Because Some of Us Need It: The Asian American Guide to Not Studying Too Hard

[Typical Asian Parents from Goodness Gracious Me, the famous BBC Sitcom mocking South Asians in Britain]

By Zahira

Recently, at a South Asian dinner party, I sat across from an older, serious-looking couple with their 17-year-old son between them, his attention somewhere else. The middle-aged mother wore a bright red sari, reminiscent of a Hindu bride.  The topic of conversation was, unsurprisingly, college admissions – specifically their son’s recent admission to MIT. The parents prattled on and on about his admission to MIT as they basked, soaking in all the congratulations. They asked my husband and I (both alumni) whether it was a competitive school, how grading works, and whether you need to compete to get into a certain department or major like in India.

In stark generational contrast (and partially to navigate away from more stressful chapters of our lives) my husband and I directed the conversation towards the unique way MIT dorms worked, how you can explore the breadth your interests even there, how astoundingly interesting your fellow students are, and the increasing emphasis on studying abroad.

What I noticed was that the parents quickly quieted any discussion of study abroad, and the son hadn’t yet said a word after a perfunctory “thank you” when we congratulated him. I stopped reciting anecdotes and started directing my questions at the son:

“So, Kartik, what are you thinking of majoring in? What do you like?”

“Umm… definitely math and computer science.” He casts a sheepish glance at his parents after as he mumbles, “and-maybe-political-science-and-economics,” then his parents quickly resumed interrogating my husband and me.

From Kartik’s scared glance towards his father, I knew that he was very clear on which subjects were favored and which were verboten. I am sure much of his world was divided this way. Still, I hate that this near-adult cannot say what he wants in front of his parents, even though both courses of study are perfectly practical and marketable, satisfying the likely roots of his parents preferences. Or maybe it’s about control. Or getting future congratulations for the parents to preen later. Kartik had already applied, and received admission to, 16 other schools. He had more applications ready to go.

To many of you reading, I bet this story strikes a chord, especially for those of you who can foresee Kartik’s upcoming pain and identity crises whenever he finally has to stand up to his parents. I know I looked at him and saw my decade-ago self. I so badly wanted to say everything I wish someone had told me then. Perhaps this blog, Asians Not Studying, will help Kartik, like it helps me.

For me, Asians Not Studying sends an incredibly powerful message – that there are people out there who look like me, have the same constrained upbringing and restrictions as me, yet are doing all kinds of things outside of the ordinary. I needed examples and I needed to know, concretely, that this failed premed wasn’t alone. There are artists. I think Asians Not Studying meant to undo stereotypes, but for me, they helped me see myself in a different light.

We CAN do things other than study or socially-sanctioned (or parentally-sanctioned) careers, and yes, I absolutely needed to be told that beyond platitudes or abstract reminders.

If only Kartik’s parents knew of such subversion – what kind of a panic attack would that create!?

ABOUT ZAHIRA: Indian-American (or, on my bad days, American Born Confused Desi). Bibliophile. Coffee addict. Traveler, runner, and health nut. Inadvertent techie (I swear I got typecast). Card-carrying feminist and nerd. Gluttonous media consumer.

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