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Dhaya Lakshminarayanan - "Smart Like You"


Our next guest is a comedian, a nerd, and she actually taught charm school at MIT. Please put your hands together for Ms. Dhaya Lakshminarayanan.


DHAYA LAKSHMINARAYANAN: I get a phone call while I'm away at college. It's my mother, my perfectly round mother. She describes herself as a jolly optimist. Once, she convinced a family friend of ours not to take her own life by saying, (imitating Mom) suicide? No, you will not do this...


LAKSHMINARAYANAN: (Imitating Mom) ...Because you are too lazy.


LAKSHMINARAYANAN: (Imitating Mom) You will get the stool and the rope and think, I'll do it just tomorrow.


LAKSHMINARAYANAN: It worked. That lady is still alive now.

I pick up the phone.

(Imitating Mom) Baby, it's me. No need to worry. Everything will be OK. You don't have to come home.


LAKSHMINARAYANAN: I freak out and book a ticket home. I fly home to find my dad checked out. He's reclining on the La-Z-Boy, watching bad TV reruns. Hey, Dad, how are you doing?

(Imitating Dad) Shh (ph), "Matlock" is real.

My dad had just been laid off. And to add humiliation to trauma, he became one of the millions of Americans denied health insurance because of a previously existing condition - diabetes. My brother could feel the middle-class American dream slipping through our hands.

(Imitating Brother) Dhaya, do I have to make fast-food burgers? Because that's what the kids at school say that poor people have to do. This was a double insult because this meant he wouldn't make that much money, and we were Hindu vegetarians.


LAKSHMINARAYANAN: My family's future was riding on my mom overcoming her past. My mom immigrated from Chennai, India, when she was 21 years old. She was the oldest of five children. Her dad died when she was 9 years old. And her mother, my grandmother, was a widow in south Indian society, an outcast. She had to give up her children to be raised by others. When my mother married my dad, she weighed 85 pounds because of malnutrition, and she's my height - 5 feet. In the wedding pictures, she looks beautiful - and damn hungry. It was this time that my mom decided that she wanted to go back to school.

(Imitating Mom) Baby, I think at this age 40, I want to go back to school.

Mom, you're 45.


LAKSHMINARAYANAN: (Imitating Mom) We don't have to tell everybody the truth all the time.

She asked me to help out. She has to take a basic math exam to get into school, and she's getting stuck on the transitive property, transitive property - two definitions - first, of or characterized by transition. My family knew this all too well. My mom only admitted to me a few years ago we were on food stamps for the first 3 years of my life. Definition number two from math - if A is equal to B and B is equal to C, therefore, A is equal to C.

(Imitating Mom) I don't understand this. Explain it to me again. Explain it to me again.

Well, it just means if A is equal to B


LAKSHMINARAYANAN: ...And B is equal to C, therefore, A is equal to C.

(Imitating Mom) You just said the same thing slower and louder. That doesn't help me.


LAKSHMINARAYANAN: Well, I don't know what to do. So then I decide to explain it in Tamil, which is my mom's first language. But the thing is I don't know how to say equals in Tamil. And A - there's five characters associated with A. So it ends up just sounding like, A, B, (speaking Tamil), B, C (speaking Tamil), A, C, equal.

(Imitating Mom) You just said the same thing with useless Tamil words thrown in for my benefit.


LAKSHMINARAYANAN: Mom, I don't know how else to explain this to you. This is basic math. It's very easy. Didn't you learn this at school or anything? And at this moment, my mother speaks to me directly in Tamil. And when she speaks in Tamil, it's like speaking in italics because she's about to say something honest and truthful that's not masked by humor and jokes. So translated it was something like (imitating Mom) in my childhood, nobody cared if I had eaten that day. If I was at school, it meant I was out of the way. It didn't matter if I learned anything. This is why I'm not smart, not like you and your brother.

Mom, you're smart. You're really smart. You had to learn English when you came to the United States. How did you do that?

(Imitating Mom) Lucy, Carol Burnett, TV shows.

That's American, Mom, OK. What's your favorite show now?

(Imitating Mom) The one with the Jew.

Can you be more specific?


LAKSHMINARAYANAN: (Imitating Mom) Seinfeld, Seinfeld. Seinfeld, OK. Jerry Seinfeld, Jerry Seinfeld. So, like, if Jerry Seinfeld tells Elaine a secret that's like A is equal to B. And if Elaine tells that secret to Kramer - B equals C - that's just as if Jerry had told Kramer in the first place, A is equal to C.

(Imitating Mom) Oh, it is very simple.


LAKSHMINARAYANAN: My dad is retired, and he has health insurance. His diabetes is under control. He doesn't watch "Matlock." He prefers "Monk." My brother, he doesn't make as much money as he would've if he stayed flipping burgers - because he's a graduate student at Yale.


LAKSHMINARAYANAN: My mom passed that exam. She got into school. And now she works as a software engineer. She has finished watching all the "Seinfeld" episodes, so now she tries to explain "Friends" to me.

(Imitating Mom) A and B went out. B and C broke up. D and E got back together. So that's just like A and E dating, right?




WASHINGTON: You're listening to SNAP JUDGMENT LIVE!, the "Encore" episode. And don't forget, May 8 in New York City, SNAP is taping a brand-new live show, the likes of which have never been seen. Get your tickets now at When SNAP returns - discover how to channel your inner Madonna and what happens when you and your family do not speak the same language. SNAP JUDGMENT LIVE!, the "Encore" episode. Stay tuned. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.