Interview: Author Uses Comedy to Document the Experience of Growing Up Indian in America

Sanjit Singh talks about his new book

No aspect of growing up Indian in America escapes Sanjit Singh's humor in his new book Are You Indian? A Humorous Guide to Growing Up Indian in America. From his Home in San Diego California, Singh shared with us his motivation for writing the book, how comedy and humor play a role in his life and how his uncles and aunties reacted to characters they inspired. 

Tell us a little about your first book, “Are You Indian? A Humorous Guide to Growing Up Indian in America.” What was your motivation/inspiration for writing this hilarious guide?

I feel like the oddest life experiences often make for the most interesting writing. Growing up in a different culture from that of my parents added a very interesting texture to the tapestry of my childhood. At the time, however, many of my experiences just seemed exceedingly awkward and unfortunate. Like most kids, I desperately wanted to fit in with my peers and appear to be hip and cool. The more I tried, however, the less successful I seemed to be. For example, it is difficult to qualify for the football team when you can’t eat enough curry to get above 100 lbs. I thought I would be extremely clever and try out for wrestling and capitalize on my tiny stature to dominate a light weight class. Unfortunately, an overzealous opponent pulled my arm out of its socket, dislocating my shoulder for the first, but not the last, time. During the few times when I felt like I was finally starting to fit in, a substitute teacher would call my name in class and say “San-shit” instead of “Sanjit.” Of course at the time I wanted to crawl in a deep ditch and pull dirt over me but, as they say, tragedy plus time equals humor. As I look back on all my cultural misadventures, I find much humor in it. In fact, one day, I was telling the “Peter” story from the book to an American friend and she was in tears laughing. I realized that I had many of these stories so I started writing them down wondering if there was a book there. And there was!

What role does comedy have in your life and your career?

Humor and music have always played a central role in my life. In fact, if I didn’t have Indian parents who thought these were impossible careers, I would probably be a comedian or musician. While my Indian American peers were studying for the SAT, I was memorizing routines of my favorite comedians or listening to music or singing. My Mom once kicked me out of the house while I was trying to teach myself to sing. So I went and sang in the car but she could still hear me so I had to drive across town out of earshot. I was still pushed towards medicine so I majored in Biology but added a second major in Psychology where I had more interest. I managed to grab myself by my giant Indian hair bouffant and pull myself out of the med school track into a career in business. I had convinced myself that comedy and music were foolish pursuits so today I run my own marketing firm. I neither let go of humor, as evidenced by this book, nor music, as evidenced by my daily pursuit of guitar mastery.

Why did you decide humor was the best way to document the experience of growing up Indian in America?

I don’t think that a serious book was really an option for me. I have always seen life through a humorous lens, a habit I likely picked up from my father. Also, there are already many brilliant Indian American authors who have written serious books about the diaspora experience. A humor book like this had never been done which is another aspect that attracted me to this project.

What do your Indian Aunties and Indian Uncles think about the book?

I’m actually rather shocked by the reception. I expected to get quite a bit of grief from Uncles and Aunties, especially those in my own family, since I mock their generation so thoroughly. However, nearly everyone I have spoken to seems to really like the book and find it amusing. I’ve talked to people ranging in ages from 13-80 and all of them seem to enjoy it and have a different favorite chapter. The online reviews have also been very kind. Everyone does chide me for making fun of Indian desserts but I definitely expected that. I think it was helpful to test the book in its various phases with both Indian and American audiences while I was writing it. I believe this kept me on track and helped me find the right tone for the book. I wanted to be respectful without compromising the comedic value of the writing.

Do you have any plans for a second book? I have three different ideas that I’m already beginning to sketch but haven’t made a decision yet. The direction I choose might depend on how the rest of this book tour goes. I would really like to write another book but it is getting tougher and tougher to do amid life’s other responsibilities. This was a labor of love and I would only write another book if I had the same passion for the material.