As I turned 30 years old, I realized I knew next to nothing about my Bengali parents, Shyamal and Bishakha. I did not know how old they were. I did not know their birthdays. I did not know how they met. I did not know how they came to the United States. I did not know how many brothers and sisters they had. In fact, at that moment, I was not sure even where they were living.
We never spoke growing up. Not really, anyway. My parents were arranged to get married in the 1970s. They were a toxic match from the start and as a result, my brother Sattik and I grew up in a New Jersey household in which our only family communication was mostly through shouting (and more). Everything else was silence. We rarely ate dinners together or went on family outings. We were distant acquaintances occupying the same space, speaking the same two languages, but ostensibly living apart. Shyamal and Bishakha did not divorce for many years, in part, because of how divorce is stigmatized in South Asian culture. They finally did when I was in high school. Soon after that, my father moved back to India without telling any of us. It didn’t take long for me to lose touch with my mother either. On my 30th birthday, I had not seen Shyamal in more than a decade and my mother in four years.
I did not know much about my parents, but I knew they were old. I did not want them to pass away without knowing their stories. So I set out to reconnect with them, a journey I’ve chronicled in my book, “Missed Translations: Meeting The Immigrant Parents Who Raised Me,” which comes out on April 21. The book tracks a year of my life in a journey that takes me from New Jersey to India, and I ask my parents hours worth of difficult questions. Why was my childhood like this? Why did my father leave the country? Why did my mother never seek therapy?
What emerges is a portrait of two human beings who were thrust into circumstances beyond their control: a result of cultural expectations and the immigrant experience which left them ill-prepared to deal with them. But what stuck out to me more than anything: The generation of South Asians who came before me – Shyamal and Bishakha, for example – came here to survive. They wanted to get to the end of the day. They were worried about putting food on the table. Me? I was able to explore things like “personal fulfillment” and “creative desires.” As I write in the book, it is the kind of privilege I never realized I had.
This book is not the story of all South Asians. Nor is it just for South Asians. It is a story for anyone who has a relationship with a family member, friend, coworker or acquaintance that should be better. “Missed Translations” explores the brown immigrant experience, mental health treatment and forgiveness. A journey like this requires a willingness to look inward, and for me, I realized I had also contributed to our cold family dynamic. The result of this journey was that Shyamal and Bishakha became my parents instead of distant footnotes in my life. That alone made this worth it.
To preorder Sopan’s book: https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062936769/missed-translations/
Sopan Deb is a writer for The New York Times and the author of the forthcoming memoir, “Missed Translations: Meeting The Immigrant Parents Who Raised Me,” coming out through Dey Street on April 21.
He is also a New York City-based comedian. Before joining the Times, Deb was one of a handful of reporters who covered Donald Trump’s presidential campaign from start to finish as a campaign embed for CBS News. He covered hundreds of rallies in more than 40 states for a year and a half and was named a “breakout media star” of the election by Politico.
At The New York Times, Deb has interviewed high profile subjects such as Denzel Washington, Stephen Colbert, the cast of Arrested Development, Kyrie Irving and Bill Murray. Deb’s work has previously appeared on NBC, Al Jazeera America and The Boston Globe, ranging from examining the trek of endangered manatees to following a class of blind filmmakers in Boston led by the former executive producer of Friends. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for a documentary he produced for the Boston Globe called “Larger Than Life,” which told the story about the NBA Hall of Famer Bill Russell’s complicated relationship with the city of Boston.