Like most people my age, I grew up watching “Full House.” Flat on our stomachs on the well-worn beige carpet, my sister, our neighbors, and I would gather after school and lie with our chins tucked between open palms, wrists falling asleep as the Tanners and their friends got up to their usual antics. One friend would pipe up, “I’m Michelle!” and everyone would rapidly lay claim to the three daughters’ characters, and before I knew it every desirable character was snatched up, leaving me to say, “I’m Joey.” I didn’t mind too much though; Joey was, after all, funny and beloved. And I’m sure a part of me realized that it didn’t make a lot of sense for me to claim that I was Michelle or Stephanie or DJ, since they looked nothing like me.
Brown-skinned and black-haired, I’ve always known that I don’t look like most of the faces that grace American television and movies. As a child, I’d secretly lament that my brown skin prevented a natural rosy flush to my cheeks. Taking a cue from the angelic-appearing woman on the toilet paper package in our home (think softly frizzy blond curls, pink cheeks, soft lighting–all very ‘90s), I used to wad it up and rub it on my cheeks, in hopes that doing so would impart that rosy glow–it didn’t, as it turned out.
As time wore on, I accepted and embraced the fact that I would always be different. I thrive upon diversity now and get a kick out of the various components that make me who I am. I usually enjoy being a representative of the various subgroups to which I can claim membership–Texan, Indian-American, immigrant, physician, woman, vegetarian, dog-lover, cilantro-hater. But I can’t help being amused at the vague generalizations applied to my several selves. Texan: Great barbecue! Hot weather! Rodeos! Physician: Brainiac! Lots of money! Lots of school! Indian-American: The colors! Spicy food! Do you speak Hindu? These misunderstandings are largely benign, so I can usually laugh at them. The problem, of course, is when vague generalizations are unaccompanied by a desire to learn more.
With the rest of my generation, I was reliving my childhood as I watched Netflix’s reboot of “Full House.” But my enjoyment abruptly turned to apprehension when, midway through the eleventh episode of the show, DJ asked Kimmy to throw an Indian-themed party in honor of her boss’s retirement. From the moment I heard DJ mispronouncing “Mumbai,” I knew that the rest of the show would be difficult to watch at best, and infuriating at worst. I wasn’t wrong.
For the remainder of the half-hour episode, the Tanner clan and their friends made a mockery of my culture by using one stereotype and generalization after another to put on a flashy show, rendering South Asian food, religious symbols, and traditions a fun diversion, instead of a three-dimensional culture developed over hundreds of years.
The attractive, all-white cast donned traditional Indian clothes, yet no women wore the traditional dupatta (a sash worn with most Indian clothing), because why worry about sartorial accuracy when you can highlight your stars’ midriffs and breasts with sparkly fabric? Kimmy and Stephanie inexplicably decorated a black and white dairy cow with flowers and set it loose in the backyard soiree. Yes, cows are sometimes decorated in India, and yes, many roam the streets there. But I can assure you that they make vanishingly rare appearances at South Asian gatherings of any sort. Yet again, cheap laughs were prioritized over thoughtful representation.
Imagine if the party had instead been “black-themed,” and the white characters had worn rapper-inspired bling, making references to Oprah and 2Pac and eating cornbread and watermelon. Imagine if it had been “Jewish-themed,” with dreidels strung from the trees and a chuppah in the corner, the characters dancing the Horah and eating bagels with lox. The hodgepodge of disparate signifiers of the culture, the lack of thought given to the appropriate attire and practices for the event–these are the sorts of things that made this episode of “Fuller House” so tone-deaf.
Perhaps the most offensive part of the episode was the “Indian accent” employed by DJ’s boss at moments that could only be described as random. As the child of immigrants, I am keenly aware of the judgments that people can make, the walls they can automatically put up, when a person speaks in an accented voice. I’ve seen people scowl when my parents start speaking, heard my father say that his accent, his otherness, places a certain ceiling on his ascendance in his career. What this aversion fails to recognize is that what makes my parents, and so many others like them, sound different, is what marks them as brave, strong, and adept at code-switching between cultures and countries.
Why are people still laughing at a signifier of such courage? Why is it okay for the show I watched as a child to continue to make me feel alienated, for its characters to put on the traditional clothes of my people like costumes and trot out our food and traditions and religious beliefs as mere props for their merrymaking? My culture is not a trinket to show off. It’s not a toy to be played with.
In 2009, when Slumdog Millionaire was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won eight, I found myself crying tears of joy when the cast gathered onstage to accept the Best Picture award. It was unexpectedly powerful to see brown-skinned people from South Asia being recognized on an American stage for an American award. It felt like I was being heard and seen by America in a way I never was before.
In the years since, personalities like Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari have risen to prominence, giving voice to immigrants, Indian-Americans, and, well, Americans—because having pigmented skin and a hyphenated identity doesn’t take away from being simply an American. In an entertainment climate in which the “Parents” episode of “Master of None” was nominated for multiple awards and struck a collective nerve across color lines, why did the people behind “Fuller House” think it was permissible and funny to build an entire episode around one-dimensional stereotypes of a multifaceted culture?
I’ll tell you why: because no one is saying that it’s not okay. So I’m saying it. It’s not okay to use a culture as a theme for a party, as if it were a color scheme. It’s not okay to laugh at non-Western accents, because there’s nothing funny about them. It’s not okay to Otherize and Orientalize and Fetishize, because doing so lays the groundwork for casual bigotry. In a time when Donald Trump is rising in the Republican presidential primary, buoyed in part by his divisive rhetoric, it’s irresponsible to further the perception that non-Western cultures—or cultures that differ from the so-called Mainstream in any way—are to be gawked at, tried on for size, and treated like objects instead of respected for what they are: a set of beliefs and traditions that define and inform the worldview of a group of people.
The sad truth is, I wasn’t surprised by the cultural appropriation in “Fuller House,” but that didn’t make me any less disappointed. Turns out that all these years later, I still can’t be Michelle. I don’t plan to watch any more episodes of the show. I don’t need another reminder that even though America is my chosen home, even though I’m a proud naturalized citizen of this country, to some people I still remain the title that my Greencard once gave me: Resident Alien.
Chaya Murali is a physician and writer living in Philadelphia. She was born in India but grew up in various cities in the United States, most recently Houston, TX. She enjoys alternative hip-hop, hates cilantro, and is terrible at riding a bike. One of her essays was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She can be found blogging at waitingfortheminotaur.