I was eight years old and the front desk clerk of a motel in California when I started watching The Simpsons. I won’t lie, the first time I saw Apu, an Asian American man and the proud owner of a small business, I felt seen. Finally! To be represented on a hit TV show! The feeling quickly turned sour, though, when it became apparent Apu was on the show solely to be mocked and laughed at. It wasn’t his accent that bothered me – my parents also have an accent—it was the way he was characterized: having him work a 96 hour shift and then prance around happily as a hummingbird afterwards. Having him cross out the expiration date out on a package of expired meat and sell it to Homer, who then gets food poisoning. On and on it went. Apu wasn’t representative of me or my parents. He was put on the show at the expense of hardworking Asian Americans like us.
My parents came to America with $200 in their pocket. To get by, we took manual labor jobs in restaurants and motels. At the motels, my parents cleaned the rooms while I managed the front desk (which, when you’re only 8, is really hard. Adults don’t like handing over their ID and cash to an 8 year old for some reason. Go figure.) I threw myself into the job, getting to know all the guests and treating all my customers with kindness, care, and respect.
Sometimes, during my shift breaks, I’d watch the Simpsons, my eyes glued to Apu, unable to look away, because as much as it hurt to be stereotyped and ridiculed, it was that amazingly rare to see an Asian small business owner on TV. I’ll admit, I too laughed at Apu sometimes, only to then sit and writhe as the juices of self loathing twisted in my stomach afterwards. Sometimes, my customers would come in and cheerfully say “Thank you come again!” ala Apu and I wasn’t sure whether to laugh. At night, I’d lie awake and wonder is it better to be seen and mocked than to not be seen at all?
At school, all my friends were watching the Simpsons and making fun of Apu. They’d take turns speaking in accents, yelling at their “customers”. Terrified they’d make fun of me if they found out what I did, I kept my job a secret from them. It was in this kind of climate that I grew up, going to school by day and tending to my customers by night. I was a real life Apu but I dared not tell a single soul because of fake Apu.
Fast forward 25 years, and I’m finally ready to take off the coat of shame that has covered me all these years. My debut middle grade novel FRONT DESK, about a 10 year old Chinese American immigrant girl who manages the front desk of a motel while her parents clean the rooms, comes out on May 29. It is an honest, funny and moving portrayal of the immigrant experience, managing a small business in America in the face of racism, police mistreatment, and poverty. It is the nuanced treatment that The Simpsons should have given Apu.
And while I’m disappointed that the creators of one of the most admired television shows of all time had neither the patience nor the will to create an Asian American character more sensitively or at least RESPOND more sensitively when called out, I’m encouraged by shows like Fresh Off The Boat, Kim’s Convenience, and books like Front Desk and Serpent’s Secret. Currently in the United States, there are nearly 2 million Asian owned businesses, many of which are in the service industry. They rent us rooms, cut our hair, paint our nails, serve us food, and much much more. They work hard and have hopes and dreams and kids like me who don’t deserve to live with a lifetime of shame just because some writer wants an easy joke. It’s about time we see them and see them right.
Kelly Yang is the author of FRONT DESK, a middle grade debut novel about a 10 year old Chinese American girl who manages the front desk of a motel in Southern California while her parents clean (Out May 29, Arthur Levine/Scholastic).
You can find her on Twitter at @kellyyanghk.