The other night, I was walking in downtown San Francisco after a work event near two other pedestrians, two men probably in their mid twenty’s. I could overhear parts of their conversation when one of them said, “I hate technology. I forwarded the email to her, and then she posted it on …….”. It seemed to be a discussion about singles, dating, and technology and the first thing I thought about was, of course, Aziz Ansari!
On September 7, 2013, I attended a comedy show of acclaimed comedian and Parks and Recreation star Aziz Ansari at the Victoria Theater in Dayton, Ohio. The evening started out with a funny bit where Ansari allows the audience to take a picture of him on stage, a practice that had just previously been announced as prohibited. Ansari wondered why fans were so eager for a picture that would inevitably be blurry and sure enough here’s my requisite blurred photo.
Aziz Ansari’s Comedy
Ansari then began his act and the majority of his comedy was about dating and relationships in today’s era of smartphones and texting. Ansari emphasizes the awkwardness and difficulty of dating in modern life, drawing upon some of his own experiences, those of his friends and even through reading an audience member’s texts on her phone. The audience, made up of primarily single young adults, truly responded to the act and thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Even long time married audience members like myself could enjoy the social commentary of how texting changes the ebb and flow of relationships, changes the power dynamic, and creates new uncertainties and anxiety in the dating process.
In this article, Ansari talks about his fascination of how modern technology fits in today’s world of romance.
I’m super-fascinated by how texting and modern technology have made the early stages of our romantic interactions frustrating—that roller coaster of emotions you go through when you text some girl you are into, asking about dinner. You don’t hear back for hours, and you are going crazy . Then you look on Instagram, and she’s, like, posting a photo of her dog and you’re like, What the f*#!? Why are you Instagramming photos of your puppy, you rude piece of s*#!? Respond to my text! I started talking about stuff like that and was stunned by how much it seemed to resonate—such a specific, modern conundrum that has become almost universal. In a few hours of no texting, you can go from elation at meeting someone to total horror and anger.
Furthermore, Ansari has been given an advance of $3.5M from Penguin Press to write a book on this topic. Here’s how the publisher describes the book:
The untitled book, which is expected to be published in September 2015, “will provide an investigation into what Ansari argues is an entirely new era for singles, in which the basic issues facing a single person — whom we meet, how we meet them, and what happens next — have been radically altered by new technologies.”
At first glance, it feels quite surprising that a comedian like Ansari would be able to credibly write such a social commentary about dating. But when you peel back the onion, it isn’t that surprising for an intelligent, socially curious comedian to be able to do so. As a comedian, Ansari is constantly observing and finding humor in the the human condition. And being single in New York, he’s likely experienced the trials and tribulations of the dating game in perhaps the most competitive and challenging place in the country to build relationships. As Scott Moyers from Penguin Press says,
So much of Aziz Ansari’s brilliant humor comes from grasping the hidden forces that govern our everyday lives. I’m delighted but not surprised that he is the one who is going to make sense of the strange new world that singles have to navigate today.”
Now, what I really find surprising about this book and the willingness of both the public and publisher to have Ansari serve as an expert on dating in the decade of the twenty tens is not that he is a comedian, but that he is an Indian American.
Aziz Ansari’s Indian American Background
Ansari was born in 1983 in Columbia, South Carolina to immigrant professional parents from the state of Tamil Nadu in India. South Carolina will never be thought of as a hotbed for Indian Americans, which is evidenced by the 2010 Census which shows that in Columbia, there were 878 Indians, or 0.7% of the total city population. And undoubtedly, during his teenage years when Ansari was growing up there, the Indian population would have been even lower. Admittedly, I haven’t read in any interview any mention of Ansari’s dating life in South Carolina, but given that level of diversity, it’s unlikely that any Indian American, even a funny, handsome one, would have been in dating demand. Furthermore, the cultural values of Indian parents that generally frown upon dating and the social status of the typical academic minded 2nd generation Indian teenage child to immigrant parents, would generally preclude an Indian from being part of the popular crowd in a less diverse community.
Given that background, it does feel like an unexpected and remarkable development that an Indian American, raised in South Carolina, will be writing a credible book about broad, mainstream dating and relationships applicable to all races, ethnicities, and ages in the US in today’s era. Given his celebrity status, the book certainly will have a media blitz preceding its release, consisting of interviews on programs and outlets like the Today show, Extra, CNN and all of the other usual media suspects and could cement Ansari as a spokesperson for dating in the twenty tens.
Of course, without the celebrity comedian status, it’s not clear if another young Indian American could garner visibility as a dating and relationship commentator for all Americans today. But there are more and more cases today where you see Indian Americans in the public eye who weren’t as famous as Ansari was before they became notable in their particular public field. Examples such as Sanjay Gupta as a health care expert on CNN, here in the Bay Area with Raj Mathai as a local news and sports anchor, actors on mainstream sitcoms such as Mindy Kaling and Kal Penn, and authors and journalists such as Checklist Manifesto author Atul Gawande. Indian Americans have had notable contributions and been recognized at the top of their field for decades now in fields such as medicine, academia, science, mathematics, and business, but sustained notoriety in public facing fields such as media and entertainment feels like a new phenomenon. And particularly in an area such as social commentary on dating habits for all Americans where Indians wouldn’t be expected to be taken seriously, that is a major shift in the placement of Indian Americans in American society.
National Asian Indian Sammelan- Dayton, Ohio 1993
Ansari’s show was held at the Victoria Theater in downtown Dayton, just a few blocks from the Crowne Plaza Hotel of Dayton. Twenty years ago in 1993, I was part of the organizing committee of a national conference for young Indian Americans held at that very Crowne Plaza Hotel.
The National Asian Indian Sammelan, 1993, held in Dayton, Ohio was a conference for young Asian Indian American adults, mostly age 18-30, exploring professional, personal, and life issues that this coming of age group was beginning to face. Generally, the audience of this conference was second generation Americans, whose parents had immigrated to the US in the 1960’s and 1970’s. This group was often the first set of young Asian Indian Americans who had been born and raised in the US, were recent high school or college graduates, and were beginning to face critical decisions such as career choice and marriage options. The specific objectives of the conference centered around the following topics within the South Asian Diaspora.
- Acculturation and Assimilation issues
- Career Choice
- Political Activism
- Marital Choices
- Gender Equality
As I think back to that conference and the unexpected irony of Ansari’s show about dating life being held only blocks away from the conference setting, I naturally assessed the progress over the last 20 years against those objectives. And right in front of me is Case study #1. Ansari, an Indian American from South Carolina, holding a mainstream comedy show in Dayton, Ohio, about dating life in today’s era, while never mentioning being Indian as part of his routine on dating, is remarkable change against those objectives in the last 20 years, particularly around Objective # 1, #2, #3. While some would debate whether Ansari’s dating expertise is one of the desired areas of assimilation, the fact that it could happen is a clear example of acculturation and assimilation, plus evidence of diversity in career choice and path to marital choices. While there is certainly a ways to go, as evidenced by the backlash from a few mis-guided vocal critics on Twitter against the recent Indian- American Miss America winner Nina Davulur as not being American enough to hold such a crown, Ansari’s example is certainly a comforting sign that the mission and objectives of our conference are unfolding 20 years later!