Playing the Immigrant Experience
One Immigrant Actor’s Experience Co-Starring on the New York Emmy Award Winning Television Show We Are New York
I had the honor recently of playing Umme, one of the immigrant stars of the television show We Are New York. Directed by George Lavoo (Real Women Have Curves, Frisk, Blood Monkey) and written by David Hellman and Sam Seifnourian, the television program is designed to teach English to New York City’s diverse immigrant population and teach them about the wonderful programs available to help immigrants in New York City.
My character, Umme, is a hijab-wearing Muslim immigrant and a single mother of two young girls. Umme is originally from Bangladesh where she had worked as a nurse. She moved to New York City with her daughters and began working as a home health aide. We learn in the first episode that there are programs available in NYC to help Umme get her nursing license so she can work as a nurse again in the United States. Through Umme’s character and family, we learn about FoodHelpNYC, about food pantries, and about programs offered at local libraries to help immigrants get their high school equivalency degrees.
I am originally from India. My family is from Kerala, India and I was born in New Delhi, India’s capital. I came to New York with my family when I was just five years old. As such, I have an American accent but I am able speak with many different accents, including Indian. To play Umme, I studied twenty-two different Indian accents as well as the Bangladeshi accent. It was important to the writers that the accents for all characters be as authentic as possible.
To play Umme, I also wore a hijab, something I had never worn before. I learned that conservative Muslim women from Bangladesh always wear a hijab outside of the house and do not wear jewelry. I learned that the women cover up their arms and legs with long sleeved shirts and long pants. I wore a nurse’s uniform for most of the show and, underneath the uniform, I had to wear a long-sleeved white shirt, even on a hot summer day. I also wore beautiful traditional Indian clothing and could wear my hair loose inside the house.
The best part of playing Umme on the show was my character’s relationship with her daughters and her friendships with other immigrants on the program. Umme and her eldest daughter, Shumi, have a very Gilmore Girls like mother-daughter relationship: loving, affectionate and close, but they also argue and fight as almost every parent and child does. The episodes teach that all men, women, mothers, and daughters, whether from Bangladesh or Ecuador, are family and can come together to help each other. The show sends a very positive message about family, friendship, immigrants and New York City.
We Are New York won an Emmy at the 53rd Annual New York Emmy Awards in 2010. The program originally began airing in 2009. For the new 2017 production, a whole new cast was brought in and all new scripts written.
We Are New York also had a very diverse team behind the cameras and included men and women from Japan, Korea, Mexico, Iran and Puerto Rico, among others. My experience as an immigrant in New York City has always been positive. New York City comes together in times of adversity and celebrates together as one family. We Are New York showcased that very essence of New York City and the immigrant experience. I am honored to have played a part.