In August 2001, Meg Indurti immigrated to the United States from Hyderabad, India. On the bright side, she was with her family, she already excelled in English and her parents were excited to give their children new opportunities. More difficult, she stood out in her class – never an easy thing for an eight-year old – with her skin color and accent. To her classmates, even the lunches she brought from home practically shouted that she was not American enough. A month later, 9/11 happened and the bullying began in earnest.
Now Meg is literally standing up for immigrant kids who are enduring trauma she says she can’t even imagine. On Thursday night, October 11, she will host “Bordering On Hilarious” at the Cards Against Humanity Theater in Bucktown at 7:30 p.m.
Presented by 18 Coffees and Team Us Comedy, which Meg co-founded, “Bordering On Hilarious” is a one-time special comedy showcase to benefit the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights. In addition to aiding immigrant children who have been separated from their families, Meg says the event will provide audience members a chance to laugh and make a positive difference at the same time.
The evening is also a chance to see Chicago’s top comedic talent. Meg, a Chicago Reader “Chicagoan To Know”, will host. The show features Oscar Carvajal (Laugh Factory), Sonal Aggarwal (Laugh Factory), Stuti Sharma and Adam Burke (Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!). The headliner is Azhar Usman, who currently has a recurring role on Amazon’s Patriot. Each of the comedians brings a unique immigrant experience and perspective.
Meg kindly spoke with me by phone about her family’s experience, how it feels to be a little kid in a new country, her comedy and the ways you can support the Young Center’s life-changing work.
THE YOUNG CENTER FOR IMMIGRANT CHILDREN’S RIGHTS
Teme: What is the Young Center’s mission? In addition to being there on Thursday, what can people do to help?
Meg: The Young Center is focused on children’s rights, especially the rights of unaccompanied immigrant children. The Young Center provides legal assistance and child advocates who know how to work with immigrant kids who may be traumatized. They make sure that whether these kids end up in the U.S. or elsewhere that they’re safe. Yes, come to the show on Thursday! You can also volunteer, talk about their work, raise awareness, and donate.
TEAM US COMEDY
Teme: Please tell me more about Team Us Comedy!
Meg: Our mission is to make people laugh, but also to showcase diverse comedians. In comedy you see a lot of white guys, a lot of straight guys, and just a lot of guys. We make sure every lineup has women, people of color, LGBTQ comedians and that it’s not just the same old comedy over and over.
We also create shows in non-traditional spaces. We have a show in the back of a distillery, in co-working spaces and at breweries. Comedy can be anywhere. All you need is a microphone and sometimes not even that. We also work with charity organizations, especially with causes that are near and dear to us.
MEET THE COMEDIANS
Teme: Who are the comedians in Thursday’s lineup?
Meg: Oscar Carvajal was born in Mexico and raised in Chicago. Adam Burke is from the U.K. He’s hilarious. Stuti Sharma is doing a guest spot. She has such a unique experience. I don’t want to give it away so I won’t, but we need to hear from more people like her. Sonal Aggarwal is a flash of fire and energy on any stage. She’s hilarious and one of the hottest talents in Chicago. She’s also an international comedian. She performs in Spanish, Hindi and other languages all over the world. Azhar Usman is headlining. He’s one of my favorite comedians and has done amazing things. He has worked with Hannibal Buress, Dave Chappelle and Hasan Minhaj. I’m hosting. I was born in India, but raised all over America.
We chose the lineup to illustrate that there’s diversity even in the immigrant experience. We all have different perspectives and styles of comedy. We all bring different takes on America and on ordinary, everyday life.
MEG’S IMMIGRANT EXPERIENCE
Teme: What was your family’s experience?
Meg: My parents moved here when I was eight and my brother was four. I was born and raised in Hyderabad in southern India. My parents thought we would have more opportunities in America. They made a very brave decision to come here. My dad came first and then my brother, mom, and I came a year later.
I appreciate their decision even more now. I don’t think I would’ve been a stand-up comedian or the person I am, or have all the opportunities I’ve had if they hadn’t come here and risked everything.
We moved around a lot because my dad worked a lot of contract jobs. We lived in Massachusetts and then we moved to Maryland and stayed in the D.C. area. We got an insider perspective of how difficult it is to be an immigrant in this country. We’re still not citizens, but we finally did get a green card two years ago. I’ve had that common immigrant child experience where you feel like you belong to two different countries, but you also don’t fully belong to either of them.
My brother and I don’t have an accent, but my parents both have accents. We saw the way they were sometimes treated. My dad has a PhD, but sometimes he gets talked down to because he has an accent. When I was a kid, I was embarrassed to speak with an accent, but now I respect it.
I think this has been the story of America from the start; parents wanting to give their children everything they can.
A CREATIVE KID FACES RACISM
Meg: We moved to Massachusetts in August of 2001 and 9/11 happened a month later. My brother and I were bullied as kids. We were brown and we had an accent then and we were both very not American. We didn’t necessarily act the right ways, even including the food that we brought to school. I would throw it away. It was food that my mom had woken up early to prepare for me. Because it smelled like chicken, people would stare and make fun of me. So I would just throw it away and eat pizza.
At the time, we didn’t understand what the bullying was about. My parents were bullied, too, although they told us less about it. But I would see the way they were treated at grocery stores or at gas stations. It was really intense for a while and then it faded away, but it was enough that I remember it. I remember being eight and being really confused.
Teme: How did you deal with it?
Meg: I don’t think I dealt with it. My parents tried the band-aid solution, like, “If anybody asks, tell them we’re not Muslim.” We’re not Muslim, but I didn’t understand why I had to say that.
I had an accent. I was this short kid. Being a kid is hard enough anywhere. You’re awkward. You’re going through puberty. You’re a girl. All these things that you have to deal with as a kid. So on top of being brown, having an accent and feeling like an outsider, I didn’t deal with it.
Instead I wrote a lot of stories. I tried to read more books and watch more TV. I got lost in the creative world because that’s where I felt more understood. Reading Harry Potter or writing dumb, short skits made me happier than trying to appease these people whom I ultimately would never understand.
Teme: Did those years impact your comedy?
Meg: Yes, absolutely. I started writing because I was afraid to speak with an accent. Eventually the accent went away, but with writing I realized, “Oh, I can say exactly what I want to say. So I’m just going to do this on paper and not say anything out loud.”
So I would write stories and tell my cousins stories and they were usually funny. That’s how it started. I loved comedy because it’s the one thing that’s not formal at all.
Comedy gets straight to exactly what’s going on. If you watch Insecure or Atlanta or anything on Netflix right now, you understand what’s going on in America. Comedians are talking about the human truths and not just the official statements. I’ve always enjoyed comedy for that reason. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else. It’s just the truth.
MEG’S COMEDY: WHAT DOES IT SAY ABOUT HER?
Meg: After college, I moved to Chicago and started taking classes and doing open mics. The Chicago comedy community has so many fantastic writers, comedians and actors that you just get immersed in it. I met a lot of other people of color and women who were doing creative things and started collaborating with them. Then it just sort of took off on its own.
Teme: How has your comedy changed since you started?
Meg: When I started, I tried to figure out what other people thought was funny. But after a few months I realized, “Wait, the stuff that’s working is the stuff that I think is funny.”
I started to write my own experience. That’s something nobody can copy or take from you. Your point of view on the world and what you think is funny, if it’s relatable, is what’s going to hit every time. I went from trying to cater to others to being who I am and writing my own truth in a funny way.
Teme: What does your comedy say about your truth?
Meg: It says that I can do anything I want to do. I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder of just being a short brown girl that people don’t take seriously. Even in my own family sometimes. My comedy is me being like, “I’m doing something revolutionary just by being up here on the stage and talking.” Just because I was so afraid to speak for so long, or afraid to tell people what I actually thought. Always asking for permission to take up space. I think that’s just sometimes being a woman and being who I am. My comedy is me being up there telling people what I think, and it’s resonating. It’s me telling people I can be anything I want to be and so can you.
So all my jokes are just that; my opinions about dumb things like dating or more important things like immigration or racism, but the fact that I’m speaking about it is the important part because it’s no longer white dudes telling me how to feel. I’m the one up there. I’m controlling the narrative rather than the narrative controlling me.
Teme: I love that. So when you write your autobiography, what will you call it?
Meg: Maybe “Winging It With Some Success.”
WHY IMMIGRATION STORIES ARE IMPORTANT
Teme: Why is it important to share immigration stories?
Meg: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a great talk called “The Danger of a Single Story.” She talks about what happens when complex humans and experiences are boiled down to a single narrative, especially when controlled by people who are not you.
The most important thing about sharing these stories is that stories humanize people and stories connect people. The more we tell these stories, the more everyone realizes that being an immigrant kid, or being an awkward kid, or going through puberty, all of these are the same experience. We’re not that different.
Putting these stories out there makes us realize that it’s not “Oh, that immigrant over there.” It’s “Oh, that’s just another person who I have a lot in common with and we’re all the same.”
These stores are also important because they are from our perspective and not from a perspective that doesn’t understand what we’re going through.
Teme: Sometimes the immigration discussion leaves out the contributions of the people who come here. What should we celebrate about immigrants?
Meg: All the food that we get to enjoy, all the art, all the film, all the literature. As Americans, we think we can go to any country whenever we want to discover ourselves, but we feel like they can’t come here. That is a very privileged perspective. The fact that we think we can just escape to Canada but Mexicans can’t come here, that’s very privileged.
So yes, immigrants have contributed a lot throughout history. It’s literally the make-up of America. Everyone is one-eighth Irish, Italian, German, Jewish, everyone is everything. We all get to enjoy hummus and then a burrito and then naan down the street, and we also get to watch the films that they create. And also, the people who may not be high profile people, the people who are working their ass off every day making this country run, a lot of them are immigrants.
SUPPORTING OUR IMMIGRANT CHILDREN
Teme: What else should people know about the experience of being a child immigrant?
Meg: How hard it is being a kid in general. You have zero rights and everyone has authority over you. When you’re in another country and don’t know the language, customs, or social norms, all of that adds more weight on you. It’s hard to succeed when it feels like every single person is rooting against you and doesn’t like you. It affects your self-esteem, your health and your security.
It was hard for me, but I didn’t have to deal with being separated from my parents. That is a trauma that I do not pretend to understand. I got lost in Target when I was a kid and that was terrifying. I can’t even imagine being separated from my parents in a new country where I have no idea what’s going on.
These kids are going through a lot. They deserve our sympathy, support and patience because they’re kids at the end of the day. It’s really important for organizations like the Young Center to exist. These children are literally our future and how we treat them says everything about who we are as a culture.
“Bordering on Hilarious” in on Thursday, October 11, 2018 at the Cards Against Humanity Theater, 1551 W. Homer St. Doors at 7:30 p.m. Show at 8:00 p.m. Tickets and more details here.
Learn more about the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights here.
About 18 Coffees: “18 Coffees is a community-driven strategy and innovation firm. We are a collection of digital natives with 100+ years combined experience in technology, media, design, communications, and everything in between helping mission-driven companies solve problems, surface new ideas, and get a foothold in the future.” Learn more about 18 Coffees here.
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