May 29, 2011

Indian student in Father Knows Best

The classic sitcom Father Knows Best was on before most of my readers' time. It's so old that it was almost on before my time.

It stars Robert Young (Marcus Welby MD) and Jane Wyatt (Spock's mother) as warmhearted parents with three boisterous kids: Betty, Bud, and Kathy. It portrays an idealized, middle-class family in the Midwest whose most serious problem is someone's crush on the opposite sex.

I'm not sure I ever saw an episode when I was young. But I recently caught a rerun titled Fair Exchange (airdate: 11/17/58). The plot:An Indian exchange student (Rita Moreno) visits.The episode begins with young Kathy on the phone. She says:No, honest, Patty. Betty's bringing home a real live Indian girl to spend the weekend with us.

Huh? Oh, I don't know what tribe she's from.
Bud tells her to change her clothes before the "Indian" arrives. Kathy replies:Yeah, I'd better get ready. Wait'll you see what I'm gonna wear!Wouldn't you know it? Kathy comes down wearing an Indian headdress. What she doesn't realize is that the student is an Asian Indian from India, not an American Indian. Wrong Indian...get it?

Bud explains that the student isn't the "woo woo" kind of Indian. He demonstrates what he means by putting his hand over his mouth. She's the other kind of Indian. Mom tells Kathy to take the headdress off.

The family gives Chanthini the exchange student a warm welcome, but they can't seem to make her feel at ease. Kathy doesn't help matters by popping in wearing the headdress again. She claims she forgot to take it off, but actually she ignored her mother's wishes and put it on again.

1958's version of multiculturalism

So Fair Exchange isn't about American Indians. But it's worth noting the show's presumptions. One, that people would find the Indian/Indian jokes amusing. And two, that every child has a headdress available to wear for a visiting Indian.

Fair Exchange is a decent episode about multicultural tolerance, especially for 1958. If a TV show ever featured an Asian Indian character before this, I don't know what it is.

Puerto Rican actress Moreno did a good job playing an Asian Indian. I'm not sure an actual Indian could've done much better.

Most of the "humor" comes from the family's innocent mistakes. Chanthini is mortified not because they're ignorant of her ways, but because she's ignorant of their ways. Seeing father Jim in an apron, for instance, she assumes he's a servant. Which is hard to believe for an Indian college student who speaks English well and has traveled halfway around the world.

Unfortunately, the show's biggest cultural "blunder" is its central plot point. Chanthini describes a football game she saw as if it were a gang rumble, not a sporting event. Huh? I guess the writers weren't aware that people in India play soccer and rugby among other team sports. As Wikipedia notes:Field hockey is the official national sport in India, and the country has an impressive eight Olympic gold medals in field hockey, though cricket is the most popular sport in India.So it's ridiculous that Chanthini wouldn't understand that the teams were playing a game, not fighting each other. This is a plotline for a time-traveling caveman or a Martian, not for someone born and raised in the British Empire.

For more on the subject, see TV Shows Featuring Indians.

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