When people ask me, "What's something most people don't know about you?," I often answer that I love comedy and I have a great sense of humour (in my opinion, at least).
I think we could all use more laughter, perhaps especially in January — and year three of a global pandemic. So today we're publishing advice from 24-year-old comedian Abby Govindan on how to disappoint your immigrant parents. (Even if your parents aren't immigrants, some of these tips will probably work for you.) And for more laughs, be sure to please follow Abby on Twitter @abbygov and Instagram @abbygovindan or catch her standup act when she's on tour in your city!
The most common question I get from Indian people when I tell them I’m a full-time comedian is “so, how do your parents feel about that?”
When my parents first made the decision to leave their life in India behind and immigrate to the United States in 1993, I was still just an “idea” in their head that they kept putting off until they felt ready.
I’m sure they fantasized about me. “I can’t wait to have a kid who graduates salutatorian of their high school class and studies political science at Yale.” That’s what I’m assuming my mom would say; she always said that she thought “valedictorian, biomedical engineering, Harvard” was really overdone in our community, but even in avoiding cliches, I know she had high hopes for me.
Unfortunately for them, I’m none of that. I wonder if, while they were packing for America, my dad looked up at my mom and went “hey, I know you’re gonna be thousands of miles away from everyone you know and love but I swear this is all really gonna be worth it when our first born daughter turns out to be some shit kid who gets obsessed with social media at age 14 and insists on telling subpar jokes on stage for a living.”
Fortunately for them, that shit ended up working out pretty well for me. But the road here has not been without strife. For all my fellow children of immigrants, I thought I'd put together a handy guide on something that comes to me pretty effortlessly: How to Disappoint Your Immigrant Parents Without Really Trying!
This is the ONLY thing that I feel like has to be more disappointing to a parent than being a comedian. If I sacrificed my livelihood to immigrate to a western country and my child spent their days writing poems about how they were traumatized by the one time their teacher couldn’t understand my accent, I would put them up for adoption expeditiously. Motherfucker, English is my eighth language but I’m so sorry that your second grade classmates made fun of your roti at lunch (that I made for you despite working a full time job by the way).
Ok, now let me focus on my own experience. Shortly after moving to Houston in 2006 when I was 9, my parents quickly settled into the Meenakshi Temple Society. They were beloved for being proactive with community events and friendly to newcomers. I, on the other hand, had a penchant for theatrics. Every Sunday, my parents would get a text from whatever adult volunteer had the misfortune of being my Vedic Heritage teacher that year. “Abhinaya spoke up against me in class again today, kindly teach your daughter to respect her elders.”
In my defense, I would only sow chaos when I felt it was absolutely necessary. When I was 13, I got yelled at by a teacher for telling her that she was being irresponsible about organizing our year-end play. In that way, I was a revolutionary. You wouldn’t ask Joan of Arc to “respect her elders.”
From a young age, I rejected my Indian heritage. I saw dating Indian boys as “uncool,” something my parents would want for me but I would never want for myself. I was entirely too smug for the whole 10 minutes my mom tried to patiently explain to my white high school boyfriend how to pronounce “mango lassi.”
Eventually I realized that dating men solely to smite my parents and reject my culture was childish. And so, I set out to find an Indian man who I could bond over cultural experiences with.
One day, I met him. The One. I fell in love with him harder than I ever thought possible. I watched my family learn to love him as if he was their own son. For once, I did something right.
And one day, he got up and left with no explanation other than “I’m not happy. I pretended to be for a long time, but I can’t pretend anymore.” I found myself questioning my own sanity. When I turned to my family for comfort, their words were knives to my throat. “You should be honored that he loved you enough to lie to keep you happy. You get annoyed too easily. Maybe next time you’ll learn to bite your tongue when you’re upset, that’s how you make it last.”
Who should I be more upset with? A long term ex who put up a facade for our entire relationship and turned out to be a complete stranger? My parents who see me as someone who should be tolerated instead of cherished and celebrated? Or the culture that teaches us that a dutiful woman sticks by her partner no matter the conflict?
This one’s pretty self explanatory.
I dated a guy in college for a little under a year who my parents told me I shouldn’t date. They didn’t dislike him, they just met him once and immediately told me they had a gut feeling that this Ivy League white boy finance major was going to break my heart. “You guys don’t know what you’re talking about, Josh is the love of my life.” (His name is actually Josh, that’s not fake. I could make a joke here about something being too on the nose but I am too high-caliber an internet comedian for such low-hanging fruit). Cut to exactly three weeks later when he ended things with me out of nowhere. (Yes, yes. I’m aware of the pattern). My parents are too nice to ever say “I told you so” directly to my face, but I imagine they were doing a lot of laughing and high-fiving behind the scenes.
They didn’t have too long to be smug about it though, because it took approximately 3 days for me to come back and tell them I was coping with my break up by… signing up for stand-up comedy classes.
Within a year of my decision to pursue stand-up comedy, I went viral on the internet. Though on the surface this seems like a blessing to a young aspiring comedian, it was mostly a curse. Going viral on the internet didn’t bring in any source of income but it did validate my desire to do comedy which are the two objectively worst things that could happen to my parents at the time. Suddenly they had a daughter who was acting a fool online for FREE and couldn’t be talked out of it any time soon because “don’t worry, the money will come eventually!”
On top of this, the growing resentment my parents had for me still being unemployed three months after graduating college was so palpable, you could taste it in the air anytime you stepped through our front door. I tried explaining to them that the job market in August 2019 (lol) was particularly bad, but all they knew is that all of their Indian friends’ kids were employed at Google and Deloitte and Goldman Sachs and I was still at home asking to borrow their credit card to buy chips at the corner store.
My days consisted of 90% arguments with my parents, so I started just avoiding being at home while they were awake. They always seemed slightly annoyed when I came home, almost like they wished I had been kidnapped. My existence felt like a nuisance. So one day, I decided to put an end to my own life. Or I tried to anyway. I took a whole bottle of sleeping pills but it turns out melatonin isn’t actually lethal because it’s a naturally occurring hormone. My psychiatrist couldn’t help but giggle a little before involuntarily committing me to the nearest psychiatric hospital for a week. Imagine being so stupid you can’t even kill yourself.
Something shifted though. I watched my parents realize that their words weren’t as weightless as they always thought. I watched them imagine a life without me and decide that it wasn’t a reality they wanted. Presumably because they love me a lot but maybe also because I imagine suicide is an awkward question to answer at parties. “What is your son up to these days?” “He’s CEO at Google! What about your daughter?” “Oh, she killed herself because she thought we didn’t like her.”
I also made a decision to be a better daughter. I wasn’t blameless in the situation by any means. Through therapy, we all learned to communicate and appreciate one another better. For example, I learned that they were never rooting for me to get kidnapped, they just wished I did the dishes more. They learned that I shared every doubt and misgiving they had about my career, but when I’m going out on a limb like this and chasing a dream, they needed to show the unconditional love and support of parental figures, no matter how hard that was for them emotionally or culturally. At the age of 22, I finally built a sustainable relationship with my parents.
I know, I know! It’s an Indian culinary staple. Imagine how humiliated my parents feel every time they have to explain at a dinner party that their daughter does not like the thing (fruit? vegetable?) that flavors a good 70% of dishes in an entire subcontinent.
I can only imagine they’re not too ecstatic about this one, but, as they’ve learned to do so well these last few years, they will still support me unconditionally because they know that this is what brings me happiness. This is a formal love letter to my parents, without whom none of this would be possible. I can’t wait to spend the rest of my life disappointing you guys in new, fun, and creative ways.