The World of Apu
This is a cross-post on the group blog Pickled Politics.
BLOGGERS often begin by stating their credentials on their topic of choice – so let me assure you, you will not find a more devoted fan of The Simpsons. Yet I write this with some trepidation as I recently had my impression that the world loves all things Springfield shaken.
As an Asian, I’ve always felt some affinity towards Apu. Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is the industrious convenience store-owner and one of the major cast characters, with several episodes revolving entirely around him. Growing up in my middle class corner of London, I have never felt that Apu’s character could carry any negative connotations; however several American South Asian chaps recently expressed their intense dislike of Apu. I wondered why. For them, Apu personifies every stereotype they wish to shake off. He’s got a thick accent, he spent many years living in the US illegally, works in a cornershop, had an arranged marriage, rips off his customers, is continually the butt of Homer’s jokes about Hinduism and has an unpronounceable long surname. Brown-skinned Americans, especially those living outside the major cosmopolitan cities, have come to associate Apu with insults – Apu’s catchphrase “Thank you, come again!” is shouted as abuse by thick-headed bigots.
So let me explain why I think Apu is a positive character for Asians – particularly those living outside India. One could legitimately claim that Apu is a fascinating case study of Indians immigrants, their trials, tribulations and triumphs. Had The Simpsons been a live-action show, Apu would have represented the first regular South Asian character on a prime time show outside the subcontinent. I still find it quite remarkable that way back at the start of the 90s, the makers of The Simpsons decided to include him. To argue that he is a stereotype is to miss the whole point of the cartoon. Everyone is a stereotype, that’s how The Simpsons works – it plays up to our stereotypes to create a realistic microcosm of America’s social structure. Springfield is populated with all walks of life – I’m sure we all know a Barney - propping up the bar, a Ned Flanders – goodie two-shoes bible-basher, a Wiggum – incompetent cop and like it or not, we all know Apu; just go to your cornershop. In comparison to Bumblebee Man and Krusty's father (woefully stereoptypical Mexican and Jew), Apu is a very rounded character indeed.
Plenty of Indians work in convenience stores. Plenty of Indians are doctors. Hence these tend to be roles brown actors are frequently cast in – yet few criticise the character of an Indian doctor in a drama/soap/film. Matt Groening and The Simpsons’ creators are no fools (in fact they demonstrate their intellectual chops with Apu’s name – an homage to Satyajit Ray’s legendary Apu Trilogy) and they chose Apu’s profession deliberately. Scratch the surface and you find Apu is far more than just a token brown. He embodies the things that have made Asian immigrants some of the most successful communities in America, the UK and elsewhere. He works relentlessly, the famous Asian work ethic means he stays at his post about 23 hours a day and has been shot 8 times ("Ah! The searing kiss of hot lead; how I missed you! I mean, I think I'm dying."). In fact the penalty for shooting Apu is now just $100 and he claims he can survive any calibre up to 9mm. It's funny, but armed violence is often the reality for store workers across America.
With a computer science PhD, he is freakishly over-qualified for his job, due to the fact he was unable to land anything paying more as an immigrant. The topic of his arranged marriage was dealt with in a realistic, although somewhat twee, way – he was reluctant to acquiesce to his mum’s request, but met his bride-to-be and fell in love. At a time when many Westerners equate arranged marriage with forced marriage, this was a welcome plot. In contrast to the generally buffoon-like idiots that inhabit Springfield, Apu is educated and far more knowledgeable about American history:
Homer: Are you sure you don't want to come? In a civil war re-enactment we need lots of Indians to shoot.
Apu: I don't know what part of that sentence to correct first.
Proctor: All right, here's your last question. What was the cause of the Civil War?
Apu: Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and inter--
Proctor: Wait, wait... just say slavery.
Apu: Slavery it is, sir.
Some argue that it’s far more useful for NRIs (non-resident Indians) to have characters who are of Indian heritage, but otherwise identical to other characters, to show the white man “look we’re just like you!”. However I think most white people are capable of accepting the fact we’re NOT like them in some respects, without feeling threatened. Apu could’ve been like countless characters in British soaps or TV shows, called Bobby or Kurt, distinguishable as Asian only by their colour. Apu’s Indian-ness is apparent for all to see and yet he is great friends with all the other Springfielders, especially Homer.
So why did I post this on a politics blog as well as here? Because Apu’s story is all about integration, a topic that crops up again and again. Apu hasn’t sacrificed any of his cultural identity, he displays a statue of Ganesh proudly and is a strict vegan, yet he has become an integral cog in the small town somewhere in America’s heartland. The citizens are fond of him and he has made some real friends, and even sung in a hit barbershop quartet. He is a three-dimensional person, not a token Dr Patel who reads an X-ray and vanishes for a few episodes of whatever series you happen to be watching.
He has also faced racism and prejudice of his own – when Springfield renamed itself Libertyville in a nationalistic fervour, Apu was scared into acting American (“let’s take a relaxed attitude towards work and watch baseball”) and renaming his children (all of whom have very Indian names) Coke, Pepsi, Condoleezza, Lincoln, Freedom, Apple Pie, Manifest Destiny and Superman. When The Simpsons satirised the scapegoating of immigrants with Proposition 24, Apu was targeted by Mayor Quimby to distract voters from bear attacks!
Finally, Apu has done what we’ve all done as part of a defence mechanism – seen the funny side and occasionally taken the piss out of condescending white folk:
Snooty lady: Attendant, I’d like some gas.
Apu: Yes I’m sorry I do not speak English.
Snooty lady: But you were just talking to-
Apu: Yes, yes. Hot dog, hot dog. Yes sir, no sir. Maybe, okay.
To conclude (I know I’ve rambled), I can easily see why Apu is loathed by some NRIs. Had I grown up in a racist neighbourhood, I may have received the same Apu-abuse they have. But I think I would have still loved Apu. He was a hero to me when very few Asian people were on TV. And The Simpsons has blazed a trail in portraying him as Indian through and through, not a 'coconut'. Take Star Trek, another American institution. Since its inception it endeavoured to be politically correct, with a multinational cast. Yet none of the characters had any traits from their cultures other than perhaps a dodgy accent. Fast forward to the late 90s and Star Trek Voyager and you find characters talking about native American spirit guides and ‘my people’.
Apu: Today, I am no longer an Indian living in America. I am an Indian-American.
Lisa: You know, in a way, all Americans are immigrants. Except, of course Native Americans.
Homer: Yeah, Native Americans like us.
Lisa: No, I mean American Indians.
Apu: Like me.
British TV shows have featured Asians for many years (a good thing of course) but only recently have they become real people with back stories, families and the things that make Asians Asian.
Apu (and Matt Groening) I salute you.
Thank you, please come again.
Labels: pickled politics, race, simpsons
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