Writing for Time, Joel Stein thought it might be funny to lament the changes taking place in his hometown of Edison, New Jersey, due to an influx of Indian immigrants. But Kal Penn, writing for the Huffington Post, isn't laughing.
Stein's piece, somewhat obnoxiously titled "My Own Private India," centered around his return to his hometown, and the distress he felt when he noticed how the town had changed, due to the presence and influence of Indian immigrants:
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. The Italian restaurant that my friends stole cash from as waiters is now Moghul, one of the most famous Indian restaurants in the country. There is an entire generation of white children in Edison who have nowhere to learn crime.
There's something implicitly xenophobic about Stein's perceived ownership of the town. Where is MY supermarket? What about MY memories? MY cultural touchstones? MY view of how the city should be?! What about me!?!? It's unfortunate, in that there was a real opportunity to write a fascinating piece here; perhaps a look at how towns change, how immigration influences local culture, and how interesting it can be when your hometown goes through such a makeover of sorts.
But instead of framing it in a way that reads as something potentially positive and insightful, Stein's piece reads more like a lament for the ways of White Edison and an opportunity to make jokes at the expense of the Indian community, which actor Kal Penn, writing for the Huffington Post, hilariously and brutally described as such:
Were it not for the intelligent, fresh sense of humor of individuals like Mr. Stein, the world may never know about Americans who happen to be of Indian descent. 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. (I was worried that he'd missed an opportunity to joke about Dr. King's predecessor, Gandhi, but I see that he got to that hilarity on Twitter. More never-before-heard satire!)
Growing up a few miles from Edison, NJ, I always thought it was hilarious when I'd get the crap kicked out of me by kids like Stein who would yell "go back to India, dothead!" I was always ROTFLMAO when people would assume that I wasn't American. He really captured the brilliant humor in that one too!
Time and Stein have already issued apologies for the piece, with Time's being more of a "we're sorry you were offended" type and Stein's claiming that he feels "truly feel stomach-sick that I hurt so many people. 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."
Perhaps next time Stein might consider that "we'd" be better equipped to debate the xenophobes on the other side of the immigration issue if people didn't make it seem like losing one supermarket in favor of another was anything more than the natural flow of progress. Sometimes it is better to remember your past without expecting everyone else to hold off on the future.