[WARNING: Spoilers for the second season of “Master of None” ahead.]
Religion is more than just a path to salvation for Indian immigrants to America. For many immigrant families, religion is a concrete and crucial source of cultural identity ― something that sounds, smells, and feels familiar in a country where everything is foreign. The Indian temples, mosques, gurdwaras, and churches that dot America’s religious landscape are a testament to how important that identity is to the first generation ― and how desperately those immigrants would like to pass their religion on to their children.
That’s why, when their kids begin to doubt, it’s a heartbreaking, painful situation all around.
Watching Ansari’s character gave me flashbacks to discussions with my own parents about religion, culture and doubt. I don’t think I’ve ever seen those conversations reflected on television in this way.
The third episode of Indian American actor Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None” explores this tension through film in an incredibly poignant way. As the child of Indian immigrants myself, watching Ansari’s character gave me flashbacks to discussions with my own parents about religion, culture and doubt. I don’t think I’ve ever seen those conversations reflected on television in this way.
The episode, titled “Religion,” explores how the main character’s doubts about the religion he was born into affects his relationship to his parents. Dev (played by Ansari) has long been told by his parents that he’s not allowed to eat pork simply because “that’s our religion.”
But after being introduced to it by a white friend, Dev starts eating pork in secret. And later on as an adult, he drinks wine, doesn’t fast for Ramadan, avoids reading a copy of the Quran his mother gave him, and eventually, just stops believing in the way that his parents believe.
In the episode, Dev’s parents are visited by a few religious relatives and his father asks him to play the part of a good Muslim boy to keep up appearances. So, he pretends to fast, go to the mosque, and follow Islam’s dietary restrictions, just for his parents.
Lena Waithe’s character in the show, Denise, is confused by this. After finding out that Dev’s parents don’t know the he eats pork, she asks Dev and his young cousin, “Wait, aren’t ya’ll two grown-ass men?”
“Yeah,” Dev responds cheekily. “But we’re scared of our parents.”
Like many children of immigrants, Dev can see both sides of the cultural gap.
To an outsider, Dev’s actions may seem like lies. It may even look like Dev is leading a double life. How could he have lived like this for decades? Why doesn’t he just man up and tell his parents what he really thinks?
But I don’t think Dev’s action should be taken negatively. I think these are just some of ways that children who doubt try to demonstrate love to their parents, especially those who may have difficulty receiving that love in any other way.
Later on in the episode, during a impetuous dinner party announcement, Dev decides to reveal the truth. He tells his parents (and his religious relatives) that he does eat pork and that he’s not particularly religious.
“But it’s okay. Because I’m a good person,” he said.
Predictably, it doesn’t go over well.
His parents sit him down in their house and tell him how disappointed they are in him. His mom doesn’t talk to him for two weeks.
Like many children of immigrants, Dev can see both sides of the cultural gap. He says, “Look, I get it. For you guys, religion has this cultural value. It’s not like that for me.”
Second-generation immigrants who doubt their religions are very familiar with balancing two cultures. Living with Indian parents teaches us how important it is to love and serve our families. But living in America has taught us the value of seeking our own truth, including when it comes to religion.
Studies conducted by the Pew Research Center show that more Americans than ever are switching their religions. If the three major Protestant traditions are considered as separate categories, a 2014 survey found that a full 42 percent of American adults have left their childhood faith, either for a different religion or to become unaffiliated with any religion.
Pew doesn’t offer data on how Asian-Americans immigrants fare against this backdrop of immense religious churning. But of those raised in accordance with a specific religion, Hindus and Muslims retain the largest shares of adherents.
We are burdened by two heavy things ― our own consciences, which may be instructing us to question or leave our childhood faiths, and the immeasurable and fierce love of parents who crossed oceans to give us a better life.
The children of Indian immigrants navigate this complex cultural milieu by finding creative ways to compromise. This happens because we are burdened by two heavy things ― our own consciences, which may be instructing us to question or leave our childhood faiths, and the immeasurable and fierce love of parents who crossed oceans to give us a better life.
In “Master of None,” Dev’s dad puts this inter-generational clash into words near the end of the episode.
“It’s not about eating pork. It’s not about religion. It’s about you ignoring us, not realizing who you are … When you act like this, we feel like we failed you,” he says. “Look man, you can drink. you can eat pork, you can smoke mary jane. That’s your business. But when you do it in front of Mom, it hurts her feelings.”
Sighing deeply, Dev says, “I get it.”