Sunday, July 4, 2010

Joel Stein vs Kal Penn

Joel Stein is usually on the money with his satire. Not this time say many Indian-Americans, whom he targets in a satirical piece on immigration "My Own Private India", published in Time magazine this week.

Stein's article talks of how Indian immigrants have changed the cultural face of his hometown, Edison, NJ.

My town is totally unfamiliar to me. The Pizza Hut where my busboy friends stole pies for our drunken parties is now an Indian sweets shop with a completely inappropriate roof. The A&P I shoplifted from is now an Indian grocery. The multiplex where we snuck into R-rated movies now shows only Bollywood films and serves samosas.

Pretty funny so far, right? Well it is, until Stein says this:

For a while, we assumed all Indians were geniuses. Then, in the 1980s, the doctors and engineers brought over their merchant cousins, and we were no longer so sure about the genius thing. In the 1990s, the not-as-brilliant merchants brought their even-less-bright cousins, and we started to understand why India is so damn poor.

and then this:

Whenever I go back, I feel what people in Arizona talk about: a sense of loss and anomie and disbelief that anyone can eat food that spicy.

Not surprisingly, the Indian-American community is outraged. A group called the South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) has even circulated a petition, appealing against the article to Time's editors.

In his defense, Stein points to what he was actually trying to say:

I was trying to explain how, as someone who believes that immigration has enriched American life and my hometown in particular, I was shocked that I could feel a tiny bit uncomfortable with my changing town when I went to visit it. If we could understand that reaction, we’d be better equipped to debate people on the other side of the immigration issue.

There is a reason, however, why humor is best answered by humor. Kal Penn, writing in the Huffington Post, responds to Stein in a befitting manner:

Gags about impossibly spicy food? I'd never heard those before! Multiple Gods with multiple arms? Multiple laughs! Recounting racial slurs like "dot-head"? Oh, Mr. Stein, is too good! I don't know how he comes up with such unique bits.

Where Penn is at his sharpest, though, is in his parting shot:

Critics might call Mr. Stein's humor super-tired or as played out as the jokes about that cheap Jewish car that stopped on a dime to pick it up, or that African American kid who got marked absent at night school. Although unlike Stein's Indian American piece, in 2010 those other jokes don't show up in mainstream media like Time Magazine. I wonder why that is..

Between the humor and banter, the episode raises some important questions. Was Stein's opinion reflective of the 'white man's dilemma' on immigration? Was it just clumsy writing? Perhaps even more broadly, would Time have published a similar piece with other immigrant groups like Asian-Americans or Hispanics?


  1. Firstly, to answer the last question on your blog entry, I would say Time would not go as far as to publish a similar piece on Asian-Americans or Hispanics. Simply because, this issue has already been "sort of" put to rest by the American media. With the election of Obama as President, it just shows that the anti African-Americanism needs to stop. And it has.

    Indians are becoming more and more involved in American society. From dominating Silicon Valley, to prepping up some of the unheard of suburbs, to being elected as Governors of some states, there is a trend where those that are of Indian origin are now making their presence known.

    And this is what raises the problem, immigration laws in the U.S. have till date, encouraged the influx of foreigners into their country. But this has not always registered well with the American people. They feel like they are losing parts of their country, just like Joel Stein feels Edison is not his anymore. And I absolutely agree with that point. But, writing a satirical piece on immigration with specific ethnic comments towards Indians, just shows that this is the perception of the average American towards immigrants. I'm sure he must have got a lot of hits on his article, and I'm sure many looked at this and felt: "I completely understand what this guy is talking about". But, this is just another chapter in the rich American history of being unable to allow everyone to be an equal part of society.

    I would be equally pissed if something like this happened to my hometown in Gujarat, but if we Indians are "legally" moving to the U.S. in search of better opportunities, we need to be accepted in this society for us to be able to have an impact.

    There is a freedom given to comedians and satirists to go ahead and poke fun at whoever they want to, but some readers of Time magazine may read more heavily into it. Which is unfortunate.

    I guess this article sums up what I have to say in better language.

    p.s. Great job on this blog!

  2. Thanks! I agree with all that you said. A lot of what he said was lost in translation, but that tone was more offensive than satirical.