breast cancer that they believe wearing a cheap rubber bracelet is going to help anyone. Add this to the facebook campaigns asking girls to list their bra color or purse location in status updates. Teenagers (especially girls) are faced with enough conflicting societal messages about their budding sexuality without having organizations purporting to represent a serious illness adding to the confusion.

The Fear

2 Apr

Because I travel frequently for my job, I spend a lot of time alone – in taxis, hotel rooms, conference rooms late at night. I’m a modern woman, meaning I know to stay aware of my surroundings, not talk on my cell phone while walking alone at night, end conversations with anyone who seems sketchy.

But I depend on strangers. My three most fearsome situations, in no particular order:

I depend on the taxi driver to take me to the airport and not to an undisclosed secret bunker. I shared this fear with my mom, who laughed. She assured me nothing would happen and instructed me to memorize the taxi number in case something did. And I know the chances are one in a million, but the fear of something unknown happening keeps me from closing my eyes when in the backseat, even when drowsy.

I depend on the hotel employee who brings me my room service dinner late at night. I trust him (almost always a him) to remove the covers from my dishes and present me with a bill, not shove me in a closet or do god knows what else. But I still brace myself when opening my room door after a brisk knock.

I depend on the custodial service cleaning empty office buildings late at night to work around me. They usually ignore me or nod in my direction. I expect them not to lock me in and prevent me from leaving the building. I always offer a polite smile and ‘thank you’ as if it will keep me safe.

I suppose these safety concerns can be blamed on television crime dramas, or the 24-hour news cycle publicizing every middle class white girl gone missing. I once took a self defense workshop in college, but I don’t think it worked because my newly-learned moves had no effect on the 150 pound girl who was my partner.

And if I carried a weapon, I would probably either injure myself or accidentally injure an innocent bystander who was just asking me for the time or something.

Anyone know of non-violent ways to feel safer that don’t require a lot of work? I’m looking for the self-defense equivalent of the Shake Weight.