“You have not qualified. You are a runner-up. Face the facts and accept your teacher’s ruling.” Ma refused to look up, focusing on the dishes she was washing.
“I have too qualified. Look at the rules.” Pushpa flung the “Step to the Future” rules booklet on the table.
“Step to the Future” was a competitive program sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, local professionals, and the school district. A tenth-grade student who qualified could “step to the future” by job-shadowing a professional who was an expert in the field the student had chosen as his or her future career. Pushpa had dreamt of this opportunity since the eighth grade, when she had first heard about the program. She wished to job-shadow a physician. It was a devastating blow that she was not among the ten girls and ten boys chosen.
Pushpa went from pleading with her mother to deliberate provocation. “Accept your teacher’s decision. Accept your karma!” she mocked, doing a fine job of imitating her mother, knowing that this insubordination would get Ma’s attention. It did. Ma spun around, but her anger stilled when she saw her child’s obvious distress. Pushpa was pacing the family room, limbs flailing. Her baggy jeans and extra-large sweatshirt flapped around her thin frame; her thick, black hair whipped her face. Each part of her body seemed separate, connected only by the whirling activity, like leaves caught in a storm.
“Look at the rules,” Pushpa shouted. “The qualifying students have to be strong in academics. I’m a straight-A student. They have to demonstrate leadership and responsibility. I am the class president. They have to show involvement in community service and you know I volunteer at the homeless shelter. Just read the rules and then tell me I should accept my fate.”
Ma looked stricken. She moved away from the sink, towards the dining table, wiping her hands in the folds of her sari. “Maybe it is my fault that you were not picked. Maybe it was because I was so outspoken at the Community Forum about how little you were doing in class, how few homework assignments you had, even though you were in the Honors program. And who was the staff member who was at the forum to represent your school? Who called me in for a conference a few months later to complain that I was pushing you too hard? Do you remember how she said, ‘Pushpa tries too hard!’”
“And you replied, ‘In America a teacher complains that a student tries too hard?’” Pushpa reminded her mother. “You were willing to fight then.”
“No, no! I would never fight with a teacher, a guru, and you know that. I was just so taken aback. I was trying to understand this country. I spoke without thinking and look what has happened. Isn’t she the teacher in charge of coordinating this?” and Ma pointed to the booklet.
“I rest my case. Now you want to go to this orientation meeting even though you are only a runner-up and you can qualify only if one of the other students drops out. You know what she is going to say?”
“‘Pushpa tries too hard.’” Pushpa was a gifted mimic.
Ma laughed tremulously. “I don’t wish you to go through that again. Accept your teacher’s decision, Papa.”
“Stop calling me that! I am not a baby. Stop treating me like one!” Pushpa’s tears belied her words. “I want to go; I will not accept my teacher’s decision.” She tried to fight her tears.
“But the rules say I can’t go unless a parent accompanies me,” Pushpa wailed. She felt thwarted by the grown-ups in her life. Their adult rules made no sense to her. Why couldn’t they let her take charge of her future?
The tears, more than the defiant words, disarmed Ma. “I wish your Mrs. Jones could see that I’m not the one doing the pushing. From the time I conceived you … all those months of bed rest to keep you from being born prematurely … because you were so impatient to get out and get on with life. I wish I could tell Mrs. Jones that I’m the one who is being pushed willy-nilly.” Ma had over the years mastered the role of martyr. She wished her husband did not travel so frequently on business trips. It seemed like he was never there when she most needed his support.
“Since you insist on wasting your time and mine, I will come, but I will not speak.” At the heart of Ma’s reluctance to go was the fear that she would say something inadvertently again and make things worse for her daughter.
Pushpa, with a child’s ability to go from great sorrow to boundless joy, gave her mother a bone-crushing hug. “We have to be in school at seven and we can’t be late,” said Pushpa, sounding like she was the parent. Then she dashed up the stairs, taking them two, even three at a time, almost colliding with her sister, Champa, who had been crouching at the top of the stairs, listening to every word.
“High five,” Ma heard her younger daughter crow in triumph. “You go, girl!”
“No, I Go Pal!” Pushpa replied, with a laugh, pronouncing their last name, Gopal, like her American teachers and classmates pronounced it. Both girls rolled over, shrieking with laughter, as if they were hearing the joke for the first time.
“If you two girls don’t have any homework, I’d like your help in the kitchen.” The exuberant celebration grew muted. The girls hated to work in the kitchen.
Ma resumed her chores, finished washing the dishes, cooked a simple dinner, ran a load of laundry, called her neighbor and asked her to look after Champa. She put away the music books Pushpa had left scattered on top of the piano. She swirled from one activity to another to keep her anxieties at bay. It was quite habitual for her to be overruled by her husband, but to be badgered by her daughter into doing something she didn’t consider wise seemed spineless. She wished she had not relented. She got ready to set the table and noticed the rules booklet still on the table. She picked it up gingerly, afraid it would bite, and put it at the foot of the stairs.
“Papa, Chinna, dinner is ready.”
Pushpa sucked up the meal with the speed of a vacuum cleaner. “Papa, slow down, and stop shaking your leg.” The leg continued its nervous spasms, a childhood habit, which Ma knew reflected Pushpa’s inner tension. “Papa, your father can ask Uncle Vijay if you can job shadow him. We don’t have to go tonight …”
Pushpa stopped eating. “Ma, please don’t make me go through this again,” she said with parental exasperation, “and stop calling me Papa.”
“And stop calling me Chinna,” said Champa in a “me-too” voice. “I’m not a little one either.”
“Yes, yes,” said Ma. “Suddenly you’re all grown up too? Mrs. Humphries said she could use the company of another adult, so you can stay there while we are at the meeting.”
After she watched Champa walk safely across the street to Mrs. Humphries’ house, Ma went upstairs to her room and spent some minutes just gazing at all her saris, each with its matching blouse, hanging in neat order in her closet. No matter which one she chose, she knew she would draw attention. She finally chose a nondescript beige silk sari, hoping that by wearing it she might somehow blend into the walls. She was ready by 6:15 p.m., waiting for Pushpa to come down.
She did not have long to wait. The poised young lady who came down the stairs bore no resemblance to the child who had thrashed around the room earlier. Pushpa’s thick hair was pulled back into a neat French braid. Sweatshirt and baggy jeans had been discarded in favor of an elegant grey skirt and a matching jacket. Only the blouse, a vibrant red, spoke of an underlying defiance. Pushpa picked up the rules booklet and carefully placed it inside her folder. “Shall we leave?”
They drove the short distance to the school in silence and made their way to the library. “Pushpa? Mrs. Go Pal?” Mrs. Jones was clearly taken aback to see them. “You do realize that Pushpa is a runner-up?” She addressed the questions to the mother, but it was the daughter who answered.
“Yes, Mrs. Jones.”
After a careful glance around the room to acknowledge the students who were already there, Pushpa steered her mother to a table close to the front of the room and with a clear view of the door through which they had entered. Mrs. Jones continued to stare at the pair, and particularly at the sari-clad mother, the ramrod thin figure wrapped in so much cloth, like a mummy. Then she shrugged as if to say, “This is an exercise in futility, but it is your time.”
“I have packages for the twenty students chosen,” Mrs. Jones said, looking flustered but determined to emphasize that Pushpa was not Among the Chosen. She marched around the room, high heels clicking. Her floral print skirt billowed, making her presence seem much larger. She dashed from table to table, distributing the packages to the students who were already there.
“Please read through the pages carefully and make sure we have matched you correctly in the career you specified. You were asked to bring a cover letter with you, introducing yourself to your mentor and explaining why you are interested in job-shadowing him or her. I hope you all have done so. Parents: there is some information for you to read and permission slips that you must sign. The meeting will start as soon as Mr. Lucas from the Chamber of Commerce arrives. He’s taken the time to find the professionals you will be job-shadowing and he will tell you more about what is expected of you.”
She continued to hand out the packages as the students dribbled in, parents in tow. The room filled with the rustle of paper, the scraping of chairs, and the excited chatter of students and parents who huddled to read the information.
In contrast to all the activity around them, Ma and Pushpa sat like carved temple statues, with nothing to do but to stare straight ahead. It was embarrassing to be in the group, yet not part of the group. Ma wished she had not given in to Pushpa’s tears and had protected her from the imminent humiliation of losing face. She was acutely aware of her child’s unnatural stillness. One of Pushpa’s hands gripped the leg that habitually shook, as if the one limb were in charge of keeping the other in check. More than anything else, this adult, self-inflicted control wrung Ma’s heart. Pushpa’s eyes were fixed on the door, with the same focused concentration she brought to a new piece of music. What was she trying to memorize?
Mr. Lucas arrived punctually at 7 p.m. and the meeting started. Mrs. Jones repeated the information she had shared with the students earlier. Then she introduced Mr. Lucas and concluded by saying, “This program is Mr. Lucas’ brainchild and this is the third year we have been able to offer it, thanks to his dedication in finding mentors for you students to job-shadow. Let us give him a big hand as a gesture of our appreciation.” The parents and students clapped.
Mr. Lucas acknowledged the applause, then got right down to business. “The best way for you students to show your appreciation to me and to the mentors who have generously agreed to participate is by being professional. Dress professionally. Do the tasks assigned to you responsibly. Be punctual. Above all, keep your appointments …”
“Mr. Lucas?” Pushpa stood up. Ma gaped, feeling as if she had been kicked in her womb, reliving the fear of Pushpa’s premature birth. She tried, ineffectually, to stop her daughter. “You emphasized punctuality and keeping appointments. In the rules booklet, it said that a student who missed this orientation meeting or was late would be automatically disqualified. Will you be following this rule?” The tone was respectful; the taut body had all the determination of an acrobat precariously walking a tightrope.
“Really, Pushpa, Mrs. Go Pal!” Mrs. Jones protested, feeling and sounding winded. Ma felt a strange kinship with the teacher, as if they were both in the same boat, rowing against the current. “I will answer your questions after the meeting.”
“No, no, Mrs. Jones. This is an excellent question and I should have explained why we introduced the new rule this year. Each of the last two years we’ve had one or two students who habitually kept their preceptors waiting or were no-shows. We felt the orientation meeting would be a good and early gauge of responsibility. So yes, students who are not here are not here! Students who do not have their cover letters, introducing themselves to their mentors, are here, but not here!” Each time he made a slashing movement with his hand. The students and parents laughed nervously, glad to have escaped the guillotine, scrambling to find the cover letters.
Mrs. Jones looked as startled as a conscientious student who had forgotten to complete an assignment. Ma again felt a complicated compassion for the teacher. Mrs. Jones did so much around the school, tried so hard to juggle all the staff, teaching, and extracurricular duties. She must not have had the time to read the most recent booklet carefully. Ma watched Mrs. Jones frantically matching faces with the names on the roster, then realize belatedly that she could just check the packages that had not been claimed to see who was missing.
“Tina is not here.” Pushpa said, as if she were the one holding the roster and the unclaimed packages. Ma realized why her daughter had chosen this particular table. “I am one of the runners-up,” she informed Mr. Lucas. “May I take her place?”
“Yes, of course,” said Mr. Lucas at the same time as Mrs. Jones said, “No, you don’t have a cover letter, so …”
“I do too have … I mean I have two letters. I would like to job-shadow a physician, and I have a cover letter that explains why. But I know beggars can’t be choosers,” Pushpa said, her huge brown eyes nevertheless begging Mr. Lucas, “and so the other letter—it’s more generic.” The words came out in a rush.
Mr. Lucas was clearly impressed. “She’s certainly done her homework, hasn’t she?” he laughed, turning to Mrs. Jones.
“Oh, yes. Mrs. Go Pal makes sure of that. Pushpa has a lot of push.” Some of the students tittered. “Is that what her name means?” Mrs. Jones asked, sotto voce, as she reached the table, where mother and daughter were sitting, and placed the package Pushpa coveted on the table. Then, not waiting for an answer, still addressing the mother, she whispered, “If you’re not careful, she’ll be burnt out, like so many Asian kids, before she gets to college.” She marched back to the front of the room and the meeting proceeded.
Pushpa concentrated on the meeting and on filling out the forms. Ma robotically signed the papers Pushpa put in front of her, unnerved by her daughter’s daring. Ma wondered what she had been thinking about when she’d named her daughter Pushpa—flower. As if a baby that would not wait to be born would grow up to be root-bound, tradition-bound, would wait inertly for the sun to shine, the rains to fall, in order to bloom. What a passive name to have given an American-born daughter who did not merely wait for her future to happen, who did not just step into her future, but who strode into it, who raced in pursuit of happiness, her inalienable rights, as if women, daughters, flowers had rights. She stole a look at her daughter, seeing her for the first time as a person distinct and separate from herself, feeling a pride that was tinged with fear. She wanted to reach out to Mrs. Jones with this new understanding and say: “When you look at Pushpa, you see an Asian who tries too hard, whose parent pushes her too hard, and you fear this will lead to burn-out. I look at Pushpa and see an American who tries too hard, whose country teaches her never to accept her fate, and I fear that if a girl does not bend, she will break. Both of us fear for her future because she seems so foreign.”
Pushpa caught her mother’s glance and grinned in uncomplicated triumph, her child again.
The meeting ended and Mr. Lucas beckoned to Pushpa. “I’m not making any promises, young lady, but I’ll try to match you with a physician.” Pushpa glowed.
“You must be very proud of her,” he said to Mrs. Gopal.
Ma inclined her head in assent. She spoke for the first time that evening. “Pushpa tries very hard.”
Radhika Kumar is a freelance editor and writer residing in Federal Way, Wash.