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Apu Nahasapeemapetilon Lives On

By Parthiv N. Parekh Email By Parthiv N. Parekh
May 2012
Apu Nahasapeemapetilon Lives On “Many Americans think of Indians as strange foreigners with an inaccessible culture and horrible accents.”

This was a candid observation shared by an American college student whom we had interviewed recently for a story. As publishers of an Indian-American magazine, it is an occupational hazard of ours to be preoccupied with how we are seen as a community in and by mainstream America. During one of our many “water-cooler” chats around the office, a colleague made a sharp observation when he said that because of our success and affluence as a community we may feel a false sense of acceptance in the mainstream.

But over the years, whenever we have gained the confidence of American friends who have been candid enough to share what they believe to be the stereotypes of Indians, it has become painfully clear that Apu, the highly caricatured convenience store clerk from The Simpsons, is alive and well, no matter the status of the TV show itself.

As per the latest census data, Indian-Americans, once again, rank at the very top in household income and education compared to all other demographic groups. We make up only one percent of the U.S. population, and yet own close to half of all economy hotels in the country, constitute a high percentage of doctors, are kingmakers in the Silicon Valley, are disproportionately notable in academics, and are making our mark in media and entertainment. From M. Night Shyamalan to Fareed Zakaria and from Dr. Sanjay Gupta to Governors Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, many Indian-Americans are leading figures on the national scene.

And yet, all of that is overshadowed by the highly caricatured stereotypes that continue to endure. “A lot of Indians are viewed as hard-working and smart, but often in a detrimental way. They are seen as the geeks that people go to when they need their computers fixed, the coolies of the rest of technological America,” continued the candid revelations by the college student. Smells, as in that of curries or hair oil, figure in a big way in such stereotypes. Author Suketu Mehta has written about how he was viewed as a dark stranger “emitting the foul smells of his native cooking” by many at the Catholic school in Queens, New York, where he studied as a youngster.

While all of this is by no means a scientific appraisal of how Indians are perceived, there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that these stereotypes are out there. Yet, this is not as much an exercise in lamenting as it is an observation. After all, we are talking about stereotypes here, which are, to begin with, a dysfunctional aspect of human interactions that most thoughtful individuals don’t go by.

The bigger question for us is what, if anything, do we do about this? The point is not to disown or distance ourselves from our heritage. Assimilation is a complex process that each one of us has to negotiate individually as per our unique set of circumstances and backgrounds.

Growing up in Mumbai, a city which at the time had an amazingly cosmopolitan spirit, I have seen how Maharashtrians, Gujaratis, Punjabis, Bengalis, Tamilians and many more of India’s regional ethnicities coexisted beautifully while each maintaining their identity and pride with nonchalance.

Despite recent political overtones that may suggest otherwise, America too has been envisioned in such a cosmopolitan spirit that encourages us to look beyond surface differences and into our common humanity. I am optimistic that caricatures like Apu will become relics in a generation or less.

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