Whether at a family friend’s house, a kitty party, or a birthday party of an uncle’s daughter’s cousin sister, we kids are faced with this question at least once—“Beta, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
It is acceptable and even considered cute when a child below the age of 13 replies with teacher, princess, or, as in my sister’s case, a lion tamer. A teenage Indian American, however, is expected to respond with “doctor,” “engineer” or “lawyer.”
If our inclination is something other than these options, we are very likely going to be faced with a shocked face or follow-up questions about why we’d like to go into a field that is not engineering, law, or medicine.
“I was at [an Indian] party once, when I was faced with the question of what I wanted to be,” says 15 year old Manasi Gupta. “When I said I wanted to be a psychiatrist, the aunty immediately bombarded me with questions such as ‘How come you want to do this and not go into medicine?’”
Some adults are a bit more open when it comes to medicine and engineering related options and Manasi’s career choice (not the accepted medical degree) would then be permissible, however, anything too far to the left of these choices is often shunned.
“When I told my mother’s friend that I wanted to be an artist, she gasped and looked like she was about to have a heart attack,” says Srini Siva, age 17.
According to the article “Difference between American and Indian culture” on the site Differencebetween.net Indians tend to be more competitive in academics than Americans due to their family-oriented culture. Indian Americans are expected to provide for their entire family, which might include grandparents and that odd relative, down on his luck. Scientific and analytical fields pay higher salaries, and therefore allow a higher standard of living.
Indian American parents want for their kids the same standard of living that formed part of their own ambitions, hence, parents are inclined to persuade their kids into fields that pay better.
But don’t other fields earn as well?
Not unless one is exceptional in those fields, is the pat response.
“The reason why I wanted to steer my daughter away from majoring in dance is because I know she won’t be able to earn well,” says Sharmila Mitra, parent of Priya Mitra. “I want her to make something of herself and be able to support herself.”
In the India Currents July 2004 article “Pursuing their Passion,” the author Anand Shah interviewed a struggling Indian opera singer, Sharmila Daniel. Daniel, defying her mother’s wishes, moved to America in order to pursue her singing career. She however, was not quite as successful and “paid her bills by teaching music.”
I feel that Indian American parents need to understand that there are tangible and intangible rewards in non-traditional fields.
In Daniel’s case, for example, although she did not achieve the desired level of success as a singer, she was happy with her choice.
In the article “Indian Tiger Parenting” in Non Resident Indian, Kavin Senapathy states that children are shaped from their childhood by their parents. Most Indian parents do not give kids the choice of picking their own after-school activities and therefore are raised with their parents’ ideals, rather than their own.
The pressure put on us Indian American kids to excel in academics is not the same as that among Caucasian or Hispanic families. This level of pressure at a young age, I believe, shapes and establishes neural connections in our brains in such a way that we become left-brain focused, which means more analytical, rather than right-brain inclined which enhances the creativity in us.
It is not our parent’s faults however, since they were subjected to the same left brain pressure and have come to understand and relate to the fields of science and math, which are much more fact-based and easily quantifiable.
However, parents often do not consider that their child may not be happy in fields not of their choosing. By forcing your son or daughter to study engineering is doing them a disservice. They may end up earning well, but they won’t be happy with their life.
Furthermore, they may not even be good at the field they are directed into.
I commend those parents who do encourage their children to pursue their passion. By encouraging your child to follow his or her dream, and by steering them in the right direction—not pushing, but steering—you are allowing them to become their own person. And to those still stuck in the “Indian mentality,” remember that if we have a million doctors and engineers in our world, their worth will go down.
Simran Devidasani is a senior at Monta Vista High School. Along with her love for news and opinion writing, she indulges herself in her passion for photography. She is extremely proud to have interned for India Currents this summer.