Second Place for High School Prose
The Obama Academy of International Studies is not a beautiful building. If it was beautiful once, that beauty is lost, irreparably draped by dingy brick so that windows and light are rarer than emeralds within its crowded hallways. The students that pile in through its five front doors every morning, Monday through Friday, are different. They are what Baldwin and Wells would have celebrated: the admixture of mankind, owing an allegiance not to their kin but to the noble hordes of humanity itself.
I’m joking, of course. They are different. No one is a building, no person a towering edifice, and none of them can be at peace with each other or with the place of their being.
The students of the Obama Academy of International Studies are a raging river of emotions, of war and battle between races and classes and people. They can, to the outside observer, be separated into two major groups, and then into teeming fractals of those two powers. Occupying the central territory are the white people and the black people, equal in their inherent American-ness, even as the white people grow weaker in power every year. On the outside of that natural boundary, that grey moat that cannot be crossed except by the chosen few, are the others. The minorities among the minorities, the token representatives of the forgotten peoples and the distant nations of the old world. Five of the native peoples of the Americas, their bloodlines so diluted that they are not autochthonous but light-rooted. The mixed-blood children of the Nahuatl and the conquistadors, of the Pueblo and Esteban, of John Henry and Marilyn Monroe. Two descendants of the fertile deltas and the roaring waters. And me. I am, alone among the six-hundred some students of the Obama Academy of International Studies, 9-12 only, a भ।रतपुत्र.
This is not new. This is the norm. I began surrounded by an alliance of colors, 20 children crowded into the basement the house of God for six hours a day, speaking the speech of Cervantes and Márquez. And then, for nine years, I was alone. Skin the color of canyon sandstone, dark in the summer, ruddy in winter. The token representative of a billion children of the Ganges, ambassador to a nation that assumed I spoke for all my kith and kin. To be an Indian child at the Fanny Edel Falk School was, in my youth, to be a curiosity of the highest order. A curiosity to a crowd that drew breath from half the nations of Europe, but knew only three children with skin darker than weak tea. I was, in my first 180 days of high school education, bombarded.
Hey man, do you know my friend from ECS? His name is Rohun. He’s so stupid. He
must be the stupidest Indian I’ve ever met.
No Fred, I don’t. But hey, do you know this Polish kid I know? The only way he’s related to you is that his grandmother immigrated from the same Old Country in the same century. But hey, you’re both Poles… right?
And no, Chandragupta is not my daddy. He was, alternatively, a third-century before Jesus of Nazareth emperor who united India, pummeled the Greeks, slaughtered his enemies, and created the greatest empire in India since the fall of the sons of Kuru… or a third-century after Christ emperor who united India, routed the Huns, married his enemies, and created the greatest empire in India since the fall of the Mauryas. Neither of those people are my fucking daddy.
Oh, and before you ask, I have no interest in trying out the Kama Sutra.
But Obama students are enlightened, you know. When they make assumptions about me, they don’t assume my parents are 7-11 owners or motel proprietors. They assume they’re rich doctors. Clearly, the times are a-changin’.
There’s one thing, though, that I’ve saved, the one thing I’ve taken to heart. The best for last, I suppose. The years of my childhood were passed in the company of books and comedians. I was born into a house of a people who moved across a world for opportunity. Never, my dear, were The Simpsons in play. Perhaps that was a missed opportunity, for the day I walked into the dry, drab edifice that is the Obama Academy of International Studies, they very quickly entered the game. The questions always begin innocuously. Religion, culture, parents, kindred, food. In the spring of 2017, I walked through the halls towards seventh period, the ramshackle collection of students and teachers that the Civics class had devolved into. The Lusophone Mr. Danley had been removed from the premises. Pushing a child into a locker—the straw that broke the capybara’s back. There were other things, too, but I failed to figure them out. Now our education on the great matters of the governance of man was insolvent, its proprietor a friendly, scraggly-bearded chauvinist who was not equipped to teach. So we sat about in irregular oblong formation, our desks drawn together in a simulacrum of active discussion. And we discussed. We did far more learning, in those several weeks, than we ever had in the past. Death one day, religion the next, the clash of civilizations third. It was on that day that I first heard the name of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. I had heard “Thank you, come again,” screeched laughingly with a terrible Indian accent, many times by then, and “Daevan Mangalmurti’s Pharmaceutical Company” had come into this world only two weeks before, but I shrugged both off. Casual mockery like that happens everywhere; Obama students are just part of the great wide American wolfpack. But Apu was different. I opened myself up to it at first. I asked where these strange sayings came from. I never should have, knowing that kids who had known Richard Knight for ten years were still willing to call him Harambe when push came to shove, but I did. When push comes to shove, I’m an idiot, I suppose. Charles told me it was inspired by Apu. I asked who Apu was. Damian asked me if I had never watched The Simpsons before. I said no. And they all started laughing. And then one of them called me Apu. It was probably Richard. Funny, isn’t it? I didn’t understand it then. But I felt angry enough about it to be insulted, because this was not looking good. But I didn’t know enough, and there wasn’t anything I could do.
So I went home, and I asked Google about Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. Name inspired by a beloved series of Bengali classic films. Not bad. A cartoon character with skin the color of turmeric and a fake Indian accent. Not great. Voiced by a white guy. Looking worse. Subject of an upcoming documentary on racism. Oh boy. How bad could this be, anyways? Pretty bad, it turns out. Calling me Apu is like calling a black man Sambo. And if no one of any decency uses the word Sambo in 2017, why does anyone use Apu? It’s demeaning, it’s insulting, and it assumes that all Indian people are the same and not worthy of their own individual characteristics by overshadowing them with a collection of negative American stereotypes of Indians. If you’re an Indian-American kid growing up in a normal place with normal parents, Apu is a shadow hanging over you wherever you go, whatever you do. Don’t take it from me. Take it from Priyanka Chopra. Or Hasan Minhaj. Or Aasif Mandvi or Kal Penn or Aziz Ansari or Hari Kondabolu. Apu is the cartoon equivalent of Ashton Kutcher in brownface in a 2012 Popchips ad being replayed on our television screens every day, every hour, for 29 years. Twenty-nine years. Since Apu appeared on our televisions screens, we’ve imprisoned thousands for low-level drug offenses, a bunch of fanatics have flown planes into American icons, a black man has ascended to the presidency, and South Asian-Americans have climbed, bit by bit, into the American media mainstream. But Apu stays, day in and day out.
Racism against minority minorities in the United States comes from all sides. In the 80s, Dotbuster gangs formed in New Jersey to attack Indian women. In the 2000s white people tried to kill some of us if we looked terrorist-y enough. The other Asians, the real Asians—we’re not Asian to them. And now, African-American kids call me Apu. I don’t know why people don’t understand how pejorative that is, even when I try to explain it to them time and time again. I haven’t been called Apu in months, and I haven’t been told “Thank you, come again” in an even longer time. But Charles still has me as Apu in his contacts, and Evan Wessely still asks me if Chandragupta is my daddy. This is not the end. I am going to be part of my dingy, flourishing community for two more years. And, in all likelihood, unless he is carefully murdered with his own success by my people, Apu will be too. And so will questions, ignorant and racist, that will dog me for years beyond now. But now is as good a time to start changing that as any.
I cannot say, in all honesty, that I hate Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. He is the symptom, not the cause. But he has inched too far into my life and the lives of people like me for me to laugh at him as another might do. Apu may seem inconsequential, but looking at me and calling me Apu is wrong, it’s bigoted, and it shouldn’t happen, because it perpetuates the identification of every Indian in this country as Apu, as a racist stereotype of 1.3 billion people concocted three decades ago and unchanged since. Names matter.
Racism hits all of us, and it doesn’t matter if the person hurling slurs is black or white, brown or red. We always have a chance to be better than our past. My fear is that we shall not seize it.
Names changed to respect privacy.