Imagine an Asian film and not one joke about kimchee, Bollywood, arranged marriages, or Chinese takeout. Penn doesn’t have an Apu accent. Cho doesn’t sound like Jackie Chan. Instead, the humor relies on diarrhea, raccoons, burgers, boobs, boils, semen, and pot—tasteless American classics. Harold and Kumar get stoned, get the munchies and crave White Castle burgers. They encounter a cheetah, hang-gliders, and Doogie Hauser, M.D. They also talk about the American dream, and confront police violence and race-baiting.
The odd couple is the staple of buddy films—the experienced white cop and the black rookie is a favorite. But Cho and Penn are both Asian; they are both on the same side of the fence. It’s not like they identify as brothers-in-Asian-arms. But the white youths who constantly harass them make them that when they call them “gay” and ask, who catches and who pitches. It’s a sneaky shorthand for gay=Asian=weird=not-one-of-us. But by putting them on the same team it makes East Asians and South Asians suddenly equal partners in Asian America. Don’t get me wrong. This is too stoned to be a pan-Asian power salute. But Cho and Penn are in the same boat.
It has not always been that way. Because South Asian immigration to the United States happened in force only after 1965 they have been Janardhan-come-lately to Asian America. While civil rights organizations like Asian Law Caucus have valiantly tried to be inclusive, South Asians have often needed their own organizations. So there is South Asians for Kerry and the South Asian Journalists Association alongside Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for Kerry and the Asian American Journalists Association.
Ever since I moved to America over a decade ago I fit rather uneasily into the box marked Asian and Pacific Islander. For someone used to being Calcuttan rather than even Indian, Asian and Pacific Islander was a big suit to fit into. Though they stuffed us into one little box, the rest of America didn’t really consider Indian-Americans as Asian. A New York Times critic reviewing Jessica Hagedorn’s Charlie Chan is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian Fiction complained, “Asian America has become a term so hospitable that half the world’s population can squeeze in under its banner.”
The pull of steamed rice seemed a rather tenuous connection binding Indians with Chinese with Koreans. One of the first anthologies on how South Asians fit into Asian America was tellingly called A Part, Yet Apart.
It’s not like South Asians just want to climb out from under the larger shadow of their East Asian peers to claim their place in Asian America. They don’t want to be the add-on, the afterthought Asian. Harold and Kumar’s greatest strength is it lets South Asians and East Asians share equal space even if it’s stoner space.
Of course, it’s not to say Harold and Kumar should be showered with rose petals and serenaded with shehnai. The film is stuffed with as many problems as it is with gags. South Asian Sisters, a group of desi women who have been involved in creative arts with a progressive bent, addressed many of those problems in an open letter to the Asian American community recently.
“Harold and Kumar disappointed us,” says the letter. It goes on to say, “They represented Asian American men as being homophobic, spineless, sex-crazed misogynists. All Asian American men should be outraged! Asian American women? Well, there was one Asian woman, and she was the stereotypical Asian nerd. Queer Asians? There were none. How would they feel safe to come on screen when Harold and Kumar are making homophobic jokes all the time? Working-class Asians? Perhaps there is one—the convenience store owner. He gets beat up by the racist hoodlums, and Harold and Kumar just walk away.”
The points are well taken. Defenders of the film will say these problems are inherent to the genre Harold and Kumar belongs to. They will tell critics to lighten up, or light up and inhale. But there is no reason to just blindly accept the logic that the road to humor has to be paved with jokes that make fun of women and gays and other minorities. But the problem also is people going to a movie from the makers of Dude, Where’s My Car? expecting to be empowered. In its own tasteless way, Harold and Kumar do break stereotypes and show that Asian Americans can be both med-student prodigies and potheads at the same time!
More importantly, thanks to smutty jokes and gross gags, South Asians and East Asians will finally have more in common than rice and an accident of geography. This month Korean monthly KoreAm and Indian glossy Mantram had Cho and Penn on their covers. Two Asian magazines, one movie. Is there no longer an East Asian America and a South Asian America, but just the United States of Asian America? Can we say, “Dude, where’s my ricksha?”
Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a newsmagazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New California Media.