The first time I felt like a real person, I was having a beer and listening to Canadian poet Rajinder S. Pal read from his book Pulse. Both were new experiences — I was in my mid-twenties and had only recently started drinking, as well as going to poetry readings — but it was Pal’s words that were most revelatory. He spoke of watching his mother makechapattis, the rustling sounds of her chiffon salwaar kameez, her hands and sleeves stained with flour, a scene as mundane as it was intimate. A commonplace moment from my own life, watching my mother do the same hundreds of times, felt hidden from most of the culture I lived in. But in a pub in the southeast corner of downtown Toronto, I felt those two, disparate halves of my life — the Western and the Indian, a pint of amber lager and South Asian poetry — briefly fused.
It wasn’t until many years later that I felt a similar rush of recognition, but this time, it was while watching Lilly Singh’s video “Sh*t Punjabi Mothers Say.” Singh, better known as Superwoman, is of course the wildly popular YouTube star who rose to fame makingcomedy shorts and rap videos. From an Indian family in the sprawling, diverse Toronto municipality of Scarborough, Singh has become known for her gregarious, upbeat persona and humour that derives much of its pull from her status as a child of South Asian immigrants. Now, with more than 9 million YouTube subscribers, she’s made the inevitable move from Toronto to Los Angeles and has landed parts in the upcoming Bad Moms and Ice Age: Collision Course, in addition to appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Her first book will be published next March.
“Sh*t Punjabi Mothers Say” is still one of Singh’s more popular videos, with around 6.2 million views. She plays a cartoonish version of her own mother, going through the clichés familiar to many Punjabis: idle threats of violence, the relentless questioning, all delivered in that particular Punjabi idiom. On its own it isn’t much, just an acting out of common phrases. But it resonated for the same reason Pal’s delicate verse cut so deeply: A feature of my own life missing from public view was suddenly made visible, the hidden intimacy of immigrant life now splashed onto the canvas of the world. When you are a minority, it is no small thing to finally see yourself.