Just The Average Indian American

by Sharath Menon

This article discusses about the stereotypes that are directed towards Indian diaspora. The word diaspora means a group of people living outside their native land. For example, Portland State University mostly consists of European, Asian, and Mexican diaspora. Indians face all sorts of stereotypes in the US. There have also been lots of racial attacks targeting Indians involving the September 11th attacks. The first stereotype I have observed with many Indians are that they are socially awkward around strangers and how they are stereotyped as franchise of call center employees. My artifact is Raj from The next stereotype about Indians are that they are stereotyped as call center or seven-eleven employees. My artifact is Apu from the Simpsons. My third topic I have looked into was how the Indian diaspora in America is very studious and how they have dominated the spelling bees in the recent years.

There are more stereotypes about Indians such as worshiping cows, working at cell centers, and even being Jihadi terrorists. One excellent source for this topic is Slumdog Millionaire, an award winning movie taking place in the slums and busy streets of Mumbai, India’s largest city. The film is about a boy who grew up in the slums to becoming a chaiwalla (what we call barista here) to winning a millionaire show. This film highlights the poverty and trafficking problem going on in India. Here in Portland, Oregon, Indian Americans are a well respected community that blends in well with the rest of the population because they are seen as outgoing, hardworking, and intelligent. In other parts of the US, Indians do not have a good label as they are stereotyped as rude, impatient, foul smelling, and often generalized with brown skinned people for being terrorists. When I search on Google for “Indians are…”, the first result to pop up was “Indians are rude”.  After the September 11th attacks, Indians have received a lot of attacks. When Nina Davuluri won Miss America last year, there were social networking comments that read “So Miss America is terrorist.” and “Miss America or Miss Al Qaeda?”

Warning: Offensive and Foul Language

http://www.buzzfeed.com/ryanhatesthis/a-lot-of-people-are-very-upset-that-an-indian-american-woman

The main stereotype observed with Indians are that they are socially awkward around other people. My first example of this is Raj from Big Bang Theory. His full name is Rajesh Kootrappali. Raj is an astrophysicist working at Caltech. He behaves hesitant around women as well as his friends. Once in a while Raj talks with his parents over in New Delhi with his laptop and often gets embarrassed by them. As a result, he dislikes his Indian heritage and the Indian culture. Raj tries to socialize with American girls but circumstances do not go well with him as the relationships end after a few days. According to TVGuide, Big Bang Theory was the number one most watch television show in the 2013-14 season with 23.1 million views.

youtube: Raj’s Big Bang Moments

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oYUmIPciTiE

Indian Americans and other South Asians live in tightly knit and social communities, and place a paramount value within their community on academic performance. Growing up also to an Indian community, I have observed that many Indians interact with each other and get together for Indian celebrations such as Diwali. In India, there is a very ancient mechanism being practiced called the Caste System that discriminates based on skin color and wealth. Coming back to Nina Davuluri, notice how she has a darker skin complexion than all the Miss Indias. This brings up another stereotype that Indians lust after white skin. In only two of 81 surveyed countries in a poll, more than 40 percent of respondents said they would not want a neighbor of a different race. This included 43.5 percent of Indians and 51.4 percent of Jordanian. In India, majority of clothing and lingerie stores display trendy fashions on mannequins with blond hair, blue eyes and milky white complexions. Even the advertisements and store posters that use Indian faces promote a look that is unattainable for most Indians: a fair complexion. The most popular Bollywood stars such as Aishwarya Rai, a former Miss World, look more white than Indian. This discussion was reignited after Nina Davaluri, a woman of Indian descent, was crowned Miss America. Many here wondered: Could someone as dark complexioned as Davaluri win a pageant in the country of her heritage?

Screenshot 2014-11-30 at 7.59.39 PMScreenshot 2014-11-29 at 11.13.03 PMScreenshot 2014-11-29 at 11.12.47 PM

Former Miss World Aishwarya Rai (left), other Miss Indians (center and right)

Screenshot 2014-11-29 at 10.41.26 PM

Nina Davuluri, winner of Miss America 2013 (above)

The next topic is how Indians are portrayed as seven eleven employees in popular culture. One example of this is Apu from The Simpsons.  His full name is Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. Despite having a Doctorate’s degree from a prestigious school, Apu is the owner of a franchise called Kwik-e-Mart where he runs the cash register. The Kwik-e-Mart in The Simpsons is the equivalent of a Seven-Eleven in America. The long-running cartoon show called The Simpsons has perpetuated this stereotype with a character named Apu. He has an Indian accent and runs a “Kwik-E-Mart,” a convenience store inspired by 7-Eleven. When the real-life convenience store chain had transformed some of its locations into Kwik-E-Marts to promote the Simpsons movie in 2007, some Indian-American store owners were not exactly thrilled with the idea. Indian-Americans despite constituting less than 1% of the U.S. population, 3% of the nation’s engineers, 7% of its IT workers, and 8% of its physicians and surgeons.

youtube: The Simpsons – All Syrup Super Squishy Bender

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61kHpmenkT8

The final stereotype is how Indians are very smart in memorization skills as they dominate the spelling bees. If anyone follows the spelling bee championships, all the recent winners have been of Indian origin.The last eight national champions and thirteen of the last seventeen have been of Indian descent, a string of victories that began since 1999. The same circumstance is happening in the geography bee as three of the last geography bee winners are of Indian origin. One primary reason for this circumstance is that the Indian culture high emphasis on academic achievement and memorization as well, as a building block of higher-level knowledge. Social expectations around academic performance within the Indian diaspora in US tend to be much higher than in other demographic groups. Arvind Mahankali (pictured below), the 2013 spelling bee champion, says spelling also teaches kids logic, as they use a word’s origin and meaning to deduce its spelling. However, spelling is an exercise in memorization, and while rote learning tends to be scorned in American schools these days, it is central to Indian education, and very much valued by immigrant parents who grew up that way.

Screenshot 2014-11-30 at 7.48.20 PM

Based on my observation with many Indian families, I have noticed the vast majority of them put a large emphasis on education and discipline. As a result, I have noticed many Indian and Chinese students in my middle and high school score the highest academically. In many peoples perspectives, they believe Indians have very long and complex sounding surnames such as that of Raj from Big Bang Theory or Apu from The Simpsons. Below is a video stereotyping immigrant parents versus white parents in the US and Canada. Russell Peters is a Canadian stand-up comedian born to Indian immigrants. He is well known in Canada and the UK but not so known in the states.

youtube: Russell Peters – Beating Your Kids

Warning: Foul Language

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nn5jlrxcpkI

The movie Slumdog Millionaire is an excellent example of how Western media depicts India as the film won multiple Academy awards at the 2009 Oscars for best motion picture, best director, and best music. The film shows the miserable condition and chilling reality of the poverty, slavery, and discrimination that prevail all over India, but focusing in India’s largest city. The film displays the immense wealth divide and the social evils of the Caste system. As a result, many Indians looking for a much better living work very hard to immigrate into many countries. Competition is very high there because only the brightest students can get into universities or make enough money to immigrate to other countries. When you look at images of India, there are a lot of immensely crowded and dirty places and personal space and hygiene is not a concern there. The society and behavior in India is very different than that of the West. One could conclude that is why many Indians in the United States may be perceived as rude, impatient, and socially awkward. Raj from Big Bang Theory spent his childhood in New Delhi and later did his alma mater at California Institute of Technology (Caltech). However here in Portland, I have observed Indian Americans being stereotyped for positive qualities such as hard working and highly intelligent and they are well respected here for that.

Screenshot 2014-11-30 at 7.54.46 PM

In 2007, the median income of households headed by an Indian American was approximately $83,000, compared with $61,000 for East Asians and $55,000 for whites. Despite the occasional Seven-Eleven stereotype that originated from The Simpsons, Indian Americans still enjoy having more financial freedom financial freedom than other ethnic groups in the United States. For many immigrants, especially Indian and Asian immigrants, the American dream is well and alive here.

youtube: Slumdog Millionaire Trailer

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIzbwV7on6Q

Work Cited:

Basu, Moni. “‘White is Beautiful:’ Why India needs its own Oprah Winfrey”, CNN, 26 September 2013. 24 November 2014.

Big Bang Theory, 2007 – present, TV series. TV Show. Comedy. Aired on CBS. Created by Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady. Featuring Kunal Nayyar, Jim Parsons, Johnny Galecki, Kaley Cuoco, Mayim Bialik, and Simon Helberg.

Broderick, Ryan. “A lot of people are very upset an Indian-American won the Miss America Pageant”, Buzzfeed, 15 Sept. 2014. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

Fischer, Max. “A fascinating map of the world’s most and least racially tolerant countries”, Washington Post. 15 May 2013. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

Richwine, Jason. “Indian Americans: The New Model Minority”, Forbes, 24 February 2009. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

The Simpsons, 1989 – present, TV series. Comedy. Aired on Fox. Created by Matt Groening. Featuring Dan Castellaneta, Nancy Cartwright, Julie Kavner, Yeardley Smith, and Hank Azaria.

Slumdog Millionaire, 2008, rated R. Directed by Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan. Music by AR Rahman. Features Dev Patel and Freida Pinto.

Smith, Tovia. “Why Indian-Americans Reign As Spelling Bee Champs”, NPR, 29 May 2012. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.

Why Indian Americans Rule the National Spelling Bee.” LearnThatWord. 2014. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.

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4 thoughts on “Just The Average Indian American

  1. Sharath Menon,

    First let me say that I really enjoyed your paper and I appreciate your use of non text media, it really helped me to understand the portrayals of Indian Americans better. Your information on slum dog millionaire really did a great job of making the point about how Indians have a different social behavior then we are used to in the United States as well as examine poverty and a wealth divide. I also enjoyed your points on the educational and disciplinary actions that Indians tend to go towards. I wish I was good with memorization all skills. It’s good that you gave an explanation to why it may seem to those who live in the states that Indians are socially awkward when in reality it’s just a difference of cultures.your paper gave me a better understanding of Indian Americans, thank you for looking at such an interesting topic.

  2. Dear Sharath,
    I really enjoyed reading your paper! It was both educational and entertaining with the use of video clips and pictures as examples. I thought this was really informative too and gave a lot of background and examples that really painted the issue at hand. Not only that but your examples were perfect for relaying the information–I was familiar with all of the cultural artifacts and knew exactly what you were talking about. I’m also glad that you also brought up (as I’m sure many don’t think about this) that part of the reason we have certain Indian stereotypes is because of the cultural differences. I completely agree that’s probably one of the biggest reasons for the ‘socially awkward’ or rude stereotypes as I feel anyone who comes from a different culture than they live in may appear to act different. Anyway great paper!

    • Thanks! I like to spread some information about the awareness going on when it comes to stereotypes involving racial backgrounds. The main con to this essay is that there is a lot of fear and caution involved in discussing racial issues because race is an extremely sensitive topic.

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