Like most middle class children, I always thought I would lead an extraordinary life. My parents expected it of me, and I believed them whole-heartedly. For my Asian mother, once it became clear I lacked the math skills for engineering fame, her dreams obviously encompassed a PhD of some sort, preferably with an MD and profitable specialty in tow. At the very least, something to brag about to the other expat Indians and the folks back home. My brother is a hedge fund trader, which brings a certain amount of prestige (not to mention money), and in grad school, so he’s in the clear. But what have I achieved? I have been a corporate lackey. Once I hit management, the folks did have some bragging rights. Hopefully someday I’ll be a nurse. But a nurse touches blood, vomit and excrement. It falls very, very low on the Indian bragging food chain, not to mention in the caste system (supposedly defunct in most circles, but how many low-achieving Indians have you met?). Even Abraham Verghese notes in My Own Country the shame associated, in the Indian community, with an infectious diseases specialty. And if he’s not a high-achiever, then I don’t know who is.
I’ve tried not to care. I really have. I’ve had a mohawk (in every color), I’ve been bald, I ran away from home in a stolen car, I did drugs, I wore hippie clothes, I wore punk clothes, I dated all the wrong people (men and women), I moved abroad multiple times for many years… and yet here I am. Here I am, caring. It’s hard not to care about something ingrained as deeply into your psyche as your brown skin is in your DNA.
A couple of months ago, I applied for three jobs. One, at the local climbing gym. The other, at a dog “resort”. The third, at another Big Corporation. I got the first two jobs, and now I’m waiting to see which one actually schedules hours for me first. I interviewed at the Big Corporation yesterday. It’s not a management position like I used to have, but it will have a damn good salary. I am lucky, in this economy, to have found any job at all. But the night before the interview at The Corporation, I lost my dinner down the shower drain. And on the way to my car in the morning, I lost my coffee in the driveway. My body does NOT want me to wear a suit again. At least not one without vomit stains decorating the lapels. I’m considering it anyway. I’m considering it because it feels strange to have somebody else, husband or not, paying my way. I feel like a slacker not to be the big earner in the family. I get angry when the guy at the bank and the registrar at the hospital write “homemaker” when I tell them I’m laid off. Most of all, I’m considering it because I am afraid of crowds of nameless Indians my parents know or will know. Afraid of not being good enough or smart enough or high-achieving enough for them, and thus for the respect of my parents.
If you are not Asian, you will say this is ridiculous and you will be right. You will say that parents should just want their kids to be happy. And my parents will say the same thing, but they won’t really mean it. The fact is, Asian parents do just want their kids to be happy… and have a PhD.
These pressures tear at me. They tear less when I’m four thousand miles away. “Living in Europe” followed by “speaks several languages” carries some prestige. More, anyway, than “living in NJ” followed by something involving excrement or sweaty gyms.
I’m not sure yet, but I think I’ll turn down that corporate job. Just being yourself can sometimes be the most rebellious act to which you ever commit.