Saturday, July 28

NYT: One man’s path to a 7-Eleven

The NYT finally gets on the ball and covers the Simpsons / 7-Eleven controversy:

Chaudhari’s store

… Apu has “always grated on me… He is a very crude ethnic character, and while there are many other crude ethnic characters on the show…” Apu is the only one with a stereotypical singsong accent, “like the accent that Chinese-Americans find so insulting.”

Apu’s character is also in a stereotypical business… By contrast, a black character on the show is a physician and a Latino character is an unemployed actor in a bee suit… In some parts of the country… “Apu” and his signature line of dialogue, “Thank you, come again,” have both become racist taunts… [Link]

The angle humanizes the store owner in Times Square rather than treating him as ‘an actual Apu behind the counter.’ All the national press interviews the same guy because his made-over store is the closest to media company headquarters. But he doesn’t actually watch much of The Simpsons:

For Mr. [Andy] Chaudhari, the 7-Eleven owner, said the dispute seemed overblown. “You cannot take everything to heart,” he said. Mr. Chaudhari, 38, has watched The Simpsons, but confessed that his 14-year-old daughter, Nisha, has to explain the jokes to him

Of all the figures in the store, however, by far the most popular is Kwik-E-Mart’s unscrupulous proprietor, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon (pronounced Ah-poo Nah-HAHS-ah-PEEMA-pet-uh-lin), born in India, with a thick accent to prove it… At first glance, it is hard to detect that Apu is a controversial character. At the 42nd Street store, South Asians of all ages giggle, put their arms around the Apu cutout’s neck and have photographs taken with him… [Link]

His story is that of a classic small business entrepreneur:

Originally from Samou Motawas, a small city in the western state of Gujarat, India, Mr. Chaudhari is the son of a schoolteacher and the grandson of a school principal. He came to the United States in 1988, when he was 20, after getting a graduate degree in business. With the economy of India faltering, Mr. Chaudhari said, he came “for better opportunity.”

Working in an auto parts factory and later as the owner of a grocery store that failed, Mr. Chaudhari, following the immigrant path that inspired the Apu character, worked as a general manager for an Indian friend who owned a 7-Eleven store in New Jersey… “When my team is throwing out product, like expired sandwiches, I am happy,” Mr. Chaudhari said. “That means they have not run out of product.”

Has he ever been robbed? “No, never,” said Mr. Chaudhari, who also owns two 7-Elevens in New Jersey, where he lives. Each store is fully staffed with as many as four people round the clock, which Mr. Chaudhari said deters robbers…

As for the Kwik-E-Mart makeover, that ends on Tuesday… He said he would love for the campaign to last months longer, even, he half joked, forever. But, Mr. Chaudhari said, without a trace of Apu, “What are you going to do?” [Link]

· · · · ·

Meanwhile, the NJ Star-Ledger crunched the numbers to see whether the stereotype was true:

Yes, Asian Indians in New Jersey are more likely than average to hold Apu’s position. About 1 in 5 self-employed grocery store workers are Asian Indian, compared to 1 in 38 Asian Indians in the workforce as a whole. But the number of Asian Indian retail clerks is quite small overall in relation to the state’s Asian Indian population. For every Asian Indian running a convenience store, there are five working as computer programmers or doctors… [Link]

The leading professions in New Jersey are in software, banking and medicine. Shockingly, musician, underemployed writer and trust fund layabout don’t figure in the Jersey top 10.

[As] Percent of All Asian Indian Workers

Computer Services: 10.7%
Securities: 5.6%
Hospitals: 4.7%
Banking: 4.2%
Doctors Offices: 3.4%
Restaurants: 3.1%
Grocery Stores: 3.0%
Pharmaceuticals 2.8%
Engineering 2.2% [Link]

So the stereotype arises mainly from front-line customer service professions:

They are the South Asians most visible to the mainstream, given the prevalence of these small businesses, and they are also often the ones in the front line of criminal attacks, petty crime, and anti-immigrant violence… [Link]

· · · · ·

An India Currents contributor whose father once worked in a convenience store, said he’d love to see more desi store owners in the media. Like clockwork, the Simpsons promo came out a couple of months after the piece:

… despite the large proportion of South Asians and other minorities in the convenience store arena, we are yet to see a 7-Eleven or AM-PM commercial that acknowledges this fact… [it] would cause such companies to appear to have been overtaken by immigrants… [Link]

But he worried such promotions would be highly stereotypical:

The reality of who runs convenience markets has been relegated, instead, to the fictional representations in any number of television programs and films that are mockingly xenophobic, etching the image of the middle-aged, sometimes turbaned, funnily accented, angry brown man and his hapless wife deeply into the imagination of the American viewing public. This has been proven nowhere better than with… Apu, Kwik-E-Mart clerk of The Simpsons…

[The National Association of Convenience Stores] proudly claimed “Apu May Not Be All That Bad for Convenience Store Image,” citing the character’s work ethic as inspirational, and chiding him only for flouting commonly held theft-deterrence rules by having a rifle behind his store’s counter…

… when a second-generation South Asian American youth came face-to-face with a first-generation, older, desi clerk being terrorized by young white bullies in Harold and Kumar… one of those rare moments in mainstream film history that acknowledges the diversity of immigrant identities, Kumar ambivalently flip-flops between aiding the clerk and then leaving him to the devices of the vagrants… [Link]

Prescient, but sadly not surprising.



 Comment feed
  1. 1concatenatrix

    Another point of view just occurred to me…regarding the protest against Simpson’s Apu..

    Aren’t we being elitist by insisting that Indians in the US are all doctors/engineers/wall st bankers and pretending the likes of Apu don’t exist? Don’t the grocery store owners deserve their share of media? Wouldn’t they resent being made invisible, just because some Indian lawyer or banker feels it doesn’t describe him?

    This issue might turn out to be more Indian educated/rich v/s the Indian poor/uneducated, than Desi v/s American.

  2. 2nusratfatehalibhang

    concatenatrix - you obviously grew up in some sort of ugly, elitist household where you were beat with belans for considering non-conformist career tracks. i imagine you rebelled and ended up as a some sort of “artist” or lawyer with a fledging blogspot.

    the rest of us (us being highly accomplished doctors/engineers/bankers), respect store owners for the independence it takes to be a legitimate entrepreneur. the risk-averse have an uncanny appreciation for the risk-takers. and we embrace them as brethren.

    and who said this was desi/american? this issue is sane/ignorant. don’t get it twisted.

  3. 3concatenatrix

    nusratfatehalibhang, you obviously grew up where plain English is not understood. Did you even understand what I wrote? I support the character of Apu, precisely because he represents the non-doctor/lawyer/engineer kind of immigrant, who deserves some representation in the media, which is why I think that engineers/doctors who dislike Apu’s character as not representing themselves, are perhaps being elitist in insisting that all Indians in media should be shown as being highly educated.



  4. 4manish

    Apu actually has a Ph.D. The issue isn’t whether convenience store owners are represented in the media (they’re well represented), it’s that the depiction is highly stereotypical and makes them out to be cunning primitives.

  5. 5queenjean

    Even though I love the Simpsons, and I will trek out to the Kwik-E-Mart on 42nd St. tomorrow, Apu grates on me, as well, for the same reasons you note: he is the only character with a freakishly stereotypical accent. And, yes, I am Chinese-American and hate it when people make fun of the Chinese accent. Unlike exaggerated French accents, for example (which people adore), Chinese and Indian accents are often employed to ridicule and dehumanize. When you mention that “Thank you, come again” has become a taunt, I literally had flashbacks to a taunt from childhood: “Me Chinese, me play joke. Me go pee-pee in your coke.” Sounds harmless and funny enough, but try telling that to a 7-y/o Chinese kid who has that screamed to her face.

  6. 6concatenatrix

    Manish, I disagree here. As I read about the reactions in the media and talk with friends, I find most of the Indians who find Apu ‘grating’ seem to be the professional class, not the store owners. While some may find the depiction of Apu as cunning or mercenary or the fake accent objectionable as you do, many of them actually find the Indians-are-store-owners stereotype more objectionable. This is a class hangover.

    If Apu were a cunning software engineer with a bad accent, or a mercenary scientist with a PhD and a bad accent, there would be none of this talk. We all know this. What we don’t want to be shown as is poor losers.

    (concatenatrix is an engineer, and her nickname happens to be Apu, too )

  7. 7manish

    I find most of the Indians who find Apu ‘grating’ seem to be the professional class, not the store owners.

    It’s actually the opposite: most who are complaining are those who grew up more blue collar and had to endure Apu-ized abuse. Those who grew up in more white collar neighborhoods can afford to shrug it off.

    This is a class hangover. If Apu were a cunning software engineer with a bad accent, or a mercenary scientist with a PhD and a bad accent, there would be none of this talk.

    This businessman who owns three 7-Elevens probably makes more than most doctors. It’s true that it’s harder to work ‘go back to your science lab’ into a racist insult, but the caricature with bad accent, archaic English, weak ethics, 8 kids, illegal immigration entry and religious practices painted as strange is quite independent of profession. On top of that, they leaned on the stereotype of a desi as a convenience store owner for laughs.

  8. 8Kautily

    Fifteen minutes and counting.
    No offense meant to the self appointed spokesperson for all FOBs.

  9. 9manish

    Fifteen minutes and counting.

    13 years.

    the self appointed spokesperson for all FOBs

    You’re too kind, but this 2nd genner doesn’t speak for other snarky bastards.

  10. 10Dan

    Apu, the only stereotypically sounding character? What about Krusty’s dad, Rabbi Krustofsky? Can he sound even more like some old borscht belt schtick? What about the owner of the Japanese restaurant who always sounds like he’s dubbed?

    Apu may be the most used character, but if you think the other ones all talk “normal” than you might be seeing things the way you want to.

  11. 11manish

    Apu, the only stereotypically sounding character

    Of a relatively unknown U.S. minority.

  12. 12Blue

    I just thought it was cute that they so prominently featured your age. ^__^ Did they ask for your astrological sign as well?

    Otherwise, pretty much the same article that we’ve been seeing everywhere else.

  13. 13Kautily

    Manish - I just read your essay linked in # 9, and I stand humbled and corrected.
    My apologies.
    Note to self - Stop jumping to conclusions.

  14. 14manish

    Thanks for checking it out, K.