Imran Siddiquee | Longreads | December 2017 | 15 minutes (3,638 words)
When I was 2 years old, my family moved from Winnipeg, Manitoba to Springfield, Illinois. My parents had come to Canada as graduate students in the early 1980s to attend the University of Manitoba, thousands of miles from their homes in Bangladesh. They were raising me and my two older sisters there when my dad received a job offer to teach economics at a small university in the middle of Illinois. So in 1987, they traveled across another border, embarking on a journey to becoming not only Americans, but Springfielders.
It was just a coincidence that soon after we had settled in the Land of Lincoln, around the same time I started at Carl Sandburg Elementary School, another family, much more famous than us, would move into a place called Springfield. Suddenly the name of our town would become synonymous with some larger American story, or at the very least, the absurdities of American culture.
The Simpsons debuted in 1989 when I was 5 years old, less than a year after my baby brother was born in Springfield. I recall my parents being wary of any of us watching this strange cartoon with its adult humor and reputation for vulgarity. But by the time I was in fourth grade I had managed to record a couple episodes on VHS, and my brother and I would occasionally watch life unfold in the fantasy Springfield in between chapters of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
By then The Simpsons was a global phenomenon, and regardless of whether you watched the show or not, its influence was pervasive. There were the enviable “Cowabunga” t-shirts at the mall, the ubiquitous TV ads featuring Homer being Homer, and the persistent echo of “D’Oh” and “Don’t have a cow, man” on the school playground. Lots of little boys wanted to be Bart and I was no exception, repeating risqué lines from a show I didn’t really understand. Even when we would visit family in Bangladesh, I remember people asking me about that strange-looking family from Springfield. Is that what’s it’s really like there?
But of course, in the real Springfield, in its classrooms and shopping malls, football games and state fairs, we were the strange-looking ones. And in truth, I was never going to be as rebellious as Bart, or be allowed to complete that journey across the border which my parents had set out on in the 80s. Because, when it came down to it, I was already someone else in the imaginary Springfield, the imaginary America.
As Hari Kondabolu explains in his new documentary The Problem With Apu, my family and I had been assigned a role by white culture — the foreign, strange, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon — as people like us had been assigned many times before, and would continue to be assigned many times after. On those same playgrounds, kids would soon ask me to do the famous accent or to nod my head from side-to-side like Apu did. I would learn that in order for white people to remain in their roles — people whose bumbling inadequacy never quite moves them from the center of American life — they needed me and my family to remain in the Kwik-e-Mart.