Grand Tamasha

Journalist Sopan Deb on Meeting the Immigrant Parents Who Raised Him

Episode Summary

Milan talks with New York Times journalist Sopan Deb--author of the brand-new memoir, Missed Translations: Meeting the Immigrant Parents Who Raised Me.

Episode Notes

This week on the show, Milan is joined by New York Times journalist Sopan Deb--author of the brand-new memoir, Missed Translations: Meeting the Immigrant Parents Who Raised Me.


Whether it’s Hasan Minhaj’s comedy--OR the spectacle of the “Howdy, Modi” rally in Houston--OR Aarti Shahani’s heartbreaking memoir--listeners of this show know that getting inside the Indian immigrant experience is one of Grand Tamasha’s obsessions.


On the surface, Sopan is a successful journalist, comedian, and cultural commentator. But in his new book, he explores a side of his life that existed well below the surface--his estrangement from his parents, the alienation he felt as an immigrant kid in a mostly white New Jersey suburb, and the heartbreak he endured watching his family life not so much fall apart as melt away.


Milan and Sopan discuss his toxic family life, his Indian-American coming-of-age story, and his life-changing journey to meet the parents who raised him.


YOU'RE INVITED: Join Milan, Tanvi, and Sadanand for a special LIVE episode of Grand Tamasha on Tuesday, May 19, at 11am EST / 8:30pm IST. Tune in as they break down the week's news - and join the live chat to ask questions! Add it to your calendar, and join the live show here


Episode Transcription

Intro 00:00

“Unabashed,” “the most unpredictable,” “becomes a headline,” “the most volatile,” “outrageous behavior,” “unsubstantiated narratives,” “a battle of personalities.”


Milan Vaishnav 00:11

Welcome to Grand Tamasha. I’m your host Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Before we get started with today’s show, a quick reminder that next week on May 19, at 11am Eastern that’s 8:30pm in India, we’re bringing you a live episode of Grantham Asha with our news roundup regular Sadanand Dhume of AEI and the Wall Street Journal, and Tanvi Madan, the Brookings Institution. You can find the YouTube link in the show notes for the week along with details on how to submit your questions. This is admittedly a bit of an experiment, but we’re looking forward to hanging out with you guys online. 


Milan Vaishnav 00:42

Today on the show. My guest is the New York Times journalist Sopan Deb, author of the brand-new memoir “Mistranslations: Meeting the Immigrant Parents who Raised Me.” Whether it’s Hasan Minhaj’s comedy or the spectacle of the Howdy Modi rally in Houston, or Aarti Shahani’s heartbreaking memoir, listeners to the show know that getting inside the Indian immigrant experience is a bit of a hobby horse of mine. At this point, I thought I’d seen all angles of the Indian American experience. That is until I read Sopan’s new book on the surface, Sopan is a successful journalist, comedian, cultural commentator. But in his new book, he explores a side of his life that existed well below the surface. His years-long estrangement from his parents, the alienation he felt as an immigrant kid in a mostly white New Jersey suburb, and the pain and heartbreak he endured, watching his family life, not so much fall apart, as melt away. Sopan joins me on the phone today from Charleston, South Carolina, to talk about his new book. Sopan, thanks so much for coming on the show.


Sopan Deb 01:37

Thank you so much for having me. It’s a great pleasure.


Milan Vaishnav 01:39

So, you know, congrats on the book. I enjoyed it immensely. In fact, once I started, I really couldn’t put it down. I want to I want to start this conversation, kind of where the book begins. So, you know, you’re on stage doing a set at a comedy club in New York City. This is back I think in early 2018. Your jokes are landing the sets going well, and yet, you can’t shake a sense of anxiety that’s, you know, sort of at odds with what’s happening on stage. So, tell us a little bit about what’s going on behind the scenes.


Sopan Deb 02:09

Yeah, very much. So, I felt like a fraud on stage. And the reason I felt like a fraud on stage is that I was doing a lot of material about being South Asian, in spite of the fact that I have spent my whole life running from being South Asian and the reason for that is, you know, my parents were arranged to get married in the ’70s. And they had a very toxic arranged marriage, but they stayed married for 30 years and had two kids because, you know, divorce is something that’s very stigmatized in South Asian culture. And, and the reason that matters here is I grew up in a very white suburb, and because of my toxicity at home, I kind of rejected my brownness. I didn’t want to be brown. I idealized whiteness, and because all my white friends around me they seem to be having they seem to be pretty happy, and they’re, you know, they’re having dinners at home with their family and going on family trips and they’re, you know, going to see sports together or whatever, what have you. I, I, I ran away from being brown. And yet when I started doing stand-up comedy, all I wanted to do was talk about being brown on stage. And it was this weird paradox, and it didn’t feel genuine when I was on stage. And part of this journey started because of that, because I wanted to figure out kind of who I was. I was at, I was turning 30 around then, and I realized that I’ve been in the middle of a 30-year identity crisis.


Milan Vaishnav 03:31

You know, you mentioned at one point that your life was sort of a parade of running away from your skin color and yet endlessly talking about it on stage. And, you know, you sort of joke that while you’re growing up, you kind of turned into this self-loathing Bengali child. It was comedy, kind of a kind of catharsis or therapy for you? You know, when did you discover that comedy, in a way, could sort of be an outlet?


Sopan Deb 03:54

Um, well, it is therapy. It is cathartic. I did not read realize it was therapy until I started thinking about why I was talking about what I was talking about. It is cathartic in a way to talk about your family and talk about the brown experience on stage. I didn’t realize it was therapy when I was doing it because when I started doing stand-up, it was because of a breakup - a college breakup. My college girlfriend broke up with me and then, you know, I was like, Well, you know, I’m sad. What is that? People do? Oh, they start doing they start doing comedy. Okay, well, I guess I’m going to do comedy now. And then, when I first started doing stand-up, my jokes were kind of like, I was doing a terrible impersonation of like Mitch Hedberg and Jerry Seinfeld, and I remember the first joke I told was something along the lines of you know, I’d like to talk a little bit about race relations. Has anybody here ever had sex while watching NASCAR? And I just remember, that was the joke.


Milan Vaishnav 04:53

I laughed! 


Sopan Deb 04:54

I remember it just, it just bombed - I think there’s video of it - Just silence from the crowd. And then after A couple of seconds someone from the back of the room yells Ha. And, you know, it was my first time ever getting a laugh from a crowd, but it was like, you know, over time, I started talking about things that are a little bit more personal, but still fraudulent. There’s this like weird kind of mix of the two. And it wasn’t until I started this journey that I realized, “oh, there was this kind of internal turmoil that you’re trying to work out on stage.” And so, to your point, yeah, it was very much therapeutic. I just didn’t realize it in my seven or eight years of doing comedy.


Milan Vaishnav 05:30

So, you know, the book really documents your very intimate, personal journey to get to know your parents, to sort of understand better what happened in their volatile relationship. And in a way, I think, to sort of excavate your own identity. You know, when you began the book back in 2018, you hadn’t seen your parents and literally yours, you describe them as, quote, distant footnotes from your past. You know, did you set out to write up your journey in book form from the outset, or is that something that sort of came later?


Sopan Deb 05:58

Oh, no. So, at first, so when I first reconnected with my parents - so actually before I reconnected with my parents, I thought, you know, what? What if we do this as a documentary? Because I was interested as it was gnawing at me for a couple years that I didn’t have a relationship with my mom or dad, why don’t I document this in some way because this journey is going to be whatever it is. This journey could be, you know, really fulfilling, it could be horrible. It could be you know, but not many people attempt this. I don’t think so. I was wanting to do it as a documentary. Then I thought about it, and I was like, Well, why No, well, I don’t know if sticking cameras in the faces of your immigrant parents. Will that probably won’t make them comfortable or whatever. What if, then, let’s do a book. Let’s just talk about this whole thing. You’re a writer. You know, let’s write down every step of the way. Let’s take notes. Let’s shoot video the whole way. Let’s have a recorder out every step of this. And so, the book genuinely tracks a year in my life when I was writing chapter three. You know, I was like, 30% through what ended up being the book, I didn’t know what was going to be in chapter 12, for example. So, I was rewriting as I went, I was, you know, journaling as I went. So, I knew it was going to be a book the whole time, I didn’t know what the book was going to look like.


Milan Vaishnav 07:18

So, I feel like, for our listeners, we have to step back a second. And in a way, recap, the sort of absence of family life you endured during your childhood, you know, you mentioned that the greatest fear you had as a kid was not so much your parents fighting, but it was the awful silence that often prevailed at home, you know, it was almost like there was a gap there and it got bigger and more exposed, but it could never be filled. So, you know, growing up, you know, tell us what was your parents relationship like with one another, and with you and your older brother?


Sopan Deb 07:50

So, my parents’ relationship, I mean, between them, it was toxic. I mean, they were bad. They were arranged to get married, and they had a they had a bad relationship right from the start. My mother didn’t want to marry him and Actually, there’s kind of a good story as to why my parents got married to begin with. My dad had immigrated here from Kolkata. And he was he had he had gotten a job in New Jersey; his I think it was an engineering job. And he put an ad in a newspaper called I think it was Porat Mac matrimony and my grandmother, and my mother doesn’t - my grandmother on my mother’s side, they were living in Toronto. My grandmother is one of about a dozen women to answer this ad looking for a wife on behalf of my mother. My mother did not know that my, that her mother had responded to this ad. So, my dad sees this letter from my grandmother likes what she says about my mom. He says I’m going to marry this woman. So, he flies to Toronto to meet my mother. Essentially, my mother opens a door and says, “Who are you?” 


Sopan Deb 08:57

And my dad said, “Well, oh, I think we’re getting married.”


Sopan Deb 09:02

And that is essentially how my parents met. My mother didn’t want to marry my father. And she was pressured into it. But so, they had, they had, they were a bad match from the start just personality-wise. They never took the time to communicate or get to know each other. They had different interests, different worldviews, it was just never going to work. And so that was the relationship between them. So, we, you know, we didn’t eat dinner much together, or if we did, it was just silence the whole time. We didn’t know anything about each other, they didn’t know anything about us. My brother and I, he’s ten years older than me, his name’s Sattik, and he and I have always had a pretty good relationship. Um, but all part of that is also that he was out of the house because he’s ten years older than me from a lot of the top toxic parts, you know, so when I was eight, he had left for college. That was, so he was gone for a lot of my childhood. So, we just had a you know, so I think I think that’s partially why we were able to kind of maintain a good relationship and get to know each other a little bit, but so we’ve always been fine. My brother, you know, he’s a good guy. I’m sorry, my parents are good people too. They just, they just were not a good match for each other.


Milan Vaishnav 10:07

You know, you describe in a lot of detail the sense of alienation you felt growing up, you know, not just in your household, but at school and I guess in society more generally, you were just one of a handful of South Asians, and a high school graduating class of 400 plus. You describe sort of a feeling of sadness, but also of envy. How is this estrangement that you felt connected to what was going on at home? Because it seems like almost there was this conflation between your brownness and the family life at home and you had a bunch of white kids you went to school with and they seem to have good family lives and so was that the connection that you were kind of making at the time? 


Sopan Deb 10:46

Oh, 100%. I mean, here’s, I’ll never forget this. When I was in sixth grade, so this is when I was probably about 12 years old, I had just moved to this town called Howell New Jersey. This is where I spend a lot of my childhood. It’s right by Point Pleasant beach, you know, it’s kind of southern New Jersey. I went over, I met this kid named Sean, who’s now one of my best friends, but he was kind of my first real friend, and he invites me over his house for dinner. And so, the white family and they all sit around, and we’re having tacos. And, and, well, you know, I start saying something and Wendy, who is Shawn’s mother. So, whoa, hold on. We haven’t talked about our days yet. And, and so everyone went around the table, this is you know, Shawn’s mom and dad and his brother and Shawn. They all talked about their days. “Oh, today I had science class, and this and that, and I had practice after school or whatever.” And I remember just being utterly baffled by what was happening in front of me, like, what is this? And, and so, there was a lot of that, right. And I, you know, I see other friends who are getting coached and literally by their fathers or, you know, the list goes on and on and encouraging them to pursue creative things. Or whatever. And it wasn’t like that. And because I grew up in a mostly white town, I’d look around and be like, wow, being white seems great. I want to be. And over time internally, I was like, you know what, I’m maybe brown on the outside, I’m going to be white on the inside. Now, I’m not saying that’s right. I’m not saying that’s rational. I’m saying that that’s how it manifests itself. So, essentially, you know, I just conflated, you know, whiteness with safety and warmth. And that’s not correct, you know, but it was, that’s how it kind of burned itself in my mind, you know, when I was 16, 17, 18 years old.


Milan Vaishnav 12:38

Not to mention that you get a fair amount of envy, and this summer, I can totally relate to you about the white kids’ lunches at school.


Sopan Deb 12:45

Yeah, you know, this is - so in kindergarten, I remember. You know, my, you know, a lot of kids around me would have like, you know, Dunker Roos and I think that was something big back then. You know, like, they have these iconic cool lunches, and then my mom would give me like, a slice of cheese. And that was lunch. I’d be like, Damn, like every day. Like in America, it was like this slice of cheese. What are we doing here, man? Like, can I get chicken nuggets or something? You know? You know, and I don’t think that’s unique to unique to, you know, my brown experience. A lot of brown kids have like, lunch envy, you know? So? Yeah, so that’s definitely that was definitely something that stood out as I was growing up.


Milan Vaishnav 13:30

So, when you were in high school, your parents ultimately divorced. You went to college at Boston University, but you grew sort of further and further apart from them. You didn’t really know what they were up to, where they lived. You know, you recall that when you’d see your dad’s name on your caller ID, you would sort of cringe. You know, in all of this time leading up to this point, you know, had you ever confronted your parents about this kind of separation, or was it something that just remained sort of swept under the rug?


Sopan Deb 13:59

You mean, before the book process?


Milan Vaishnav 14:04

Before the book process. So, you’re sitting there in college, you know, you mentioned that I think your mom never came to visit you, your dad maybe came once or twice. And at some point, did you ever sort of feel this frustration or like, you know what, I’m just going to confront them and say like, what’s the deal? This isn’t normal, right? Where’s our relationship? Why don’t we talk?


Sopan Deb 14:22

No, never. I mean, we never. I mean, we’re talking. When we talk about estrangement. We barely spoke. When we spoke, it was about, like, the weather and what I ate that day. And that was the extent to which our conversations would go. You know, we rarely spoke about anything real. Well, you know, I mean, look, but, you know, before as I started writing the book, I didn’t not only did I not know where they were living, I didn’t know anything about them. I didn’t know their birthdays. I didn’t know. You know, how they came to this country, how they met who, who was our total extended family, you know, what they were like as children what they wanted to do, what college did they go to college, you know, I didn’t know any of that stuff. So, we were more like these kind of acquaintances, and it never even occurred to me to ask, ask those questions of which you just mentioned.


Milan Vaishnav 15:05

You know, the heart of the book really revolves around a trip that you and your now fiancé, Wesley, take to India. You’re there to attend a friend, a friend’s wedding, but you kind of use the opportunity to reconnect with your dad and reestablish a relationship with him. Tell us what it felt like, you know, you’re stepping off the plane in Kolkata seeing him after all of that time, in the book you kind of joked that it was the worst kind of semi-blind date, you know, take us to that scene, what was going through your head?


Sopan Deb 15:32

So, the context here is that it had been 11 years since I’d see my father. The last time I saw that my father, you know who it was 2007. I was a freshman at Boston University, and my dad came to visit me, and he didn’t look well. He looked kind of haggard. He looked like life had kind of beaten him down, and he was just kind of, you know, whatever. But I, I, you know, we had kind of one of our silent lunches. He got me some groceries, then he went on his way. And then a couple weeks later he left for India without telling anybody. H just left. And I had for 11 years and never asked him why he left. You know what, you know where he was. And in fact, when we decided to reconnect with him, I had to ask him where to book the ticket to, because I didn’t know where in India he was living. 


Sopan Deb 16:19

And the reason I mentioned all that is that I assumed that he would look like a version of himself. That was 11 years worse than what I saw in 2007. So, I was expecting I was like, is he going to have a walker? Is he going to have you know if maybe he got remarried? Is he going to have this like, kind of white beard? Like, what is he going to look like? What does this, you know? What does he look like? And when we get off the plane in Kolkata, and we’re standing on the sidewalk outside. Now, keep in mind I’ve never been to India. So, there’s you’re greeted with this kind of chaos that is, can be very unsettling at first. Um, I see my dad striding towards us. 


Sopan Deb 16:58

Now, the other thing to think about is my dad sent me a picture a couple days before we landed. That was like, here’s what I look like now in case you look at it when you’re looking in case you forget. And, and the picture has my dad wearing these big sunglasses, and a big baseball cap, which is like the exact picture you send someone when you don’t want to be recognized. And, and so I saw I really didn’t know what to expect. So, we land, and I see this guy striding towards us. And my dad looked great. His arms were toned, full head of hair, he’s wearing a dress shirt. You know, he’s telling us that he does yoga and plays tennis three times a week and, you know, golfing, he’s part of a [inaudible]. He was active. I mean, it was as if, like, he didn’t have time for us. It was I was so shocked to see this kind of rebuilt version of my father that you know, I was it was really shocking, frankly, and I give him a lot of credit for kind of reinventing himself. But there’s a part of that, like, we know where was this version of you for the last 30 years of my life? So, it was very, it was quite shocking, really. 


Milan Vaishnav 18:13

And you know, it’s sad to note, like every good Indian uncle, one of the first things your dad tells you is that you look kind of different. You put on weight.


Sopan Deb 18:21

Yeah. And then and he did that a bunch of times. It was fine. He didn’t mean anything by it. It was just like, over that, you know, we were supposed to go to that wedding, and every time we went shopping for wedding clothes, and he goes, he goes, “Yeah, I bought you all these wedding clothes, but I have to buy you new clothes because none of them will fit you.” There was quite a bit of that.


Milan Vaishnav 18:43

So, you and Wesley spent several days in Kolkata with your dad. Then the three of you travel across North India on a sightseeing trip. You go to Jaipur, you go to Delhi, you go to Agra. At some point on that trip, in one of your many conversations, your dad asks you, you know, did we ever disconnect our relationship? And he sort of starts by answering his own question by saying, you know, well, maybe from your side, but it seems like as much as you were trying to find closure from talking to your dad, do you think that he was trying to get the same from you, like sort of, you know, find closure on his own end?


Sopan Deb 19:13

That’s a good question. I don’t know. I think my dad, if he had a core goal from this trip, it was to connect with me for the first time in a meaningful way. Because I think my dad never thought he’d see me again. I don’t think my father I, you know, in fact, I didn’t think I’d see my father again. I think my dad was just so thrilled to have this experience with me. Anything beyond that, any other whether it’s closure or whatever, I think he would have considered that a cherry on top. But his primary goal was to just spend this time with me, because I don’t think he’d ever thought he was going to have that. And I think about it. Think about as I learned about kind of the life he’s been living, I think a lot about the he is at his core, a very, very lonely man. You know, he spent a lot of his life on his own, even if he was surrounded by people. I think that when he moved to India, you know, he’s lived by himself for the last 11 years. Something that really stuck out to me was this notion of, he traveled by himself quite a bit. And when we traveled to Jaipur, Agra, Delhi wherever it was the first time in his life - and this is a man that’s almost eighty - He had never traveled with someone who was not a tour group person. You know, in his life. It was his first time you travel with someone that was going out of their way to travel with him, and that really stuck with me. 


Sopan Deb 20:46

And, to your point about closure, here’s an interaction that always stuck out to me. I will carry this moment with me for the rest of my life. Near the end of the trip, I asked my father to record a video message to his grandchildren. So, meaning, you know, me and Wesley’s children if that ever happens, you know, just in case they never get to meet him, or, you know, I’d like to pass on something to them of my father. So, we turn on the iPhone, and my dad says something along the lines of, you know, they must learn about India. And I was like, “Yeah, okay, dad, you know, I was kind of hoping that you’d say something about, you know, advice, giving advice, you know, maybe that they should be kind or, you know, you know, not about like academics, you know, what do you have? How do you want them to live your life, live your life?”


Sopan Deb 21:29

He goes, “That's it. I want them to learn about India." And it occurred to me in that moment when he was in India, he meant himself, like, he - but he was too proud to say he wanted me to pass him on to them. He wants me to tell my kids about him. And, and because for all this time, my dad was under the impression that you know, we'd have kids, and we would never tell our kids about my father and where my kids came from. And that was a really profound moment in this in this in this journey because it really illustrated how big our gap was, and what my dad thought the gap was as well, and how what he resigned himself to and that's, that's something that has stayed with me ever since we had that exchange.


Milan Vaishnav 22:18

I mean, I want to ask you about your mom as well, who's living in New Jersey, you discuss, you know, the mental health issues that your mom endured, but that you guys never really spoke openly about. Again, it's another kind of taboo subject, just like divorces in the South Asian community. You know, I think at one point, I think he may have been in middle school. You didn't speak to your mom for almost an entire year. She just kind of stayed in her room whenever she was at home. Do you ever think about how things might have been different had she gotten the help that she needed? Is that something that that you guys have talked about? Is that something that you've sort of pondered?


Sopan Deb 22:56

I ponder it every day. I mean, every day I ponder this. Every day I think about what would have happened if someone in my mom's life in the '60s and '70s, '80s said, "Hey, you know, let's go see a counselor. Let's go get you some help." You're clearly, you know, there's clearly some stuff going on here, what, you know, we all use a lot, not just my mom, my dad, and my brother, and me.


Sopan Deb 23:28

And my parent's generation, especially for immigrants. I think therapy is something that was looked at as for like, quote, unquote, you know, crazy people, you know, and that's, that's not, you know, the case. Right? It, you know, that's not, you know, I think my parents, it's not so much that they rejected therapy. It's more that they didn't even have the language to know what it did or how it could help or what it is and who it treats. 


Sopan Deb 23:56

And so yeah, I think about that all the time. But it starts with my mother. I think my mother needed to want it. And I didn't know that. I don't know that she knew that she needed it. You know, I don't think she knew that exists as a viable option. But remember this, right? Like our parents, you know, my parents came here to survive. They wanted to get to the end of the day, you know, they're worried about putting food on the table. They're worried about paying bills, because they didn't come here with much. I grew up in middle class in Jersey suburb, I didn't worry about where my next meal was coming from. You know, I lived in a house. I didn't worry about, you know, I didn't worry about that stuff. I had the freedom to think about my emotions, and to think about "Oh, I'm sad today. You know, I'm going to you know, I got dumped today. I'm going to be sad about it. I'm going to talk to people about it. I would like to be a comedian, so I'm going to pursue that. You know, that's going to be my thing." My parents never had the mental you know, freedom to really think about it because they were so worried about surviving. So, I so I do wish my parent my parents both got that treatment, they started to feel needed, but they just, you know, they just didn't know that existed or didn't know that it was a viable option for them.


Milan Vaishnav 25:06

You know, Sopan, obviously, this story is about your family, it's about your life, it's sort of unwise or dangerous maybe even to kind of generalize this to the broader South Asian community. But, and the last chapter of your book, you have this to say, and I want to just read this quote. "A significant portion of the South Asian experience is about seeming a certain way to give off the impression of stability and status at the expense of emotional needs." And that's something that really struck a chord with me, you know, unpack that for us. What do you mean by that?


Sopan Deb 25:39

You know, so in the first half of my childhood, I lived in a place called Randolph, New Jersey, which is about two hours north of where, Howell, where I ended up moving to, but, you know, another North Jersey suburb, you know, and there were a lot more Bengalis around, and so I was part of the Bengali community, and it would strike me how much my mom would give off this impression of a happy, thriving family and how everyone would kind of be almost felt like she everyone's trying to one-up each other. 


Sopan Deb 26:11

"Oh, my son's taking piano lessons." 


Sopan Deb 26:13

"Oh, well, my son's taking violin lessons, you know." 


Sopan Deb 26:15

And it felt like all my accomplishments were not mine. They were my parents’ accomplishments because they want to kind of give off this image of a family that has achieved the American dream. And in some ways, right? My parents did achieve the American dream, which is they immigrated here, they raised two kids that are pretty successful. They've done okay. You know, my dad made it as an electrical engineer. You know, he had a very successful career for 20-30 years, however long he did it for. But, you know, it was always giving off this impression of happiness that I think was kind of at it was putting up a facade in so many ways. I feel like I see that a lot with Indian parents. 


Sopan Deb 27:04

Now, with that being said, you know, as I've always, I always feel like I have to give this caveat, but it's an important caveat. You know, my story is not the story of all Indians, or all South Asians, or all South Asian parents, there are plenty of, you know, South Asian parents that are perfectly healthy, have a healthy relationship with each other, have a healthy relationship with their children and all that stuff. I'm just speaking from my own experience, from my own experience, there seemed to be this kind of community pressure to seem a certain way, to seem successful, it seemed happy to seem like you're, you know, your kid is, you know, doing great at all times. So, that's what I mean by seeming a certain way. Um, it just felt disingenuous some of the time, a lot of the time really when we were growing up.


Milan Vaishnav 27:53

So, I have to ask you, you know, the book is out. Your parents kind of watched you in a way you know, write it or at least, you know, do the research for it. Have they had a chance to read the book? And if so, you know, what do they make of it?


Sopan Deb 28:08

Um, they have read the book, they read a manuscript of it about a year ago. So, the context, you know, I feel like I keep giving you context, I apologize. Um, so I told them upfront, you know, that, that I was doing this the entire time, I was very communicative. Like, we're doing a book, I'm tracking this whole process, and it's going to be the unvarnished truth about our family. You know, it's going to be hard, it's, I'm not going to leave much out, you know, this is going to be, you know, my truth or whatever. They both had very complicated reactions Because a process like this requires all parties to look inward, you know, and requires all parties to kind of look in the mirror, and everyone has very varying abilities to do that.


Sopan Deb 28:54

So that was definitely the case for my parents. It was the case for me. You know, whatever. Ultimately, I think it was very difficult for them to see how difficult my childhood was on paper and how difficult our family was on paper. Ultimately, I think they came around and understood what I was trying to do. My dad had a particularly funny reaction after reading it, which was he goes, "You wrote a book. I'm proud of you. You've inspired me to write my own book, and I shall take your help with it." And, and he, so he has been ever since reading my book, he has now been penning his own autobiography called "My story" or something like that. And he wants he's going to send me his notes, and he wants me to write them up because his English is, you know, not that good. Not amazing. So, they both have very complicated reactions ultimately understood what I was trying to do. And, you know, I also would say that this process is ongoing. This isn't a hallmark movie. This thing is not overnight. You know, this is going to be years, years of relationship healing, whether they're going to be peaks and valleys, and you know, we've had our moments that are difficult. We've had our moments that are great. It's just, it's just, you know, you can't erase 30 years of what is essentially estrangement and trauma in the course of a year there are several, you know, steps that have to happen before that. 


Milan Vaishnav 30:20

This book is a story of getting to know your family, of course, but it's also about figuring out who you really are. You know, when you worked in television, you covered a heated Trump rally on the 2016 campaign trail where you were famously, or infamously, manhandled by the Chicago cops. And you write in the book that your skin color never felt as hot as it did when the Trump campaign went to Chicago. You know, that feeling of being different, of being so aware about your brownness, about your skin color, that that feeling you felt so intensely as a child? Does that still resonate with you, does it still stick with you in the year 2020 given where we are in our own country, In our socially divisive politics? I mean, do you feel that same sense of you know, I'm different, and I look different, and I feel different?


Sopan Deb 31:07

Yeah. 100% for several, for several, several reasons. I mean, ever since the Chicago arrest changed my mindset a lot, but even just since then, I'm hyper-aware of it in a way that I don't think I was hyper-aware before 2016. Especially, you know, during the Trump administration, like, you know, when I come to the Trump campaign, I remember, you know, somebody coming up to me and asking me if I was a member of ISIS, right? Or somebody came up to me and told me to go back to Iraq, which, you know, I'm not Middle Eastern, and even if I was that's a totally inappropriate thing to say. 


Sopan Deb 31:48

So yeah, I'm hyper-aware of it now. I'm, so I'm also hyper-aware of are kind of it in the book world, right, like, you know, it's hard. It's harder as a person of color to get a book, let's say even bought and I'm very thankful Harper Collins did, but it wasn't easy to sell this book. Um, it's not easy, you know this is a book that has been mostly ignored by book critics in the country. You know, because a lot of book critics are white and they may not resonate, maybe they don't find the story interesting. Um, you know, just, you know, just in this kind of narrow, narrow world, I think about this quite a bit. Like if you know, because I see a lot of, let's say, white writers, writing memoirs, and you know, and I see you know, glossy reviews and like, you know, a bunch of outlets and I'm like, "Huh, that's interesting." And so, you can't help but wonder, look in the mirror and go, “Oh, this is because I am different? Is this because the people that are, you know, making these decisions don't look like me?” So, I've been hyper-aware of it in many different worlds, many different ways going back to 2016. And I will say I should say, but that is not a credit to me or, you know, what's crazy to me is like, how are you not more aware of it before 2016. And that's, that kind of goes to show you the level of my identity crisis. You know, up until that point.


Milan Vaishnav 33:13

My guest on the show today is the New York Times journalist Sopan Deb, author of the brand-new memoir, "Mistranslations: Meeting the Immigrant Parents Who Raised Me." Sopan, thanks so much for coming on the show. This was a really painful read in many ways, but one that I immensely enjoyed. It was so well done so well written. And you know, I think, like many of our readers, you know, I'm eager anyway, that to figure out sort of what the next chapter is, the next door in your family, with your parents. So, thanks so much for sharing that with us. And thanks for coming on the show.


Sopan Deb 33:42

Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed this.


Milan Vaishnav 33:47

Grand Tamasha is a co-production of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Hindustan Times. You can find us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast. Don't forget to rate and review; it helps others find the show more easily. For more information about the show and to find the writing we referenced on this week's episode, visit our website Production assistance comes from Megan Maxwell and Rachel Osnos. Tim Martin is our audio engineer, and Lauren Dueck is our executive producer. Thanks for listening and see you next week.