Make America Smart Again

By Raajeev Aggerwhil

As an Indian American comic, I know my audience judges me as soon as I get on stage. We judge other people and other people form their own perceptions about us. That is why in these divisive times, we have to be cognizant of the stereotypical views of Indian Americans. I remember when Neil, my youngest son, was born. He was born on September 15, four days after September 11, 2001. We knew the date ahead of time because the doctor had advised a C-section delivery. In a way, it was convenient from a planning perspective because we didn't have to deal with the uncertainty.

As a last minute thought, I decided to throw a surprise baby shower for my wife. September 10th was not convenient so we planned it for September 11th. Yes, out of all the dates in the year, we chose September 11, 2001 for the baby shower! Just as a side note, all of our kids were born with a bang, like this one.

As the events that morning started unfolding, we were debating canceling the baby shower. I was forced to share the secret with my wife and get her opinion. We knew we wanted to cancel because we were all devastated but Neil was kicking inside wanting a party for his arrival.

Our house was in a cul-de-sac in an affluent, predominantly white neighborhood in Fairfax, Virginia. I thought it would be awkward for our neighbors to see Indians dressed in traditional attire, women in fancy saris, partying and dancing. Even worse would be seeing a van bearing an unpronounceable name of an Indian restaurant parked on the driveway. We decided to cancel the party fairly quickly. As a Bania, my sense of national grief was compounded by the direct hit to my wallet. National tragedy or not, the catering company wasn't offering a refund.

The day after my son's birth, I was in the hospital elevator with three other Indian friends. Two of my friends were Sikhs, with turbans and beards. Another friend just had a beard. So altogether, we were four brown people, three with beards, two with turbans.

As the elevator stopped on the second floor, an older white lady walked in. We could see the shock and fear on her face. There was silence. The flight from the second floor to the fourth floor felt like an eternity. At that time, I had not started comedy yet. In any case, I am not that good at coming up with witty punch lines at the spur of the moment after a terrorist attack. I didn't say anything and the tension dissolved naturally as the lady walked out of the elevator. She must have praised the Lord from saving her from the clutches of “barbaric Middle Eastern men." In retrospect, I should have waved my hands in the air and said, “La la la la…" That would have been fun but may have caused her a heart attack. However, I am sure she would have survived it because we were already at the hospital!

The stereotypical view of Indian Americans as smart and good in mathematics and science has continued to evolve also. One of my American friends once jokingly asked me, “Can every Uber driver on the streets of Bengaluru do differential calculus?" Such comments may be innocuous and may even make us feel proud.

A few years back, when Neil was in 6th grade, he said, “Dad, I can recite Pi till 45 digits." I am kind of competitive so I told him, “Son, I can do till 200." He didn't believe me, so I did. He was so impressed. He said, “Do it again, Dad!" I said, “Sure. But it may sound different this time." I use this incident in my stand-up comedy in the US and the joke always gets a huge laugh. When I share with the audience that this joke got no response, not even a pity chuckle, at a packed comedy club in New Delhi, they get really surprised. However, they always laugh when I tell them, “Give it up for yourself. You guys are so smart. Make America smart again!"

Stand up comics and humorists thrive on stereotypes. We develop new material using the stereotypes as the premise for a joke. Here is an example of one of my jokes based on the stereotype that all Indians are smart. “Most Indians lack a sense of humor. The only time I saw my Uncle laughing was when his kid tried to divide a number by zero." Another perception of Indian parents as “too caring" serves as the premise of this joke. “Indian parents are overprotective of their children. Last week I found out that my 16-year-old is taller than me. We decided that as soon as he's six feet, we'll take him off the breast milk."

How we judge others or how others judge us is a complex equation. Sometimes we have to take actions, like canceling a baby shower, so we are not judged by others in a negative way even though we have something beautiful to celebrate. Sometimes we just succumb to the inevitable outcome of being judged, by remaining silent in an elevator and not arousing further fear. Whatever we do, judging based on stereotypes is a fact of life and how we act and react has to be handled very carefully, even as a comic.


Los Angeles-based comedian Raajeev Aggerwhil has starred in Nickelodeon's TV show 100 Things to Do Before High School and also acted in the film based on the television series. See his videos on YouTube.