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How covering the Trump campaign led a reporter to find his roots

Journalist Sopan Deb recounts searching for his estranged family in his memoir “Missed Translations: Meeting the Immigrant Parents Who Raised Me.”
"Missed Translations," by Sopan Deb.
"Missed Translations," by Sopan Deb.Dey Street Books

As one of the few journalists of color covering Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016, Sopan Deb, then with CBS News, had an inside look at the candidate’s large-scale rallies and campaign events.

“I never felt my skin color as much as I did during the campaign,” Deb told NBC Asian America.

The child of Indian immigrants, Deb said he was raised in suburban New Jersey trying to blend in by rejecting his South Asian identity and working to appear more like his white classmates. But the often stark anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric he heard during Trump’s speeches and while interviewing his supporters made Deb wonder about his own troubled relationship with his long-estranged parents and his ethnic identity.

“I spent my whole life running from who I am,” he said. “After covering the Trump campaign I knew I didn’t want to run anymore.”

Author Sopan Deb.
Author Sopan Deb.Amy Lombard

Deb, 32, now a reporter for The New York Times, retraces this journey to reconnect with his parents in his new book, “Missed Translations: Meeting the Immigrant Parents Who Raised Me,” published Tuesday, April 21, by Dey Street Books. The reader quickly learns that the decision to reach out to his family was in many ways the easiest part of the journey. Before his search, Deb said he didn’t know where either of his parents lived, how old they were or how many siblings they had.

He also realized that he would have to confront his family’s history of secrets, indifference, toxic relationships and clinical depression without any clear idea of where his journey would lead.

“I didn’t know what I was going to find out and that scared me a little bit,” Deb said. “On the other hand, I essentially approached my parents the way a journalist would and that makes the process a little easier.”

With CBS News in 2016, Deb often found himself as one of the only nonwhite reporters covering campaign events across the country. In addition to the vitriol directed at the media, he also described the racism Trump supporters directed at him.

“I was once asked if I was a member of ISIS. Another time I was told to go back to Iraq, but I’m from New Jersey,” he said.

Those moments forced him to reckon with his identity in a way that he had avoided his entire life.

As a child, Deb said he “had an irrational desire to be white.” He was particularly envious of how easy it was for his friends to open up to their families about their crushes, friends and desires.

But Deb, who stressed that the book is not meant to represent all Indian Americans, said his parents rarely spoke about their lives, adding that his mother did not even know which colleges he had applied to until he announced he was going to Boston University.

After carefully retracing his parents’ steps through old emails and phone numbers, Deb found his mother in New Jersey and his father in Kolkata, India. Looking back, Deb describes his estrangement from his family as both slow and inevitable, as he began to feel even more disconnected from them as he moved into young adulthood.

“At the beginning of this process my parents were distant footnotes in my life,” he said. “They were like that person you knew in college that you would never see again.”

But even after he reached out, getting them on board with his memoir took some work.

“I told them upfront that this would be an unvarnished look at our family and this process,” Deb said of rebuilding their relationship. “I told them both that they were not going to like some of the stuff that I was going to write and I told them that I wasn’t going to pull any punches. And they were on board — until they weren’t.”

Because the book details Deb’s efforts to rebuild his relationship with his parents in real time, he also recounts the moments they were reluctant to talk about their family history, challenged his memories or were outright hostile about his questions. “It was a process and even to this day that process continues,” Deb said. “After a while I think they understood what I was trying to do.”

Some of the book’s most touching moments occur when Deb and his now-fiancée, Wesley, travel to Kolkata to visit Deb’s father. “India is an exhausting place to go even in the best of situations,” Deb noted. “Then you factor in the emotional aspect of it of having seen my father for the first time in what at that point was 11 years.”

As Deb’s newfound relationship with his parents continues to evolve, he hopes his story will encourage readers experiencing their own estrangements.

“This book is for anyone that has a relationship with someone that should be better. I hope that they come away from it thinking that it is never too late to bridge the gap,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that you are guaranteed to succeed, but it is never too late to try.”