For me, the answer has almost always been, “a doctor.” Interchange “doctor” with “engineer,” “biochemist,” or “computer scientist” and my parents would still be happy. Interchange it with “journalist,” “political scientist,” or “diplomat” – not so much.
No, I am not pandering to the tired characterization of intolerant desi parents who forbid their children from studying anything but medicine or engineering. This is the cliché that elicits mirth from my Indian friends. Surely you have seen internet memes that poke fun at desi parents and their infamous zeal to only breed doctors and engineers. This is the stuff we laugh about, not the stuff we take seriously. But why not? Stereotypes don’t simply materialize from thin air.
Recently, I’ve had a change in plans. Thanks to my comparative government class, I’ve been considering majoring in international relations at college, in addition to following the pre-medicine track I’ve always been set on. For me, this development has been fresh and exciting. On the contrary, for my parents, this development has been packaged and parceled straight from hell.
Due to my current fervor for all things political and international, my parents fear that despite my plans to also study pre-medicine, I’ll end up taking the social sciences route wholesale. There’s a reason for their intolerance towards my studying international relations. When my mother first arrived in the United States, she pursued a master’s degree in computer engineering despite having already done her master’s in Hyderabad in political science. The factor for this scholastic change in direction was the availability and quality of jobs. Quite simply, there were not many decent careers in the United States for a South Asian political science major, and especially a woman at that.
For newly arrived Indian immigrants in 1980s Dixie south, such as my parents, without an extant sizable and supportive Indian community, subsistence came before dreams. Realism before idealism, in other words. To my parents, I am a naive girl who doesn’t realize that the arts don’t offer as much financial security as the sciences. I’m too romantic, too sheltered to understand that to be independent one cannot afford to be choosy. Everyone says follow your dreams. “If they really care, they would tell you to do what’s smart,” my parents reply.
So here I am staring at the Great Indian Stereotype. It is a wall – solid and impenetrable – and no longer is it funny. It is the ultimate, merciless agent of wrenching ambivalence. While I cringe at the notion of my parents dictating my higher studies and career, I also cannot avoid sympathizing with that hard yet endearing NRI heritage in which subsistence and the welfare of one’s family precedes the passions one may harbor. And so I stare and stare at this mammoth of a wall. While others may laugh from afar, it is no joke to those whose hearts are impeded and stuck in painful limbo – those who stand nose to cold wall.
The Great Indian Stereotype
March 23, 2012
What do your parents want you to be when you grow up?
In the United States, the regular college application season has ended. No more strict curfews or mothers nagging about those incomplete college essays. Now begins the waiting game. During this period, the common high school senior has a couple of ways to beguile themselves. One could actually tour those university campuses that one has applied to but hasn’t yet visited. Or, one could party harder and louder than ever cushioned snuggly by the belief that everything one has ever worked for is now in the hands of god. Or like me, one can take this month or so to think about the future. Never has there been a more perfect time to ask the question: What do I want to be when I grow up?