“Sanjay is sensitive about being from India, and he thinks it’s a cliche that a guy with his name runs a start-up in Palo Alto.” I quote from Adam Johnson’s recently released collection of stories, Fortune Smiles. In the story, “Nirvana,” the character Sanjay has a Stanford MBA and is vaguely embarrassed to draw attention to his culture, so he uses the initials SJ to refer to himself. The inference here is that Indian names are so tough to pronounce that something as safe and generic as a couple of initials would serve to hide the western inability to pronounce Indian names, or the tinge of discomfort that Indian Americans often must face when announcing our last names, or even our first names.
When western writers attempt to make sense of the Indian American élan vital, most of the time, they resort to what is generally and stereotypically known about the community.
I consider Adam Johnson one of the most brilliant writers of our times. His Pulitzer winning novel The Orphan Master’s Son was executed with such deliberate sleight of hand as to require at least two readings to fully grasp the extent of his genius. Yet, here he is, perpetuating the big, fat Indian American stereotype, and admitting to doing so. For a writer who is known for building nuanced characters, poor Sanjay is as un-nuanced as Anna the admin or vodka drinking Olga.
It used to be that the Indian American cliché was all too visible on our blue screens. We saw it in The Big Bang Theory, where astrophysicist Raj Koothrappali appeared painfully socially awkward—a nerd with poor social skills. We saw it in The Simpsons, where Apu Nahasapeemapetilon had a Ph.D in computer science and worked at Kwik-E-Mart—a nerd with an unpronounceable last name working at a convenience store.
This reminds me of the time, in 2006, Joe Biden quipped “you cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin Donuts without a slight Indian accent … I’m not joking.”
These days, though, television has been steadily evolving and viewers have been introduced to some originality and diversity with complex characterizations of Indians, with Archie Panjabi, a private investigator, on The Good Wife; Mindy Kaling on the The Mindy Project; Dev Patel on The Newsroom, Aziz Ansari on Parks and Recreations, and a host of others.
While I admit that the Indian American stereotype is largely positive—hard-working, educationally inclined, entrepreneurial—the one-size-fits all aspect of even positive stereotypes is exasperating.
In a study titled “When is a Compliment Not a Compliment?” published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Alexander Czopp revealed his findings that even positive stereotypes can have harmful effects. In the study, “Black participants evaluated a White student who praised the athletic ability of African Americans more negatively than a control condition.” Both white and black participants found the white speaker equally likeable before the stereotype was introduced, but with the positive endorsement of blacks, black participants (and not white participants) found the speaker prejudiced and less appealing.
The groupthink of stereotypes advances perceptions of our communities that are insipid, unimaginative, and sometimes misleading. It is the very reason why, if our children don’t aspire to Harvard or Yale, many of us believe that we’ve failed as parents, for “look at Rajeev’s children, or Sonia’s or Ashok’s. We must have done something wrong.”
Certainly, as the story progressed, Johnson introduced other interesting facets to Sanjay aka SJ’s character. “About once a month, Sanjay gets homesick and cooks litti chokha for everyone at work. He plays Sharda Sinha songs and gets this look in his eyes like he’s back in Bihar, land of peepal trees and roller birds.” As part of a psychological portrait, those particulars are admirable. So, kudos to Johnson, even though these are details that are piled on top of a cliched premise.
Does this mean that only Indian American writers can frame truly dimensional Indian American characters? To know an Indian American do you have to be an Indian American?