Raajeev's Corner - 2020


By Raajeev Aggerwhil

As a comedian, when I get on stage, I know that my audiences are judging me based on their preconceived notions of Indians or South Asian people. Sometimes before saying anything, I just glance around the room, smile and give them a nod. Even with that little gesture, I would get a good laugh from the audience. They are probably expecting a nerdy Indian comic who would just get on stage and give a TED talk without making any eye contact or ever smiling. A simple smile breaks their preconceived notion about me. I also like to capitalize on their assumptions by saying, “So, I am Irish." That generally cracks the audience up.

Although we live in an age of political correctness and people are generally polite, sometimes their actions cause an interesting faux pas. Every time I get up to go to the restroom at an Indian restaurant, some American customers waiting at the buffet line ask me about the daily special. I used to politely explain to them that I didn't work there and I was a customer just like them. However, now I just tell them about my favorites from the buffet, explain how the pakodas are made and give a primer on the curry sauce. Then I go to their table to ask if everything is okay, fill up their glasses with water and collect the tips!

Being brown-skinned also has some disadvantages at Indian restaurants. I get the worst service from the servers because they probably think that I am not going to order alcoholic drinks and will not leave a large tip. They are right about the drinks but tipping is based on the quality of the service. The fact that they are providing bad service based on the stereotype makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Based on my past experiences, now when I go to an Indian restaurant, I try to be more friendly with my desi servers. Usually a smile and a little small talk about the weather and the décor does the trick. It also helps them earn a decent tip from me.

I read somewhere that restaurants seat beautiful people next to the window. My wife and I are not exactly the role model restaurants are looking for. Once we went to a fancy Italian restaurant and they seated us by the kitchen. Next time we went to a chic French restaurant, they seated us by the bathroom. The third time when my wife and I went to a steakhouse for a business dinner, they didn't even bother seating us. They just gave us uniforms and put us to work!

The stereotypical perception is not restricted to restaurants only. When I travel for business and pull my rental car in front of my hotel, somebody gets in the back of my car thinking I am the limo driver. I guess my suit and tie along with the color of my skin give it away. Even at the reception desk, when I get assigned a hotel room 711 or 911, I wonder if it's just a coincidence or the receptionist is playing a game with me!

Even I apply stereotypes in making decisions in my daily life. For instance, I rarely give money to young white homeless people. The same is the case for Asian or Indian homeless people. I don't recall seeing any but if I did, I would not give them any money. They have a good social support system so they should be tapping into that. In addition, Indians have a network of 7-11's or hotels owned by their fellow countrymen who can help them out.

A few years back I gave a ride to an old lady in Washington DC. They have a system of picking up “slugs" so you can go through car pool lanes for free. Once she found out that I was from India, she said all Hindus will go to hell if they don't believe Jesus Christ died for their cause. I thought if all Hindus go to hell then she can certainly expect to get a customer service support call from hell. That also means hell is going to be hot and crowded so Hindus will feel right at home. “You have reached the Hindu support hotline from hell. Press 1 if you are a Doctor. Press 2 if you are an Engineer. Press 3 if you want to open a 7-11 and press 4 if you want to go back using our reincarnation program."

People's habit of judging based on stereotypes used to bother me but now I actually have fun observing human behavior. I accept the fact that they are making a decision not in the present but based on their past experiences, insecurities or myopic thinking. Most of the time these actions are innocuous and don't impact me significantly, so I just have fun with them. I use them as premises to write new jokes and have a laugh later.

I also don't mind being judged as cheap. I think if people are going to form opinions based on their preconceived notions about my frugality, let me fully commit to being a Bania and excel at it!


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.