What I Learned About Myself By Watching American TV As A Teen In India

I connected with these American teens from a distant land in a way I hadn’t connected with anyone else in my real life.
The author.
The author.

I was 14 when I started watching The O.C. I fell so much in love with the TV show that I cajoled my cousin Akash to rent DVDs, rip them and ship them to me from Chicago only because I wanted to watch reruns without having to wait for them to air on TV in Calcutta, India, where I lived.

I was fascinated by the high life these good-looking teenagers were living in upmarket California. They drove around in black Range Rovers, wore the most hip clothes to school, lounged about in pool houses and often went surfing. I aspired to live their lavish, independent lives because mine was so much about hustling in public transport and wearing a uniform to school.

But most of all, I fell in love with their bedrooms.

These were sacred spaces where they were allowed to cry, feel, think, sulk and be themselves. Their bedrooms were a symbol, perhaps even an extension, of who they were. I shared mine with my younger sister, Chahna, and it revealed nothing about us. The walls had been painted a powder pink without taking our opinion – neither of us liked pink.

From the posters in Seth Cohen’s bedroom, I learned that he was into comic books and video games. From Rory Gilmore’s (Gilmore Girls) bedroom I found out that she wanted to go to Harvard and liked reading Charlotte Bronte and Shakespeare. Katarina Stratford (10 Things I Hate About You) introduced me to the amazing world of indie rock and grunge music with posters of The Gits, Juliana Hatfield, Seven Mary Three, Ednaswap, and Flipp in the background of her bed. And Peyton Sawyer’s (One Tree Hill) walls were full of her own dark artwork.

Their bedrooms were a symbol, perhaps even an extension, of who they were. I shared mine with my younger sister, Chahna, and it revealed nothing about us.

I connected with these American teenagers from a distant land in a way I hadn’t connected with anyone else in my real life. I had very different tastes and inclinations and nobody really to share them with, apart from Chahna.

Westlife had launched their World of Our Own album (I was about 13), and I was going gaga over Mark Feehily’s cuteness level. Avril Lavigne was my goddess, and I was just discovering other bands like Pink Floyd, The Beatles, The Goo Goo Dolls, Coldplay, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Metallica, thanks to MTV and VH1.

But if you walked into my room, you would never know any of these things. You’d imagine I was like my walls – blank, boring and empty, but also calm, unblemished and innocent. And none of these would’ve been true.

School was an awful place because I had no friends, and I was a poor student who failed math every year no matter how hard I tried. I grew up an angry teenager, rebelled against almost everything my parents said, broke things, and had fights with my mother.

But in these virtual characters, I had found friends and I was beginning to enjoy this imaginary camaraderie. At one point, I even foolishly fantasized about living in a pool house in Newport Beach – I was fixated on the American life although I was fully aware that it wasn’t a true representation of it. I wanted to do everything these teenagers were doing – eat Mac and Cheese for breakfast, cycle down a Californian pier, have meaningful conversations about sex with my folks, go surfing and sailing, lie down on my bed without having to take my shoes off, have a boyfriend without feeling the need to hide his existence.

Sticking posters meant sharing that fantasy with them to escape my own reality. It was important for me that at least my walls displayed what interested me and what moved me. I was convinced I needed this to understand and know myself. The individualism and self-reliance that I saw in them were what I was after.

But for my father, this was an absolute deal-breaker because he couldn’t financially afford to get his walls stained. He, like most other Indian parents, didn’t have the luxury to care about concepts like teenage angst. He worried that the tape marks would ruin his pristine walls. And for a man who painted his walls once in a decade, this plan was a nightmare. 

It was important for me that at least my walls displayed what interested me and what moved me. The individualism was what I was after.

As children, Chahna and I weren’t even allowed to run our fingers along the walls or touch them after a sweaty game of badminton lest we soiled them with our dirty fingers. Our mother never marked our heights against the walls on our birthdays – they were neatly written in her diary, or maybe never written at all – it didn’t matter. And I wanted it to matter so we could indulge in nostalgia every now and then and talk fondly about a shared memory. My artworks were never allowed up for display – they were only meant to be in my drawing books that were stored in the drawers.

Like Seth Cohen, Rory Gilmore and Katarina Stratford, I too wanted to decorate my room to mark my existence in a very “Chandni was here” manner. For hours, I had sifted through posters at my favorite music store and selected a few to fill my room with. But my father asked me to stick them on the inside of my cupboard so they could remain hidden. Heartbroken, I shoved them at the back of my wardrobe.

American parents in these shows were a lot like non-interfering friends who let their teenage kids have their privacy when they needed it. I wasn’t even allowed to lock my bedroom door, and if I took too long in the bathroom, my mother wanted to know what I was doing. Every time I giggled while talking to a friend on the phone she was curious to know if it was a boy on the other end. But American kids on TV were allowed to bring their boyfriends/girlfriends over and they all hung out together with the parents, like one big happy family. It all seemed unfair.

It was only after I moved out of home to a different city did I realize why I wanted to stick those posters so badly. I never went to the U.S. but in my apartment in Bangalore, while I was living by myself, I took my frustration out with every screeching peel of the tape as posters of Led Zeppelin, Jefferson Airplane, The Ramones, and Avril Lavigne filled up my wall. I was living my teenage dream at 25. 

It was letting go of a lot of resentment and childhood anger, making peace with several failures, forgiving the younger me, forgiving my parents for our differences and remembering the other ways through which they showed their love and tolerance of change.

I’m 30 now, and when I look back to how badly I wanted to hang up those posters, I realize it stood for something greater. And the more I see it that way, the more I realize that it was nobody’s fault. It was something just as plain and simple as “cultural differences.” These differences that seemed fairly jarring to me back then later revealed themselves as much smaller.

I had misunderstood the meaning of love and care in the form of explicit expressions as shown on American television. At home, in India, love was demonstrated differently. I spent my childhood wanting to be like those American characters that I never gave my own parents and culture a chance. Our love was shown more in smaller actions and hidden sacrifices. It was shown in taking good care of the things we had. I’m okay with that now.

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