This episode is best consumed while high. It's 4:20 somewhere, right? I think?
As a heads up, this episode will take a couple of minutes longer than an average episode. Give an extra 10-20 minutes if you decide to get stoned.
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Without further ado ...
Generally speaking, Papa didn’t enjoy leaving the house much. If he had his choice, he’d watch TV and eat all day. Anytime he had to drive us somewhere that didn’t have to do with school or SAT prep, he acted like he was doing us an incredible favor.
In particular, he hated going to the movie theater with us. My brother and I, after much pleading, once convinced him to go watch the “Matrix 2” with us; you need an adult with you for rated R films.
As we left the theater I asked him what he thought about the movie. I was really hopeful that he was going to be a fan of it and happy that we dragged him out. He thought it was absolute trash and noted that we probably could have gone by ourselves as there were other young kids that looked to be there without their parents.
When the trailers for “Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle” started hitting the airwaves, however, for the first and only time that I’ve witnessed, he really wanted to go to the movie theater. Every time the trailer came on TV he was hyped.
For those who need a quick briefer, “Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle” is a stoner buddy comedy that follows our heroes as they overcome a series of obstacles to, you guessed it, get to White Castle. Harold was played by John Cho, while Kal Penn played Kumar. (If you really want to get in the mood, you can peep the trailer.)
It wasn’t just Papa that was eager to see the film; my brother and I were excited about it too. I’m sure there are other examples that an American pop historian can pull up, but from my personal recollection, that’s the first time I’ve seen anyone from the Indian subcontinent making a commercial appearance in a starring role. You might say Kal Penn walked so Hasan Minhaj could do Cole Haan ads.
Even though Kal Penn was Indian-American, it still resonated with us. Sure, if you take a visit to Pakistan, people there are very much anti-anything that has to do with India. When you’re coming up here in America though, for all intents and purposes, you’re grouped together into one pod. In school, anyone that’s brown is lumped in as being “Indian” (or “Arab” for the more clueless white folks). Whether you’re Bengali, Pakistani, or Indian, no one is hostile to each other.
In addition to feeling like Kal Penn was repping for us as a people, the Shaikh family was also a fan of White Castle. One time we went to a New Jersey Nets game when they ran a promotion along the lines of, “Get four tickets + a family meal at White Castle for only $50!” We had never been to White Castle before, but these were the days my mom was in her medical residency program—we were for sure using that voucher. Ever since that trip in the mid-’90s, those caloric-dense sliders have given me cravings.
We didn’t necessarily have them too often because White Castles are just about always located in lower-income neighborhoods (would love to see their internal market research data that has led them to avoid middle-class areas). We had to go out of our way to get it, which is sort of antithetical to the point of getting fast food.
We were able to regularly indulge in our cravings, however, through frozen White Castle sliders from Costco. 16 a pack. Individually wrapped. There was nothing better to pop into the microwave for an after-school snack. (For those of you out there who are thinking “What about Ellio’s Pizza?” Trust me, I hear you, but Ellio’s has left permanent scars on the top of my mouth from me being too impatient to let it cool down.)
The first weekend Harold & Kumar came out, Papa took my brother and me to see it; it’s still strange thinking back on it, as this was the only time he had ever led the charge to see a movie in theaters.
It’s hard to explain how dope it was watching Harold & Kumar. It was the first time I had seen Asians playing roles of characters that you’d want to hang out with. (Let’s exclude martial arts actors because everyone would be down to hang with Jackie Chan’s character in “Rush Hour.”)
These guys were getting blitzed on weed in the movie! This was a time when weed was seen as something only consumed by the edgiest of people.
I’ll never forget my favorite scene of the movie. After Harold and Kumar have been repeatedly bullied by a group of white skateboarders, they eventually turn the tables. Harold leads the charge to steal the skateboarder's car, so they can continue their journey to White Castle. As they speed off, Kumar leans out the window, flips off the skateboarders, and in a stereotypical Indian accent says, “Thank you, come again.” (I will say, that was an unfavorable portrayal of skateboarders. Skateboarders are among the most open-minded and one-love folks you will find in America.)
Mercifully my dad enjoyed the film as well. I can’t say he took any learnings from it, as just like Kumar’s dad he still was pretty unforgiving when it came to the set immigrant vision for your offspring. As I said, he enjoyed it, as opposed to being touched by it on a personal level.
The movie did well enough that it became part of the cultural lexicon. I’d put it right up there alongside “Grandma’s Boy” and “Superbad” for best stoner movies of the early 2000s. (No, I know you want to go there, but don’t say it. Just stop. “Pineapple Express” is not going to be on that list. That movie is so overrated.)
Two years later during my senior year of high school, I came across another film Kal Penn was in, “American Desi.” I bought the DVD off eBay, which came in a two-pack along with “ABCD.” Both of those movies were low-budget indie films that weren’t necessarily great but had their moments.
At that time, there were very few instances of people that looked like me out there in the public eye. These movies, along with Russell Peters’s standup, of course, weren’t necessarily formative to my high school experience, but they made me feel a little bit more comfortable about repping my identity.
(Unnecessary Russell Peters side story: I was at a dinner at SXSW with RZA (Wu-Tang Clan’s founder), Chris Taylor (music industry executive), and George Stroumboulopoulos (think of him as a Canadian Carson Daly who also had a stint as a wartime reporter). George is good friends with Russell Peters and brings him up in conversation. RZA replies, “You know, Russell is the first person to ever show me online porn. We were hanging out at his place one day. He opens up his laptop, logs onto a website, and shows me this video of a horse fucking a girl.” Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, Russell Peters.)
Five years later one of my Sigma Chi pledge brothers at Berkeley, Ajay, texted me. He wanted to see if I could pick up a bottle of alcohol because one of the other freshmen in his dorm was having a birthday party. (I pledged our fraternity as a junior and was already 21 at the time.)
Apparently, Kal Penn was friends with the birthday boy and would be coming through. Ajay said it would be cool if I rolled with him, so yeah, obviously I was going to make the 20-minute round trip to the nearest liquor store. I was doubtful that Kal Penn was going to be hanging in some dorm, but fuck it, what else did I have better to do?
When I pulled up to the room, yep, Kal Penn was milling about with about 20 freshmen. Even though I was bewildered as to why a 30-and-change-year-old Kal Penn was so good friends with an 18-year-old, I was stoked to be around him. I had never been in close quarters with a public figure, let alone the OG Kumar.
He had actually come up in conversation between my brother and me earlier in the week. Tayyab was attending Union College and Kal Penn had just given a speech at the school.
The gathering only lasted for 20 minutes after I got there. As the group was exiting the room to head to the next spot for the birthday boy’s celebration, I found myself alongside Kal Penn and had a rather brief conversation.
“I heard you were out in Union College earlier in the week.”
“Yeah, I was just out there for a speaking engagement.”
“Yeah, my brother goes to Union. He enjoyed it.”
“Ha. I appreciate it.”
I don’t have the perspective I have now, but I wish I said something more thankful for his impact on the culture. Something simple. Something along the lines of, “Thanks for showing you can be brown and cool. What you did for the culture was big. But dude, I’ve just got to know one thing: what series of events in your life led you to the point where you’re in a Berkeley dorm to celebrate a freshman’s birthday?”
Do you have a friend who also craves White Castle? Can you do me a favor and share this email with them?
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Next week on Brown Boy Problems, we're going for a car ride with Papa.
You can catch up on past writings here.