In North Devon, in England, in the rural countryside, there are people who have never seen a brown person before. There are people whose only experience of brown men is when they’ve been a waiter in a curry house. The irony is that these communities, the ones least affected by immigration are the ones who cited it as a crucial factor in them voting for Brexit.
In North Devon, in England, in the rural countryside, is where I meet two women who want to look at my dick. Which I find strange. Because no one cares about the dicks of brown men. In the sexual Olympics of fetishization, we’re the under-sexualized ones with the small penises. We’re Apu from The Simpsons . We’re Raj from The Big Bang Theory . We’re Taj from Van Wilder, sliding across the back of a beautiful naked blonde college girl as he accidentally sets the room on fire in yet another failed attempt to lose his virginity.
In North Devon, in England, in the rural countryside, I am performing a show about memory, loss and my mother’s cooking. It’s a small intimate show, designed to be performed in front of a tiny audience. I talk to them about my mother and how I taught myself to cook her dishes in the months after she died. While I talk, I cook and after the show, we eat her famous aloo mattar shaak with rotlis. I perform in people’s houses, taking over their kitchens as they sit around me. It’s a charming bit of British arts life called rural touring. We take shows to the parts of the UK where art doesn’t usually come. It’s a form of cultural exchange.
So far, on the tour, I’ve asked for a Golliwog teapot to be removed from the kitchen I’m performing in, people have spoken to me like I am either a cultural specimen (“Was your mother as light-skinned as you?”) or an ambassador for all brown people (“Are all Asian males so attached to their mothers?”) or as a Paki. (“It’s nice to see the coloreds go through the universal experience of loss too?”)
At one particular house, I am having a drink with the people who live in the village because I am staying in one of their houses as a guest and we are in the fucking middle of nowhere and I cannot escape. They are singing, laughing, asking me questions like where are you from no where are you really from no really where are your parents from.
Two women sit close to me—one has her bare foot touching my thigh and I can’t move it away because of the cramped space. She wiggles her toes, ever so slightly, enough to remind me she’s there but not enough for me to ask her to stop. I stand up to head to the toilet.
One woman whispers to the other: “Follow him if you want to see it.”
“Have you ever seen one?”
“No. I hear they’re really small. I want to see one.”
I lock the toilet door and sit on the chair between the toilet and shower and try to conjure up reasons why white people need chairs near their toilets.
As I emerge from the toilet, a good ten minutes later, having sat in the useless chair and scrolled through Instagram aimlessly, the woman with the toes is waiting at the door. She smiles as I try to squeeze past her.
“You remind me of someone,” she says. “Who does he remind me of?” she asks her friend, turning around, giving me enough space to squeeze through and claim another beer, because it’s the only thing that’s going to get me through this moment. “That Raj Couter-paki, you know? The one off The Big Bang Theory ? The one who always gets hard-ons when he chats up girls.”
“Yeah,” her friend says. “You’re just the spit of him. Same skin tone and all.”
The conversation reminds me of a link my friend Yomi shared on Twitter once about the hypersexualization of black men and the under-sexualization of Asian men. It’s called the Three Bears theory. If black men are too sexual and their dicks way too big, and Asian men (and we are encompassing an entire continent here) are undersexed, sexually repressed, either culturally or familially, because of an overbearing mother, and their dicks are way too small, that makes the white dick, juuuuuuust right.
The obsession with penis size bewilders me almost as much as the comparison with Raj Koothrappali from The Big Bang Theory . We are nothing alike. I find him offensive, unfunny, a backwards step for representation of brown people on television. I want us to be seen. But not like this. He’s a sexually repressed stereotype, written through the white gaze. He reflects nothing from my community.
Raj Koothrappali cannot talk to women. Not without getting drunk first. At which point, he becomes suggestive and sexually inappropriate. “If anyone’s interested, I’ll be spending this Valentine’s in the same way I spend every Valentine’s. Buying a rotisserie chicken from the supermarket, taking it home, standing over the sink and eating it out of the package with my bare hands like an animal.”
In the shitheap of sexually inept geeks, he is the bottom of the pile. While Howard fails with women, at least he doesn’t have “selective mutism” when it comes to communicating with them. Raj’s worst crime, that he’s a bit metrosexual, allows the other geeks to flex their relative hyper-masculinity over him. Hating Indian food and knowing nothing about Hindu culture gives the majority white writers’ room a dodge when it comes to researching him properly. Oh, he hates his culture. We therefore don’t really need to engage with it. Other than stern parents and jokes about how Indian food causes diarrhea.
I have a theory that Western popular culture is on a mission to desexualize Asian men. And it’s working. They rarely get to have successful, meaningful brilliant sex. Instead, they are frustrated, and sweaty, and wanking at home. Those two women wanted to see the specimen that was my tiny penis, almost to prove to themselves that I was not worthy of desire. A friend once sent me a link to a BBC News piece about how scientifically, biologically and statistically, Asian men have the smallest penis size of all the races with penises. I note, to him, that no counter-balance article is offered on the penis size of white men, black men, or other men. It’s Asian men who must be desexualized. On the BBC, no less. He does not reply.
But Raj Koothrappali is played by an Indian, people online say. That means it can’t be racist. “Playing Raj Koothrappali has kept me fresh, alive and happy . . .” says the Indian actor Kunal Nayyar. When there is a paucity of roles for brown men, and you have to pay rent, what choice do you sometimes have? It makes it less racist because he’s not doing an accent, a friend tells me. That is just the way he talks. I listen to Kunal interviewed on a podcast with Aisha Tyler. He is humble, sweet, funny, cheeky, cool and married to a former Miss India. His voice is not the voice used on the show. It makes me realize that my friend thinks that all Indian accents sound the same. If he has an Indian accent and Raj has an Indian accent, how can the accent be the problem?
In Hollywood, there exists these depictions of wanking foreigners. Their sole purpose is to enhance the desirability of the beautiful white woman by failing to get with her, making her only attainable to the chisel-jawed jock. They covet whiteness, yet at the crucial point of their assimilation, will reveal themselves, with a careless reference to a goat, proximity to white women or bad toilet facilities. They work at gas stations, in tech support, as an assistant to a male in power. In Van Wilder , Taj becomes a mentee to a sex-pest college student approaching his mid-twenties. His virginity is a bone of contention. His unfuckability is a necklace as heavy as the Koh-i-Noor around him. His accent is appalling. I laughed. I was happy to see a brown face in a knockabout college-campus sex comedy. Finally, a brown person gets to be in on the cum jokes, and he’s only the butt of them half the time. I laughed enough to buy my sister the sequel, devoted to Taj, on DVD.
The Rise of Taj relocates the emboldened immigrant to England, where he educates people in the laws of having fun by taking your tits out. He also gives a history lecture on the top deck of a red double-decker, by pointing out the sites of London. American degrees cost tens of thousands of pounds. And the extent of a history degree is being told where Buckingham Palace is. Taj, in this sequel, impersonates a white bro dude in order to gain social status. His mentorship under Van Wilder has successfully lifted him out of the depths of the wanking foreigner trope. In Brahman Naman , an Indian sex comedy on Netflix, a male college student wanks himself off loudly-but-not in the door of his family fridge. I turn it off after that. I cannot spend anymore time in the company of a sexually inept brown man written to appease Western masculinity standards.
Aziz Ansari, in the first scene of the first episode of his show, Master Of None, is having sex, successfully, until the condom breaks. This feels revolutionary. For a brown male to be seen as an object of desire. Raj has a girl jump out of a coffee shop window to escape their first date within seconds of meeting him.
Meanwhile, in the season four finale of The Big Bang Theory Penny wakes up in Leonard’s bed, hungover. She is naked. She has definitely done some drunken fumbling. But it is with Raj. Cliffhanger. End of season.
But Raj? This seems unlikely.
In the opening episode of season five, Raj reveals to Penny that they did not have intercourse; instead he ejaculated prematurely and they fell asleep. Penny promised not to tell the guys, although subsequently she sometimes calls him Quick Draw. Raj’s social anxiety around women was inspired by a former coworker of series co-creator Bill Prady. Originally the character was called Dave, and was an American born to Indian parents. This was changed when Nayyar won the role, because he was “so Indian.”
The assumption is that this is diversity. Not tokenism. Not racism. Because Kunal is actually no where are you from no really where are you really from no really where are your parents from Indian. Because a brown face in a major speaking role is rare. Because his being good at his job, something rarely shown, is aspirational. The assumption is that diversity is a brown man filtered through a white lens, who hates the country he is from so viscerally, he’d rather wrap himself in Gandhi’s curry-shit-filled-nappy (or something, I’m attempting a Big Bang Theory -esque joke, and in so doing, being problematic towards his symbolic hunger strike) than to go back to India.
Diversity is a brown man who cannot, for the life of him, talk to sexy Western women, which, thank god, makes them safe from his curry-stained fingers, keeps them from being stolen by a lesser being. Diversity is characters feeling the permission to say the most racist things to Raj, and he claps back, or shrugs, while the damage has been done. Diversity’s face is Raj Koothrappali and the inferred best place for him—sitting alone in his flat, sweatily wanking over the American women he has no confidence to trick into bed. Thank god he ejaculated too quickly before having sex with Penny.
I think back to when I was sitting in that toilet, perplexed and nervous that there was this scientific curiosity about the small size of my dick by two strangers, all because neither had seen one before. Had neither of them heard of the internet? But more importantly, it occurred to me that in North Devon, in England, in the rural countryside, there are people who have never seen a brown person before. And that’s what stops them from treating us like human beings.