Written for The i Paper.
“Thank you, come again!” I’ve had people mimic Apu Nahasapeemapetilon to me so often I’ve lost track. When you’re a kid and people learn that your dad runs a shop you quickly become accustomed to being treated as a caricature of your ethnicity. I used to be embarrassed that this stereotype could even be applied to me. The parents of my peers didn’t have exciting jobs themselves, but no one seemed to single them out with racist impressions. I so badly wanted to blend in but it was impossible. I was a brown kid living in a very white suburb in Scotland.
For a short time as I began high school, I found myself slightly resenting my immigrant dad and his amalgamated accent that might as well have been a siren screaming “we’re different!” Why did he have to stand out so much? Why did he have to wear sandals when he picked me up from school? Why did I have to go to Cash ‘n’ Carry while my friends were going to the park? I was a brat. I had yet to learn how to stop caring what people thought, and it tore me up inside that I wasn’t “normal.” It wasn’t until I gained hindsight that I realised I was blessed with parents that worked so hard just so I could be a first generation brat. Like many South Asian kids, I spent just as much time in the corner shop as I did at home. I had access to my very own sweetie shop and trips to Cash ‘n’ Carry rarely left me empty handed. I was often the first to get whatever new craze was going and I always managed to get a copy of Harry Potter as soon as it was released. It would sit on the pallet of Irn Bru and other groceries that I would help unload to be scanned, then load into the van, then unload again into the shop. I’m not sure why I wasn’t a hench kid but I’m guessing it had something to do with the free sweets.
The shop was open from 7am to 8pm all week, except Sundays when it shut at 4pm. My dad worked every single day of the year and rarely took time off. A heart attack two years ago at the age of 50 forced him to slow down but even then he felt too guilty watching my brother temporarily pick up the slack. He annoyed everyone with his reluctance to Just. Sit. Down. My ma worked just as much, only she split her time between the shop and us. They still managed to find time to take us to see sharks at Deep Sea World, to play rounders in Callender and to eat ice cream every other Sunday. When I think about all of this my heart starts to feel heavy, and I feel immense guilt that their whole life mainly revolved around providing for me. It hurts even more to know that they constantly risked their own safety just to put food on my table. In The Simpsons, Apu is constantly being held up at gunpoint for comedic effect but the reality is frightening. Shops really are easy targets for robberies and my family knew that only too well. The worst example was the time my ma called my dad at the shop to ask him to bring home the bread that she forgot. My dad answered, putting the receiver on the counter to stop the ringing so it wouldn’t enrage a knife-wielding robber. My ma raced to the shop where she met my dad, with a gash to his cheek where the knife had slashed it. He took a minute to get patched up then they cleaned up and went straight back to work. Later, I learned that customers had walked into the store, unaware of what was happening, and my dad had been trying to protect them from the burglar when he was attacked. I want to not care about Apu and the fact that South Asians are generally depicted in mainstream media as one dimensional characters, but it’s hard. Despite my brown skin, I know that I am afforded certain privileges due to my delightful Scottish accent – I’m seen as acceptable by most and a novelty by others. My dad with his Scottish-tinged Pakistani accent isn’t. He’s not allowed to be a well rounded human being. No one cares that he loves Japan and is obsessed with cars. Or that my ma is a huge sci-fi nerd who loves Battlestar Galactica and still reads Mills and Boons. All they see are stereotypes that either make them invisible or ridiculed. Yes, it’s just a cartoon. I really don’t want to care but my parents didn’t work this hard for me to sit quietly while people like them are demeaned. So here I am telling you why your favourite cartoon is problematic, actually.