Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is a legend of Indian cinema.
Over the past eleven years, several Simpsons characters have made their way into the zeitgeist--several of whom are minority characters. But rather than being vilified, Apu has been claimed, somewhat lovingly, by Indian convenience store owners everywhere. How do I know? In December of 1989, the year The Simpsons hit the small screen, my family packed up our lives and moved north, to own and operate a Food Store.
Apu makes owning the Kwik-E-Mart look easy. Running a convenience store in real life is hard work - early mornings, late nights, few holidays. For the three years my parents had “the shop”, they were up before dawn and in bed after midnight. Back then, Indians weren’t the majority of convenience store owners--in Australia, anyway--and Apu meant nothing to any of us. For my brother and me, the shop was fun--we chased each other with pricing guns, ate far too much ice cream out of the sales case, and lounged in the fridge half-heartedly stacking milk on hot days. When my parents sold the shop in late 2001, we cried.
But my attachment to our family Food Store dwindled as Apu’s popularity skyrocketed. Where I once related funny stories--the lady who bought her dog ice cream every day, and let him lick it directly out of the package, the time we trolley raced around the aisles in socks and nearly took out a Coke display--I now kept my mouth shut, and my family’s history as Apus a secret.
Despite my marvelous secret-keeping abilities, Apu’s catch phrase still haunted me. Every time someone learned I was part Indian (my husband included), they’d immediately shout, “Thank you, come again!” At first, I gritted my teeth but let it slide. But by my second year of university, I’d had enough. Whenever someone greeted me with the dreaded phrase, I’d launch into a lecture on stereotyping and racism. Soon, though, my lectures devolved into fist-curling rants--
“Do you know how racist that is? Not all Indians are shopkeepers, and even if they are, they do not all say ‘Thank you, come again’ like they just got off the damned boat! And furthermore, we don’t only eat curry in a hurry, and I hate Bollywood musicals!”
Unsurprisingly, the rants didn’t help. They just made things worse. Some days, all I wanted was to punch something, but I couldn’t afford it. My dorm charged a 200% cost-of-replacement fee.
Sometime while I was at university, my uncle and aunt moved up to the coast, settling near my parents. Within a year, they bought a convenience store. At first, I was appalled - how could they encourage the stereotype? How would their kids cope with the constant Apu-baiting? But neither my cousins nor my chacha and chachi cared about the stereotype. In fact, they embraced it, my uncle going out of his way to say “Thank you, come again,” to white customers in a just off-the-boat voice. When I asked him about it, he shrugged.
“Why does it matter, Peta? It’s just a bit of fun, and it makes them laugh. And if they laugh, they might remember me when they need something, and come back in, and I’ll make a sale. And then I’ll say it again, and it’ll start over again.”
I, being 18 and in complete understanding of the universe, gaped in a most unladylike way. “But they’re laughing at us! And you’re letting them!” My chacha shrugged again. “They’re only laughing at us if we’re not laughing, too. And Apu is pretty funny.” Putting on a silly grin, he did the Indian head bobble, and said the dreaded phrase again. This time, it didn’t bother me so much.
Today, I still don’t say it, even when asked (yes, people really do ask). But I don’t steam up either, because, as much as I hate the idea of stereotyping, Apu has given NRIs a safe, easy way to connect with non-Indians and find common ground. Now, when someone hits me with the t-y-c-a bomb, I smile, then ask how they liked the latest episode.