Good-bye Gunga Din

A new social force to be reckoned with is the South Asian, a term that includes Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshi, among others. These folks are relatively new to these shores and show a keen business sense and high regard for education.  Inexorably, they are wending their way to the top of American society – politics, corporations, academia – and even to our neighborhoods where gaudy “McMansions” announce their arrival.   Our UN ambassador Nikki Haley is Indian American.  The Kahn Family who famously lectured Donald Trump on the U.S. Constitution at the Democratic Convention hails from Pakistan.  South Asians are not coming here to dig America’s ditches or to serve by the hundreds of thousands in our military, as our Italian immigrants did.  Rather, they come not as Kipling’s “lesser breeds” but often with university degrees.  They have been so successful in so short a time that they now have the luxury to complain about their media image.

Their number one gripe: the animated character Apu on The Simpsons, a convenience store clerk with a humorous accent.  South Asian-American actors and comedians want Apu to disappear.  And they have many media allies like reviewers Robert Ito of the NY Times, and Vernon Gay of Newsday, cheering them on.  One comedian takes it personally, condemning Apu as a “white guy’s [voiceover] making fun of my father.”

That white guy is Hank Azaria, a Jewish American actor who has been doing Apu for thirty years. It seems ethnic stereotypes are a Jewish specialty.  From Chico Marx to Bill Dana’s Jose Jimenez and Buddy Hackett’s Chinese waiter – complete with rubber band to squint his eyes – Jewish entertainers have had their way with the other ethnic groups.  Most Seinfeld episodes were dependent on ethnic stereotypes, from Babu the Pakistani immigrant played by an Israeli-British actor, to the Arabic “Soup Nazi,” and any Puerto Rican in New York.

Leading the chorus of Apu critics is comedian Hari Kondabolu who gathered his fellow entertainers to produce a one-hour documentary called The Problem with Apu.  Azaria ignored calls for an interview on film but Kondabolu managed to corral Whoopi Goldberg to spread his polemic on TV and the social media.  Kondabolu also has a sideline routine dissing Christopher Columbus for his “stupidity” in misnaming Indigenous Americans “Indians.”  Like the myriad Columbus-haters, he doesn’t quite grasp his own debt to the courageous Italian for opening an entire hemisphere to real Indians.

South Asian critics conveniently ignore another Simpsons character named Fat Tony, the show’s longtime stereotype of Italians as mobsters.  Fat Tony is happily voiced by actor Joe Mantegna, who isn’t the least bit bothered by Italian defamation if it pays well.

South Asians have a whole shopping list of stereotypes in old movies and new sitcoms they want to expunge. And unlike most Italian American actors, South Asian celebrities seem to have a genuine ethnic pride that recoils at playing stereotypes.  They are truly blessed!

As political correctness diffuses into every facet of our society, insulting characters are not the only targets. Reality itself will need to conform to positive expectations.  Should South Asian children be raised with images of South Asia’s poverty, its degrading caste system, or its Third World sanitation?  Should African American children be shielded from the truth that African tribes traded their fellow Blacks to White slavers for simple consumer goods?  We have already spared Chinese American children the old “Red China” label because a murderous Communist motherland is nothing to be proud of.

My colleagues at the Italic Institute can only marvel at all of this. Everyone is demanding respect and positive media images while Italian Americans continue to provide guilt-free entertainment to the nation daily in the form of Mafia movies, Mafia documentaries, Guido revivals, and geriatric Cosa Nostra round-ups in the news.

We should be so lucky to have only Apu the convenience store clerk to embarrass us.   – JLM

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