When I was a kid, I remember my parents renting a mini-series called The Jewel in the Crown from our local video store. It was a prestige drama made in England, with fancy people in it like Geraldine James and Tim Piggott-Smith, and it had won loads of awards. The main reason they got it was because it was about colonial India and, although it was full of white people in almost every role, there were actually a few Indian actors. Actual Indian people who would play Indian people. Like, speaking roles and everything. The tv people were going to let some of us have screen time and say words, y’all. Stop the presses! It was a big deal. I remember feeling this sense of dread before we watched it, both for myself, and for my parents. We wanted those Indian roles to be good, those Indian actors to hit it out of the park, and for the script to not dehumanize them and therefore us. Please, let it not be terrible. It doesn’t even have to be great. Just let it not be terrible.
Recently, I heard the hosts on the NPR podcast Codeswitch use the term “rep sweats.” This term, as far as I can tell, was coined by writer Jenny Yang. In this article for Flavorwire about the show Fresh Off the Boat, she is quoted as saying “you get the ‘rep sweats’…[Asians] are so invisible, every time you have the opportunity to see yourself on TV, you hold your breath.” From that, co-host of Codeswitch Gene Demby adds his version of this feeling of POC-specific nervous anticipation: “I don’t know if I like this, but I need it to win.” This is what my parents and I were wobbling with as we popped that VHS in. I don’t know if I’ll like this, but I need it to win. Rep sweats. It is the perfect term for that feeling.
I know that I am becoming ever more ancient by the day, but let me remind you that this Jewel in the Crown viewing was not that long ago. It was in the late 80s. But this was a time when we never saw Indian people on tv, ever. I remember my mom calling me in my dorm room a few years later when I was in college just to tell me to turn on the tv because the barista on Frasier was Indian, and she got a line every once in a while. I would not be surprised if other Indian Americans my age remember the Frasier barista or had similar moments with their families. The character didn’t have a name, I don’t think, and she never had a story line, and she talked maybe a couple times per season, but she was there. I don’t know how to convey how much of a buzz we got from this. It was like seeing a shooting star. Did you see that? Just for a minute, it was there!
Although we are living in a time where we have a little bit more to go on than the barista at Cafe Nervosa, it is still a small handful, rare enough for the family alert system to go off for each and every one. In fact, I can probably name off every Indian person who has ever had a role in a major American tv show. Not probably. I could do it. And it would only take a few minutes. However, I think I may have, in 2017, for the very first time, had an experience that I need a term for, like rep sweats, but not.
Some months ago, I got a text from a family member saying: GIRL DID YOU HEAR MASTER OF NONE SEASON TWO IS COMING OUT?!?!?! The Indians-on-tv alert system occurs in all caps text format these days. In the weeks that followed, I started seeing publicity about it, and the descriptions alone sounded pretty great. Then it came out, and the alert system legit blew up. I got text after text over the next week or so. “OMG, have you seen it?” and “I cried, it was so great!” and “exceeded expectations, dude” and “it’s not just good, it’s maybe the best” and “maybe some of the best tv that’s ever happened?” and many more like it. My community had gone from I don’t know if I like this, but I need it to win to simply we need this to win, and it doesn’t just win. It fucking MURDERS.
I read a bunch of reviews, I listened to podcasts where people talked about it, I listened to interviews of the creators, writers, actors. I looked at all the plot summaries, and listened to my friends talk about their favorite parts. I didn’t care about spoilers. After a while, I knew all about every single episode of Master of None in detail, from beginning to end. But I hadn’t watched it. I couldn’t watch it. Time went by, and more time. “Have you seen it YET?” my peeps kept asking. I kept putting it off because of this new feeling I was having. Not rep sweats. I wasn’t dreading feeling let down. I felt a giddy sort of heightened sensitivity. Like I had to prepare myself, emotionally, to see it. Like I was going to experience a way of feeling representational joy that I maybe had never had before. Having some part of my worldview portrayed on tv felt like being in the sun for the first time after a lifetime of being in a downpour. Exciting, lovely, beautiful, but one doesn’t just run out into the sun like that. I had to marinate in the idea of it before actually experiencing it. Does that sound dramatic? It was. Have you seen it yet?…Give me a minute, y’all. I need a minute.
Part of what was happening in my mind was that this was more than just seeing another Indian person star in a tv show. We have a couple of those out there already, doing amazing work that I love. But this time the representation was about a specificity regarding Indian-American-ness, about a sensibility, an entire lens and way of being in the world. This is what felt new. I am not trying to say that Master of None precisely represents me or my family. The lists of ways we are totally different is long. But the pieces that feel familiar make up more familiarity than I have ever gotten from American pop culture in my whole life. Consuming pop culture for me is always an act of building a bridge in order to connect, and all I am saying is, this time I still had to build a bridge, but the bridge was shorter. It was the shortest one I have built yet.
So, I don’t know what you call this feeling I was having, but I do know that as delicious as it was, I wait for the day that I won’t feel this anymore. Some point when there are all sorts of representations out there and it will be an everyday feeling to see them. When the brown peeps alert system is no longer in use. When seeing a really great rep doesn’t feel like squinting at the sun. Now that I’m seeing some sunshine, I feel like the rain could actually clear up. I needed a minute to prepare, but now that I’ve seen this, I’m ready.