“American Like Me” is a pertinent title for actress and activist America Ferrera’s new book. In it, she puts forth a collection of first-person accounts from 32 prominent figures including herself. These essays are about the experience of growing up between cultures. Six of the featured celebrities are South Asian-American — Reshma Saujani, Padma Lakshmi, Liza Koshy, Kumail Nanjiani, Ravi Patel, and Kal Penn.
Released late last month, “American Like Me” stands out because of the unique and personal stories its contributors share. In a tough political climate when immigration, diversity, and representation are at the forefront of a national conversation, this book is a vital read.
After an introduction from Ferrera, the first chapter is presented courtesy of Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code. Saujani’s nonprofit works to close the gender gap in computer science by supporting programs for middle and high school girls.
Saujani’s essay focuses on her own hyphenated identity. Saujani shares the story of how her parents fled from Uganda due to political unrest to settle in Illinois in the 70s. After difficulties in finding jobs, they chose to Americanize their names. Mukund became Mike, Mrudula became Meena.
“Because of them, I have the platform to be brave. They laid the groundwork for a little girl named Reshma to grow up and become the first Indian-American woman to run for Congress. They changed their names so I wouldn’t have to,” Saujani writes.
“Top Chef” host an executive Padma Lakshmi, who fiercely spoke out about facing sexual assault as a teenager, also has her chapter in the book. Here, she writes mostly about growing up with her loving and religious mother in New York City and her own confusing relationship with Hinduism while attending a Catholic school.
Lakshmi details incidents from her life, including falling gravely ill during her freshman year followed by a terrible car accident, and how all of it turned her into a teenage atheist. She then get real about how, years later, she reconnected with the cultural and spiritual part of herself and wondered about how much of her Indian heritage she could pass on to her own biracial kid, Krishna.
“While I spoke Tamil and Hindi and still spent time each year in India, what was it other than the food that signified my Indian background in my daily life? What could I give my child that I had not in some way shunned myself over the years?” she ponders. Luckily for her, she continues, it didn’t matter because Krishna embraced her culture with open arms.
In her piece, YouTube icon and actress Liza Koshy discusses growing up as a half white-half Indian kid in Houston, Texas. While many assume that Texas is racist, she writes about her actual utopian upbringing in her community. She grew up surrounded by a happy, loving family and in a school full of kids of multiple ethnicities.
“We weren’t a melting pot who forgot our differences,” Koshy writes. “We recognized them loud and clear…Thank God I’m a mixed kid from a Texas salad bowl world. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I never had to be ashamed of my Indianness or my whiteness.”
Immediately following Koshy’s chapter, “The Big Sick” actor and writer Kumail Nanjiani has his personal account. The Pakistani-American actor starts by sharing his experiences of learning English for the first time in first grade while in school at Karachi. It frustrated him because he was already fluent in Urdu.
He then goes on to write about his choice of moving for college to Iowa of all places at the age of 18 and how wildly different it was from the America he was used to seeing on TV back home. Nanjiani shares things that click instantly with most immigrants, like his first time in a grocery store in the US and being stunned by the rows and rows of bread varieties.
However, despite the dizzying choices that come with almost everything in this country, he wouldn’t have chosen anywhere else to go. He found a home, a wife, and a successful career here because of the viable options this country provides.
“I am no longer dazzled and puzzled by bread choices as far as the eyes can see…I even named by own cat Bagel. I understand that access to opportunity is not available to everyone and that I’ve been very lucky in that regard. I got to choose the career where you stand in front of crowds of people, telling jokes into a microphone,” Nanjiani writes.
Indian-American actor Ravi Patel, who co-created and starred in the documentary “Meet the Patels,” dives deep into his father’s move to the US in the late 60s in his chapter. After immigrating to Chicago to study, his father Vasant Patel worked three jobs and eventually got married. Together, Ravi’s parents started a successful career consulting business because as typical Patels (who hail from the Indian state of Gujarat), they wanted to be their own boss.
Ravi and his sister Geeta went on to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. His sister is a screenwriter and director whereas Ravi is an actor. It wasn’t an easy transition, especially since his parents helped Patels from across the world move to the US and make money as motel owners. The siblings six-year long endeavor “Meet the Patels” went on to change their minds.
“We heard from people all around country telling us it made them feel better about their own family relationships. Dad now talks about it as if he made it himself. His current obsession is funding a movie for us to make together. It’s so cool that this is even a thought in any of our minds,” he writes.
“Harold & Kumar” actor Kal Penn also gets a chapter in the book. Penn also served as an aide in the Obama White House. He starts off by walking us through his first time on board Air Force One, something that seemed impossible to him as Indian-American kid growing up in New Jersey and majoring in performing arts. Penn often refers to disliking being told something is ‘impossible’ to achieve. “I was that kid,” he writes.
Penn also describing what it was like working on the Obama campaign in 2007. Because they shared the same core values, the two clicked. That’s why Penn ending up taking a sabbatical from his lucrative role on “House” to join the Obama White House as the associate director of public engagement. It was his chance to “work on some small part of the history-making progress.”
“American is the kind of place where the impossible becomes possible. We can take our deepest insecurities, our communities’ worst fears, our neighbors’ greatest hesitations, and with a lot of work, a lot of hardship, a lot of turmoil, turn them into something incredible for each other. Let’s support each other. Let’s keep doing those beautiful, impossible things,” Penn writes.
“American Like Me” is now available in book stories. It is edited by Ferrera with E. Casey Dumont. You can order a copy here.