Identity is a complex thing. Infinite factors shape the way we define ourselves, the way others define us, and the way we interact with the larger world. Some of these ways of being are learned, some seem innate, and still others come from the pressure to assimilate into an existing environment.
But what happens when an already developed identity clashes with the surrounding milieu? What happens when assimilating means sacrificing aspects of an identity that formerly made sense? What happens when a person’s identity is at odds with the surrounding culture?
These and other questions are explored in the 10 web series below.
An African City
First-generation children often find themselves in the position of being caught between cultures; they’re not quite from here, but not quite from there. Sometimes they are raised in environments in which cultural norms are at odds with the values of their parents, and so must learn to balance familial expectations with what is accepted in the context of their surroundings. For those who eventually choose to return to their “home country,” they often find it is just as hard to fit in.
In An African City, which has been described as Sex in the City on the continent, five women return to Accra, Ghana after having lived abroad. Together they adjust to the different cultural temperature and explore everything from the male-female dynamic to the job market, and more. The series was developed by Nicole Amarteifio, a Ghanaian-American, who like the women in the series, decided to move back to Ghana. While it’s certainly full of laughs, it also smartly tackles the search for identity while navigating sometimes rigid cultural confines.
Meet + Eat
Over the course of history, food has served as a universal touchstone for all manner of people. The act of eating is something everyone must do, and to do so in the company of others has the power to remove even the most stringent barriers. In Australian documentary series Meet + Eat, strangers are brought together to share their stories and to learn the narratives of their neighbors. From the trials and tribulations of immigration to the difficulty of preserving one’s culture in a foreign place, this series covers it all. It’s also a double treat for those who are obsessed with both food and a good yarn.
The Pearl of Africa
The Pearl of Africa shines a spotlight on how issues of identity can be much more complex than feeling caught between cultures or out of sync with one’s surroundings. The documentary’s protagonist, Cleopatra Kambugu, is a 27-year-old transgender woman, who, despite Uganda’s rampant transphobia, aspires to fully transition into womanhood. To really understand the full scope of Uganda’s homophobic and transphobic sentiments, it’s important to note that the country passed an “Anti-Homosexuality” law in 2014. The original law even put forth the death penalty as a punishment for homosexual behavior, but eventually opted for a sentence of life imprisonment.
Later that same year, amid rising pressure from other countries, the Constitutional Court of Uganda ruled the law invalid. Despite ever-present threats, Cleopatra chooses to openly live her life as a transgender woman. The Pearl of Africa follows her journey, and offers insight into issues surrounding gender identity and self-expression on the continent.
New American Girls
Although New American Girls originally aired on PBS, you can still catch episodes online (see below). The series serves as a sensitive portrait of what it means to be American in an age where so many of us don’t necessarily originate from the United States. Each short vignette profiles the child of undocumented or immigrant parents, and highlights some of the unique struggles they and their families faced while trying to build a new life in America.
They’re All So Beautiful
Instead of focusing exclusively on self-identity, They’re All So Beautiful turns a lens on the identity projected onto Asian and Asian-American women by non-Asian counterparts interested in romance. The six part docu-series opens with an exploration of the term “yellow fever” and how it applies in a larger cultural context. The following installments chronicle everything from the difficulties of interracial dating to stereotypes of submissiveness and subservience some associate with Asian women. More than anything, it’s an interesting look at how fetishization affects self-identity.
First Gen puts a comedic tilt on the pressures of being the child of immigrant parents. Written and conceived by Nigerian-American comedienne Yvonne Orji, the upcoming web sitcom is loosely based on her own life. Through the series, Orji aims to highlight the struggles of communicating with her parents and establishing an identity outside of the confines of what her family finds appropriate. Right now, Orji has only released a trailer, but in the meantime you can watch her docu-series about what it means to be first gen.
A quick rundown on the upcoming show: The main character has secured a prime spot as the family darling due to her admission into an Ivy League medical school…Which she promptly quits to pursue a career in comedy. Needless to say, wahala ensues.
Debt is a crippling problem for many Americans and that doesn’t exclude first-generation citizens. Bailout, a new series set against the backdrop of 2009’s financial crisis, tackles the issue of credit card debt head on. It follows the life of Shalah, an Iranian-American woman who has been laid off from work and is suffocating in debt. Fearing judgement, Shalah feels unable to confide the depth of her financial issues to her Iranian parents, whose cultural background often makes communication difficult.
Currently there are only two episodes available, but series director Sara Zia Ebrahimi provides a little insight into the forthcoming direction on her website, stating, “Bailout captures cultural differences between children and parents in first-generation immigrant families using predatory lending as the focal point of tension. Credit cards are such a quintessential manifestation of American dominant aspirations, allowing us to live our lives among surplus and excess so that we can feel successful.”
New York City has long proven to be a veritable breeding ground for comedic circumstances, and Common Ground follows the quintessential “making it in the Big Apple” formula to a T. That doesn’t make it a snooze fest though. The series manages to subvert some of the cornier hallmarks of NYC comedies, instead focusing on how two young women from very different backgrounds come to find common ground while navigating life in the city. Ironically, the two main characters – a freshly-arrived Canadian named Bea and a first-gen Asian-American named Lia – are brought together by a Craiglist apartment scam. It’s certainly something that most of us can sympathize with.
Imagine being a teenager who has looked forward to the day you could go to the DMV and claim your driver’s license like a real adult. Now imagine after the obligatory hours-long wait you make the discovery that you’re an undocumented, and thereby illegal, immigrant. That’s the premise of Annie Undocumented, and it’s based off of the true story of its writer and creator Elaine Low’s life. Low eventually gained citizenship after marrying her longtime boyfriend, but says creating the series helped her reflect on some of the difficulties of being an undocumented immigrant. Nevertheless, Annie Undocumented manages to infuse what is a painful reality for many with wry humor, vivaciousness and wit.
London-based writer, director and artist Cecile Emeke counts the much-buzzed Ackee & Saltfish among her current projects, but she’s also responsible for the equally lauded Strolling documentary series. Through each episode, which encompass the sub-series Flâner, Strolling and Wandelan, Emeke aims to create a sense of cohesion within the Black diaspora through the act of storytelling. Essentially, Emeke takes a walk through a different city with various subjects, and together they discuss topics ranging from afro-futurism, black-French culture, the Negritude Movement and beyond. Considering there are so many black people of varying cultural backgrounds scattered across the diaspora, it’s especially interesting to see how being situated in different environments can factor into self-identity.