Thank You Come Again

This is kind of old news, but I guess I was a little afraid to touch the topic. I was feeling guilty about being just as excited as all the tourists that have been lining up outside the Kwik-E-Marts  across the country. The 7-11 cross-promotion with The Simpsons Movie sounded awesome when I first heard about it. And I wanted to go. And I did. Twice. Yes, I ate a pink frosted donut and drank a squishy with glee. And I would have bought Krusty-O’s if they weren’t sold out both times I went (the second time, I missed the last box by ten customers!)

My first excursion was about  a week ago and I was with a group of Koreans. Before we went, I asked them if Apu were a Korean character would we feel the same way about this? None of them seemed to have a clear answer and all of them seemed to forget I even asked the question once they saw the glow of the Kwik-E-Mart sign. I kept going back and forth about it this in my head because I love Apu, but I could also see why some people might feel like this publicity stunt was insensitive to the South Asian community.

I had seen the blogs that were very anti-7-11 like from Ultrabrown:

“Desi 7-Eleven owners, among others, are being asked to greet their
customers with a banner mocking their ethnicity and accent as a promo
for the

movie. Next they’ll be asked to don turbans and bow to customers while lisping”

But it still didn’t sit right with me as simply something we should write off as racist. To me, Apu is one of the most complexly written South Asian American characters. Yes, he has a funny accent and he has a stereotypical job, but from watching The Simpsons for such a long time, I also knew that he was much more than just the “Thank You. Come Again.” guy.  For a cartoon, he had a rich background and has consistently been featured prominently in the series. He is also very unapologetically Indian (and Indian American) culturally.

I finally asked one of my South Asian friends what he thought and he pointed me to this blog entry from The Daily Rhino:

“Scratch the surface and you find Apu is far more than just a token brown. He embodies the things that have made Asian immigrants some of the most successful communities in America, the UK and elsewhere.”

I think I have to agree with The Daily Rhino in his assesment of Apu. I think it is similar to some of the criticism I’ve gotten for my own work. Some people were upset that Ernest Chin in The Motel is fat and awkward. Some people were upset that I was focusing on Korean gangsters in West 32nd. Some people just want unnaturally positive portrayals of Asians (though I think if they actually saw a movie where all the characters were well-adjusted, perfect Asian people, they’d be bored out of their mind). Regardless in both cases of my films, what I tried to do was create fully fleshed out three-dimensional characters. By doing that, hopefully, I have subverted the stereotypes and shown Asians in a truly positive and complex light. Much like Apu.

As far as the people that are upset that the real 7-11 workers have to don the Kwik-E-Mart smocks (many of whom are actually South Asian), I think the biggest defense is that these guys are making serious bank. Also I am pretty sure that the store owners volunteered their stores for transformation — I don’t think the big board room of old white men at 7-11 forced them to do it. These stores are franchises, so each owner must have made the decision on their own and from that pool of willing stores the old white guys must have chosen which ones could be Kwik-E-fied. I am sure there is  a section of folks that will mock these guys with a racist “Thank You Come Again,” but who has the last laugh when they are the ones spending $5 for pink doughnuts?


9 thoughts on “

  1. I’ve gone back and forth on Abu, but I think you’re right. Abu is one of the most complex characters on The Simpsons and he is the only regular Indian American character I can think of (well, Abu and the doctor on ER) on primetime. More than nearly any other character on the show, I think he is also drawn mostly sympathetically.

  2. As an Asian American, I am all for seeing all facets of each culture, good or otherwise. The problem I think, for many of us is that it only stays within the boundaries of the Asian American community when it needs to be wider spread to those who only choose to see certain aspects of our culture. (I can’t even begin to tell you how sick I am of seeing Asian male actors as delivery men, lab coat techs, or martial arts follies that get beat up by the “good guys.”)Off the top of my head I can think of films that portray a wider variety of characters, (Harold and Kumar, Saving Grace, Red Doors, BLT, and of course your films), and it’s greatly appreciated. But how many people outside the Asian American community actually watch those films with interest? The problem is that it isn’t played much outside the independent movie houses in areas that have a large Asian American population. Perhaps the internet can help change that in some fundamental way, that the proliferation of independent films via the web will help form a new consciousness. And that new consciousness that will drive more Asian Americans to be filmmakers like you, who will do what they can to influence moviegoers to see a new perspective.

  3. I’m preaching to the choir here as you, of all people, know our plight well…but just to reiterate what Fubabee said, yes, it’s not so much that characters like Abu, the delivery guy, or martial artist exist. For the most part, immigrants, FOBs, whatever you want to call them live here in America. They’re ingrained in our landscape, so if you want to write a story that has a Mexican laborer or a Vietnamese seamstress speaking broken English, I ain’t mad at ya. What I am mad at, what our community is mad at (for those of us that care anyway – because it’s sad, but I believe of the AA’s who live in the States, really only a small small percentage of us really care about these things – but that’s another topic), and why we have knee-jerk reactions to these characters – no matter how complex they may be – is the way too minuscule amount of Asian characters who aren’t these such beings. For every Abu that runs a 7-11 in the States, there is a Vik who grew up in Jersey working on Wall Street. For every Ming Chow (sigh – a character I once played) from China here, there is a Brian who was born in Ohio (who is Chinese.) The way it plays out, and SAG ought to do a study, it seems like for every 5 Abu/Ming’s around there is 1 Vik/Brian in television/film here in the US. It’s the imbalance that hits us in the gut the hardest. It’s the imbalance that makes me want to stick a box of pink donuts in some writers’/producers’ heads so they draw inspiration to create some more positive colourful characters.Now I want a slurpee.

  4. I basically agree with the points you made.  Apu reminds me of the Vietnamese characters on “King of the Hill.”  They speak with a heavy accent and the father is kind of an a**hole, but the characters are actually pretty well-rounded.  I think Apu and other such characters would be problematic if all we saw were the stereotypes, and nothing else. 

  5. I love Apu! Apu is actually a big deal, I think. People bring him up in conversation, not just to laugh about. Some things, if they’re taken away for whatever reason the powers- that-be decide, you miss and you’re sad.
    And Ernest is just the cutest thing!
    My best friend/sister is Indian. She would say “The Simpsons? I don’t watch it dear, honestly. You can ask A. (Her 6 year old)”.
    For some reason, so many car license plates start with APU here. “Look! Apu!”

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