In ‘Missed Translations,’ Sopan Deb reconnects with his estranged immigrant parents

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Sopan Deb with his fiance Wesley and father. Photo courtesy of Sopan Deb

When you’re a stand-up comedian and the children of immigrants, you harvest your Hindu heritage for material for the stage. For Sopan Deb, he had an unhappy childhood, and didn’t talk to or see his parents for years once he started college. 

In a new memoir, he tries to understand why his Indian parents had such an unhappy marriage, and how he could repair his relationship with both of them. His book is called “Missed Translations: Meeting the Immigrant Parents Who Raised Me.” 

Race and growing up

Sopan Deb: “It was a very cold, isolating experience. My suburb was mostly white. I'd go over to friend's houses, and I'd see families eating dinner together and talking about their days. I didn't have that at home. So what that caused me to do was conflate being safe and being white.

… It caused this weird identity crisis for me. … It caused me to kind of reject my brownness because in my head. I had this irrational thought of, you know, brown culture brought my parents together (for their arranged marriage), and therefore, brown culture is not for me.”

Not knowing much about his parents

“We barely spoke. I grew up without knowing my parents' ages, their birthdays, how they met, how they came here (to America). I didn't know anything about them. So when they got divorced, my reaction kind of was, ‘Yeah, well, probably should have happened a long time ago.’ But we never had a conversation about it because we didn't talk about those things.

… In my 20s, there was never a falling out or anything. We never had a base of closeness to start with. One month of not talking turned into six months of not talking. It turned to one year of not talking. I woke up one morning and realized it's been years since we last spoke.

… I got to a point when I turned 30 that I was no longer okay with us not being in contact, and me not knowing anything about them.”

His mother’s life

“I remember seeing her, and it was Mother's Day in a weird bit of poetic timing, and that was not intentional. I remember the thing that stands out the most to me. You go to someone's house, and you see the house is decorated. You see their paintings and their family photos and art or whatever. In the case of my mother, there's nothing. It felt like she was living a very empty life. It felt like someone very lonely was living there. And it struck me. It still stays with me to this day.” 

His father’s life

“My dad is a very interesting character. He went back to India, and he went to work immediately rebuilding his life. And if you go to his apartment, it is just full of life. I think he's thriving on a material level. But I don't think he's truly thriving. You know, he still lives by himself. His family's not near him. He's been on his own for a long time.”

His parents’ reactions to his book

“They had complicated reactions to it. If all four members of our family wrote their own version of this book, it would be four wildly different books because we all have our own truth. I think it was very difficult for them to see all this in print. But ultimately, I think they understood what I was trying to do. And also, we have a better relationship than we did before. 

At the end of the day, this is a book of healing and forgiveness. And on that level, I forgave my parents. And we have a much better relationship now as opposed to four years ago when we weren't speaking at all.”

Sopan Deb’s new book is “Missed Translations.” Photo credit: Richard Ljoenes.

An excerpt from“Missed Translations” by Sopan Deb.

ONE

“I’d like to say a few words about race relations.”

I grabbed the mic and locked in. It was January 2018, on the cusp of my thirtieth birthday, and I was prowling back and forth on- stage at the Comic Strip Live, a comedy club on New York City’s Upper East Side. I was absolutely killing it, man. A rare feeling.

Stand-up comedy crowds can be warm. I’m prepared for them to be icy. Used to it, really. But this one was on fire. Bodies were squeezed into every seat just looking for an excuse to laugh. I felt larger than life, like Mario after eating a mushroom or LeBron dunking on a fast break.

The Comic Strip is an institution. Seinfeld. Chappelle. Sandler. Murphy. Rock. Every comic who has made it had, at some point, gone through this place. The venue is deep and cavernous, with seats crammed at long tables strewn throughout the room. Behind the stage is a familiar brick wall. Somewhere between the main stage and the front entrance, out of sight of the crowd, is a green room for performers, which is more like a green broom closet. In some parts of the venue, it’s hard to see the performer. When you’re the one telling jokes, you can’t see shit.

My set was part of the Big Brown Comedy Hour, a recurring show that Dean Obeidallah and Maysoon Zayid, New York City–based comics, started in 2009 as a way of putting a spotlight on up-and-coming comics of South Asian or Middle Eastern descent. These shows are always packed to the brim with, well, brown people who rarely get to see shows like this. When brown crowds are in, they come to laugh.

After seven years of doing comedy, getting the room to laugh because of something I constructed still gives me a high. When a punchline really lands—I mean, really—it is the kind of moment I want to freeze, store in a jar, and put on a shelf forever. Or pour into one of those Pensieves from Harry Potter.

But the laughter is fleeting, and you have to find a way to keep things fresh. That night, I decided to test out some new mate- rial—a seasonally appropriate bit about the holidays:

My favorite Christmas tradition growing up was asking my mom what the meaning of Christmas was. Every year, we’d be like, “Hey Mom! What’s the meaning of Christmas?” She’d go, “Oh, it’s when Jesus died on the cross.” We’d say, “Oh. Why did Jesus die on the cross?” She’d answer, “It’s because Jesus became a carpenter instead of a DOCTOR!”

The bit played on a tired South Asian trope that Indian kids are supposed to become doctors. It didn’t quite slay, but I heard the laughter ripple across the room. What I didn’t hear was my own bullshit.

For one thing, I grew up Hindu. My family didn’t exactly have Christmas traditions, which explains why I confused Christmas and Easter. The only traditions of any kind we had were family squabbles and seething resentment that split our family into war- ring factions. What I knew about healthy families at Christmas was what I saw in  pop  culture. Think “chestnuts  roasting on an open fire” or Miracle on 34th Street or Tim Allen’s The Santa Clause. Yes, even the last one.

The best stand-up comics deliver searing honesty to the audience. They’re supposed to expose and clarify truths about the world as they see it. They heighten hypocrisies and spotlight in- equalities, and they do it all for the crowd’s amusement. Someone once framed it for me this way: The greats tell the audience what is funny rather than try to make them laugh.

But I was handing this crowd someone else’s honesty with that joke, telling them what I pictured a stereotypical Christmas with Indian parents to be like. That I didn’t know the first thing about a happy Christmas made me all the more eager to talk about it. It was a paradox: I had spent much of my life running away from my skin color and culture, and yet the thing I felt most comfort- able discussing onstage was my South Asian ethnicity. Talking about any version of the brown experience felt cathartic, whether it was the mangled one of my childhood or the way I imagined a happy brown kid growing up.

I had just ten minutes to give the crowd at the Comic Strip a little taste of my truth, and I had more to say. I launched into some jokes I had written about my Indian family. This was the real stuff. First, there was the bitter divorce between my mother, Bishakha, and my father, Shyamal, after a long and ill-fated arranged marriage. Then there was a healthy dose of cultural alienation, a smattering of outlandish (but totally true) stories about my parents, and the father who disappeared to India eleven years prior without telling anyone. No, really. He did.

I had the punchlines down pat.

I love family reunions. Anybody here been to a good family reunion?

When I do this bit, nobody ever raises their hands. It gives me a beat to take stock of the audience before inquiring:

Is this a room of fucking orphans?

That gets a chuckle, but it’s just the amuse-bouche. A warm-up for the appetizer.

I, for one, really love family reunions. Mine are typically in court.

It’s a good, not great, joke. I like it, though. If jokes are comedians’ children, that one would be Cindy Brady: Fine, it gets the job done, but who really cares? The audience at the Comic Strip agreed. A solid Cindy.

But what the crowd never knew, and what I couldn’t bring myself to tell them, was the crippling anxiety and sadness I felt about each of the truths I had morphed into a laugh line. I was comfortable talking about this stuff from behind a microphone, but only to an extent. Sometimes it felt like I was playing the part of a brown guy onstage, but when I dropped the façade and delved into my actual life, the words deflected the guilt and vulnerability I wasn’t yet ready to face. Much of my material—especially the stuff about my parents—resulted from unfamiliarity, both with myself and with them.

Look, stand-up comedy is a mostly masochistic endeavor. That’s why I have a day job as a writer for the New York Times. The Times gig is a fantastic outlet for curiosity and for exploring the humanity of others. I can interview other people and probe them with questions I might not be able to ask of myself. As for comedy, I’m only willing to flagellate myself for free and after hours.

At the time of this set in January 2018, I hadn’t seen my mother or father in years. My relationship with each of them had its own contours but essentially landed in the same place: I considered them distant footnotes from my past. I wasn’t entirely sure where either parent was living at that moment.

When I started writing this book, right after the Big Brown set, much of what I could tell you about Bishakha and Shyamal could fit into a small paragraph. This one: At some point in the latter half of the twentieth century, they were arranged to be married. I could also say, though without complete assurance, that they were both from India. But I didn’t know where in India they were from. I wasn’t sure how old they were. I didn’t know how many brothers and sisters they had. I was pretty sure their par- ents—my grandparents—were all dead. I had no idea what they were like as children or what they hoped their lives would be. I never asked; they never told me.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Oliver Twist. I grew up with my parents as well as my brother, Sattik, who is nine years older than me. Or, rather, I grew up in the same general time and space continuum as the two people who were responsible for my birth and a sibling who moved out of the house when I was nine. My relation- ship with my brother has always been warm, in part because the age difference meant he was separated from our family dynamic during my coming of age. But there was a deep void in the relationship with my parents, a pervasive sense of unhappiness that reigned over the home.

My father, an engineer by trade, was mild-mannered and rigid about planning and finances, while also being quite hapless (something I’ve inherited) and conspicuously distant from my brother and me. My mother, meanwhile, was impulsive (some-thing else I’ve inherited) and stern. She was the disciplinarian. The personality contrasts were stark: My mother was a social creature who loved gabbing on the phone and taking in pop culture. My father was a nerd who once tried to memorize the periodic table.

But more important than mere personality contrasts was the irreparable schism between them that existed long before I did. It was as if there was an invisible hand that had guided the two least compatible people in the world toward each other. And since the marriage was arranged, my parents couldn’t swerve to avoid it. By the time I came along, their distaste for each other was ingrained into the fabric of the household.

The only thing that united them was a genuine pride in be- ing Indian. It  was important to them, but, ironically, it was what  I resented most. It was being Indian that forced these two mis- matched souls together, and I looked to escape them at every second. We all tried, in our own way, to make it work, but we were oil, vinegar, and gasoline.

Over time, I learned how to turn my personal trauma into light quips and punchlines. The real stuff, though? That was a little too dark for the Comic Strip.

From MISSED TRANSLATIONS by  Copyright © 2020 by Sopan Deb. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

 — Written by Erin Senne and Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski