Rupinder Gill is the daughter of immigrant Punjabi parents who were masters at saying no. No sleepovers. No tennis lessons. No fun. Instead, she and her four siblings had two options for after-school activities: clean the house or watch TV. A lot of TV. It was, according to Gill, the Indian way.
Although Gill grew up to become, appropriately enough, a TV publicist in Toronto, she retained a deep desire to know what it must be like to grow up white. Upon turning 30, Gill conceived of a plan to make up for lost time: she decided to spend one year doing all the things other kids got to do, such as learning to swim, having a sleepover, taking dance lessons, getting a dog, going to camp, and visiting Disneyworld. In the process, she discovered that growing up Indian really wasn’t all that horrible.
Lighthearted and saturated in pop culture, On the Outside Looking Indian is a record of the year that changed Gill’s life. Yet there is something amiss in the account. Perhaps all those childhood sitcoms are to blame, but Gill seems to believe that humour is not in life’s little details, but in cutesy wordplay (chapter titles include “Born to be Mild,” “No-Animal House,” and “Neither Married nor with Children”). She also spends an inordinate amount of time name-checking every show she watched as a kid, which can drive one to despair if one does not consider Charles in Charge, Dallas, and Saved by the Bell essential viewing.
Meanwhile, key personal details are missing or glossed over. Gill says she won’t write about her love life due to her fear of her “Indian aunties,” but more information about her situation would have provided greater context for her story.
As Gill inches toward a sense of confidence in her adulthood, she very slowly begins to find sympathy for her factory-worker parents, whose dreams as immigrants were never quite fulfilled. She eventually comes to the realization that everything they sacrificed to raise five children and support other relatives has allowed her the freedom to chart her own path later on in life. But this realization doesn’t make up for the shallowness that precedes it.