Much Apu about nothing: So it was Saturday night, and the wife and I were at home giggling on the couch tonight over this. Why? ‘Cause we’re weird.
The character “Apu,” on the television show “The Simpsons,” is one of the few representations of a South Asian male immigrant available within the popular American imaginary. Apu is a caricature of a stereotypical South Asian immigrant male worker with a heavily accented English and comical foreign mannerisms. In the episode “Much Apu About Nothing,” The Simpsons satirizes Apu’s readiness for American citizenship while ridiculing the displacements effected by nativist anti-immigration discourses. Apu is depicted as a convenience store employee with an education seemingly at odds with his profession and also at odds with the education of his “American” working-class friends. The episode begins with the problem of a wandering bear in the town of Springfield which the mayor responds to by raising taxes to form an ineffective “bear patrol”. When the citizenry angrily storms town hall in hysteria over the bear and the tax increase, Mayor Quimby quickly blames the tax increase on illegal immigrants and proposes the initiative “Proposition 24” to deport all illegal immigrants from the small, suburban town of Springfield. Initially, Homer Simpson sides in favor of Proposition 24, claiming that illegal immigrants are responsible for his son’s lack of motivation in educational pursuits: “The schools are so jam-packed with immigrants that kids like Bart have lost the will to learn.” Upon discovering that his friend Apu is not a “regular Joe,” but actually an illegal immigrant, Homer slowly changes his take on the Proposition. Apu reveals that after coming to the United States on a student visa as a graduate student, he took a job in order to pay off his student loans. He found the only viable employment opportunity at a “Quick-E Mart” convenience store. In his initial attempt to stay in the country, Apu thinks just acting “American,” i.e. getting rid of his religious icon Ganeesha statue and wearing a cowboy hat and Mets shirt, will convince everyone of his American citizenship. After Lisa discovers an amnesty clause that would allow Apu the chance to become a naturalized citizen, Apu finds that studying for the citizenship test is the only viable way of staying in the U.S.
As the Simpson family prepares Apu for the Citizenship exam, this episode highlights how Apu’s difference from them is constituted through his formal post-colonial education in India. When quizzed on the origins of the Civil War, Apu composes a long and complex explanation invoking the economic disparities of the North and South when he is instructed by a confused examiner to, “Just say ‘slavery.'” “Slavery it is,” says Apu, thus adopting the state’s formal agenda in reproducing a dominant version of U.S. racial history. Adopting the notion that U.S. racial processes can be reduced to the overcoming of slavery is depicted, in this instance, as a precursor to citizenship. Apu’s answer to this question on the citizenship exam satirizes the simplistic understandings produced by the U.S educational system and evidences Apu’s very different relation to the study of history.