The Indian Invasion Theory
June 29, 2013
You know something's up when American television notices you.
"Welcome back," said my friend a few months ago. I had returned to the US after four years. "Things are different here now. There are Indian characters all over television!"
This is definitely not the America I used to know. Something happened here in the four years I was gone. I had moved to America in 1999 as an undergraduate student, and I had gone on to live here for ten years. A lot of things happened in that time - MP3 music, Ricky Martin, and the War on Terror. I left America a few days after the country's first Black vaguely-Muslim/Arab-sounding president won the election. I was a Muslim but most Americans didn't realise it because I looked very Indian. I was almost grateful - Indians were invisible in those days. India was the new Switzerland - neutral, inoffensive, safe. Mine was the golden passport. The only Indian person most Americans were familiar with then was Appu, the character from "The Simpsons." "Thank you, come again." A handful of Americans had heard of this new thing called "Bollywood," and all the college kids were very curious about the Kamasutra and "Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle," but for the most part, the Indian community in America was benign.
Boy, has that changed.
There is definitely one Indian person hovering around somewhere on every major television show. For someone who has just returned to the US after being away for a few years, it's startling. It's startling to be noticed. Indian people are what gay men were to American television in the 2000s - they are the new super-hit formula! They are to American television what "No. 1" was to Akshay Kumar and Govinda was to David Dhawan.
My first few months back in the US I had got into the habit of calling out any Indian person I saw on television (it could've worked as a drinking game). Raj and Priya in "The Big Bang Theory," Timmy in "Rules of Engagement," Tom in "Parks and Recreation," Abed in "Community," Kevin in "How I Met Your Mother," Jonathan on "30 Rock." A girl on "Community" once gushed about handsome, Indian doctors, and in one episode, the cast of "Rules of Engagement" performed a Bollywood-style dance. Raj, who has the most authentic Indian accent on television, keeps dropping references to India in an otherwise thoroughly White American show. I almost jumped when he moped about being on an H1B work visa. Been there!
Television advertisements have also started featuring more than their usual share of Indian-looking models. I've almost stopped feeling surprised at the presence of an Indian-looking person in any group of racially diverse models being marketed as the typical American customers. I remember one Indian fellow in a pizza chain commercial - he even had lines! Vonage had dedicated one whole commercial to a middle-aged Indian lady who happily trilled "Abbhi Na Jaao Chhorhkar" as she talked about how she used Vonage's international calling service to keep in touch with her mom in India. I now find waxing and threading parlours in mainstream malls - since when did people in America start doing their eyebrows and upper lips!? Regular movie theaters like the AMC where I live in St. Louis carry Hindi movies almost every week. Last week they were showing Yamla Pagla Deewana 2. What! I'd spent over a year in Delhi before returning to America, and I feel like I am still there!
All this might not mean anything to you unless you understand that America is a very television-oriented society. Trends on television get absorbed into regular society very quickly, and some people treat their favourite fictional characters as real people. They feel for them, they root for them, they buy a lot (a LOT) of their merchandise. Some people even want to BE like them. To many people, television is reality; people learn about the world - what is right, what is wrong, what is acceptable - through television. As a medium, television reflects the society it arises from.
I wonder what all of this means for the Indian community in America. They have obviously reached some sort of tipping point. Maybe the first couple of American-born generations have found their footing in this country. Maybe Indian people represent some sort of important consumer bloc here.
When I first came to the US, most Americans used to hear "Indian" and think "Native-American." I think that's changing now. A few weeks ago, an old, White American couple from a very small town came in to see my husband at the hospital where he works, and they were delighted to discover that he was from India. "Like Raj!" they said. "He says "indeed" a lot - do you say it too?"