This article is part of Asian American Identity Series.
There’s an iconic moment at the start of the first season of Gilmore girls, when Rory Gilmore stops by her best friend Lane Kim to borrow a CD. Lane, a brave The Korean American teenager played by Keiko Agena, obliges by lifting loose floorboards in her bedroom to reveal a massive collection of secular rock and roll albums that her religious mother will not allow her to consume.
I myself was not allowed to consume Gilmore girls Either, which has a slightly outrageous premise: it follows Rory and her 30-year-old single mother, Lorelai, who got pregnant as a teenager. Parenthood out of wedlock was not tolerated in my Indian immigrant home – or Lane’s. (As Lane tells Lorelai, Ms. Kim âdoesn’t trust single women.â) Nonetheless, I watched Gilmore girls surreptitiously, and instinctively, liked Lane’s rebellious hijinks. She invents codes and elaborate alibis to make a single phone call with a boy. She’s planning a secret KGB-worthy fall for Rory to deliver Belle and Sebastian’s new single when she’s grounded to date. She tries to “come out” to her mother as a rebel a few times – once by memorably dyeing her hair purple, then repainting it black in terror; another time calling Ms. Kim intoxicated and declaring her intoxication.
When I was in graduate school, a white man once read my fiction and noted that my characters – second-generation South Asian teens growing up in a socially conservative immigrant bubble – were indulging in “contained debauchery.” , as if they should have been a little hard core. Lane’s debauchery might have seemed contained to a stranger, but I know it was very serious to her.
In Lane’s plots, I recognize an exaggerated version of the code change that some immigrant children cultivate as a survival strategy, and in Ms. Kim’s adamant responses, I see a familiar portrayal of a mother determined to protect her child. against the ungodly American. trifecta of alcohol, drugs and dating. Like Lane, I loved art, often art that adults in my community disapproved of; like Lane, I have sequestered my tastes under the proverbial floors. Like Mrs Kim, who ends up (and heartbreakingly) uncovers Lane’s secret hiding place and unravels years of lies – and, hurt and scared, fears she’s lost her daughter – my parents have become aware of my various bad behaviors. and my shoddy cover-ups. And finally, like the Kim’s, who find a tenuous peace as Lane enters my twenties, my family and I began to learn how our sometimes divergent values ââcan coexist now that I’m an adult.
And yet I had nothing of that language when I watched Gilmore girls when it was first broadcast in the early 2000s. As a teenager, I couldn’t see myself in Lane. I didn’t even consider myself an âAsian Americanâ except when I had to check off a box on a standardized form. It was not until I returned to the Gilmore girlsIn the utopian setting of Stars Hollow, Connecticut, during my post-vaccination haze this spring, I realized how complex my feelings about Lane are, and how they mimic the complexities I feel about claiming the term “Asian American”.
Growing up, I was only Indian – not even “South Asian” (a term I learned in college). And there were probably more material differences than similarities between Lane and me. My parents are Hindus, not Christians like the Kims – Mrs. Kim’s rigid Seventh-day Adventism (based on Gilmore girls the real life of producer Helen Pai) would have been deeply bizarre in my house. My upper-middle-class Ivy League American-Indian bubble looked more like Rory’s chic white prep school than Ms. Kim’s antique store. I went to Yale and became a reporter like Rory. Lane is not finishing college; the one her mother briefly sends her to is a Christian school that bans nail polish and spicy condiments.
Other than religion and class, we just weren’t alike; we couldn’t pass each other and we wouldn’t be mingled with carpool moms who often swapped my name for other indian girls. (Notably, Agena and Emily Kuroda, who plays Ms. Kim, are Americans of Japanese and non-Korean descent, suggesting that the series confused East Asians – a practice that was all too common 20 years ago. and which persists today.) The languages ââof our parents and the foods of the family were distinct. The fact that our two roots could be traced to the eastern half of Eurasia didn’t seem relevant, given the size of this landmass. My priority during these years was not to identify opportunities for solidarity with other people. It was hard enough to articulate who I was right to myself.
My teenage ambivalence about the unwieldy term “Asian American,” which includes Bangladeshis, Bhutanese, Thais, Taiwanese and everyone in between, is not unique. Many Asian Americans feel numb or even irritated by the phrase âAsian American,â which does not sum up so many diverse cultures. And while my subject matter here is a feel-good comedy drama, the epithet mismatch has high stakes and a real story beyond Stars Hollow. The ‘model minority’ narrative that all Asians are like rich and successful Indians, for example, can shape policy that deprives the poorest Asians of their rights like Hmong students.
And recently, some South Asians felt that those calling for “stop the hatred of AAPI” following the attacks on East Asians had not appealed to the same rage when four Sikh workers been murdered in an Indianapolis FedEx. South Asians have a particularly puzzling racial history of being classified, at various intervals, as Black, Caucasian, Asian and none of the above.
Personally, I feel a kind of dizziness about âAsian Americaâ. I read the history of AAPI, contributed to AAPI playlists, wrote AAPI think pieces and wrote an AAPI novel, and yet at times all the talk on the label make me feel like I’m spinning on the spot, going nowhere again, only making me sick.
When, while I was feverish from the second dose of Pfizer, I turned on Gilmore girlsI had no intention of thinking about how “Asian America” ââworks for me. I was already sick. I had fled to Stars Hollow for the comfort it provides, not to analyze it. But the scenery for the show looked different 15 years after I first saw it. Suddenly I realized that I didn’t share anything inherent in Lane. Some might see in our two stories something essentially âAsianâ – the apocryphal âtiger parentsâ, a desire for assimilation. But these are not, of course, racial qualities. They are social. What I share with Lane is not the Eastern roots – it is the self-awareness with which we must react, respond and relate to America, as strangers to this country.
The Kims and Sathians have defined parts of ourselves in a cue to traditional white America, making it a comedic pendulum: adults ban rock music or TV shows that recognize premarital sex ; children are looking for contraband. It sounds like a synecdoche of how the Asian-American identity was formed – in a reactive way. Although the term “Asian American” was coined by radical leftist students of the 1960s building a âCoalitionâ of identities (as the poet Cathy Park Hong said) to resist imperialism and capitalism, the Asians were regrouped before uniting us. Racist US policies have intermittently banned migration from Asia for a century and a half and continue to make Asians perpetual strangers or traitors (see: Manzanar; Guantanamo Bay; Covid-related attacks last year) .
It can sometimes feel like we’ve been legislated or sociologized into an identity rather than embracing it ourselves, which could be why Lane – and I – took artistic self-invention seriously. . But after all this, we are often still marginalized. This dynamic even played out inside Gilmore girls himself – Lane has always been the B-plot of the A-plots of the Whites, and the fan consensus is that his arc shifted as the series progressed through Rory’s WASPy Yale world.
Often the contemporary discourse of representation suggests that the point of bringing minorities to the screen is to provoke something like a second mirror scene. By seeing someone who “looks like” us on television or in the movies, our identities are theoretically validated. But a lot of what’s interesting about relating with others happens in the space between what we recognize and what we don’t. And maybe that’s an Asian American way of thinking – that the work and joy that comes with it happens in this weave and bob, in the movement between being crammed in and choosing to come together. But then again, maybe I just need to justify the hours I spent at Stars Hollow.
Sanjena Sathian is the author of the novel Gold diggers. Her fiction has also appeared in Conjunctions, Boulevard, Salt Hill Journal, The Master Review and Joyland, and she has written non-fiction for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Time, Food & Wine, The Los Angeles Times, etc.