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We hear it all the time.  There are no other options in the South Asian community other than to become a doctor, engineer, businessperson (preferably accountant), and (maybe now) a lawyer.  It’s nothing new, and most South Asian Americans can tell you that they have family in these professions and that their parents prefer that they choose them.

Now, I understand why South Asian parents push this.  I can see how they want their children to be in professions based mostly on merit rather than connections.  In many ways, it is very similar to  Booker T. Washington’s arguments around economic prosperity as a path towards Black prosperity (which, for the purposes of this post, I am presenting a very simplified version of his argument).  Additionally, South Asian American parents came with the same dreams for a better life that most immigrants came for.  However, embedded within these dreams is a survival mentality that South Asian parents cannot help but hold onto.  Many came with nothing for themselves, hence, all they want is for their children to never feel that struggle about money.

It is reasonable – up to a certain point.

That threshold of reasonableness forms when one asks if the continuation of this type of thinking is detrimental to the social development of the South Asian community?  Economic prosperity is certainly a great way to make differences

and gain (hopefully well-intentioned) power, but it is not the only way.  There should not only be a focus on surviving anymore, but rather on building a real community of resources.  This is not about how “my children look much smarter and better than your’s” – a mentality that needs to be changed in the South Asian community by teaching children to help each other succeed.

I can completely understand if South Asian children choose these “typical” professions themselves, but I find it painful when I watch many South Asians (friends as well as many others whom I went to college with) feeling miserable and continuing a profession simply to please their parents.  Some do well in it but still feel miserable, while others deal with their misery by continuing to waste their parents’ money and their own time by partying it off.

In the end, this pattern really isn’t productive, and here are the four reasons why:

1.) Lacking well-roundedness

We hear people say, “It’s not about getting a job, but making a career.”  What does that really mean to the South Asian community?  Quite simple.  Making a career (South Asian version) is:

  • Rush through school
  • As soon as we are out of school,  immediately make at least $80K/year (or go to medical school and then make much more later)
  • Get married (obviously)
  •  Have children soon after
  • Take care of our parents (while they play with the grandchildren), have a great house and marriage, with a well-paid career and repeat everday

I mean, it really is a nice life, but what about all of the events and experiences in between?  Where do the epiphanies happen?  The personal and spiritual growth?  Something a friend constantly reminds me of when I get caught up in this type of rhetoric of the “perfect life” I describe above:  LIFE IS NOT A RACE.

I personally have nothing against people who get through college in 2 or 3 years and get both their bachelors and masters and maybe even a PhD in a very short time.  I just do not think that this makes anybody better, but for some reason, parents in the South Asian community connote this with success.  I remember my parents scolding me for not deciding to graduate college in 3 years because I wanted to study abroad or for taking a year off before going to graduate school – and the worst – making the decision not to go to law school.  It was, in their mind, two years of  “wasting my time” and thereby, further delaying marriage.

With all of this rush, where is the time to explore other options?  Where is the time to find one’s niche that could help them attain a career they never even expected, or to use their current career to do something meaningful?

2.) Feelings of inadequacy and insecurity 

This can create a lot of emotional baggage and in some cases, animosity within families.  Such feelings can persist into adulthood to the point of children never feeling like they are enough for their parents.  This eventually becomes alienation between parent and child.  Here’s some ways it manifests itself in interactions between parents and children:

  • Guilt trips
  • Comparison to others
  • Words that can hurt a child’s confidence in his/her abilities
  • Parental accusations of something being inherently wrong with their child

I personally can speak to this.  I will not discredit my parents and say they go as far to do all of these things.  However, I too often hear my relatives do something that fall into the hurting confidence category.  It has taken time to develop a thick skin to it all, and I am happy that I have, but it sure does not make me want to see my relatives when all I hear is disrespectful criticism of my career choices.

I completely understand if my relatives do not know much about my field or what I do, but that is much different from:

“Come on, betta, come back to reality.  Just marry a rich guy and stop bothering with this nonsense masters and career path.  You are not a boy, so you should not have to worry about money.  Stop wasting your time”

Here is a statement that two of my friends have heard from their mothers:

“It is okay if you did not become a doctor yourself, but at least marry one.”

For those who don’t end up in the “optimal” professions, the disappointment expressed from family members can become psychologically tarnishing.  Statements, such as the ones above only confirm the lack of appreciation and understanding present in many South Asian families for what their children do.  Although I have eventually learned to ignore it, I cannot forget the painful memories as a teenager of always feeling like I never measured up to my brother.  I am sure many first generation South Asian adults can attest to similar memories.

It is easy to say “Forget what your parents think.  You need to be more independent and do what you want”, but family is such a pervasive force in South Asian American (and generally Asian American) culture.  It is difficult to simply ignore the inner desire to please parents and make them happy because of the sacrifices they made when choosing to come to the U.S.

Because not everyone is able to break from such a path, the results can become emotionally harmful (via depression or other mental health issues), sometimes to the point of suicide (and no, the suicide part is not overdramatized).  According to a 2009 study from the University of Washington, 16 percent of Asian American women have contemplated suicide in their lifetimes, compared to 13 percent of all American women (keeping in mind Asian-American encompasses about 16 ethnic and 30 language groups).  I will not go into the “statistically significant” numbers and claim causality, but it is very difficult for me to reject that the need to be a “model minority” (or some form of an academic/career superstar) plays a major role.

The take-away message from all of this: These types of pressures are just not healthy.  They only further alienate children from their parents.

3.) Narrow-Mindedness 

In terms of gender, South Asian men face pressures about career that are many times ignored because they are not as likely to talk about it.  I can imagine the thoughts of South Asian parents in regard to their non-traditional career-picking sons being something along the line of these questions:

  • Oh no!  How will he get married?
  • How will they be able to provide for their wife and children if they do not make >$150K?
  • How will they look compared to other “good catches” in the community?
  • How can they provide for us when we become old?
It seems archaic, especially since more South Asian female professionals are entering the career arena and becoming independent.  So sorry, Ammi, but I will not die if my husband does not make >$150K or be left out in the streets.  Sure the money would be nice, but if he is not doing something that he actually enjoys and is talented in, I can see a lot of the ways those issues can manifest themselves in marriage.  As for how he will take care of his parents, there are also other children in the family (including daughters).  They can certainly play a role and help as well.
The point I make here with the case of South Asian men (and women, to an extent) is that this type of mentality contributes to a continuum of narrow-mindedness.  It does not only play out in our parents’ generation, but even amongst my own South Asian peers.  They may not be as strict on their children as their parents were on them, but the expectations and traditional beliefs about the best career paths remain.  Rather than exposing their children to different ideas and interests, they are more likely to impose the same ones that their parents imposed on them.

4.) Discouragement of innovation and creativity

This is the most important reason.  Everyone talks about India being one of the greatest superpowers in the world.  This is definitely not just because everyone is a doctor or engineer, but because even those doctors and engineers steer in different directions.  They may start in these professions, but they have used their talents to create change.  Innovation has been a powerful tool in social and economic mobilization in India, not just following traditional career paths.

It saddens me when I see South Asian parents discourage creativity in their children.  It can be blatantly obvious that their child can do something very well, but they refuse to think anything useful can be produced from it.  I understand the need to inculcate practical values into children, but completely trying to beat a talent “out of them” is too much.

Maybe that child will not turn out to be a rock star or a world famous artist, but this does not mean he or she could still do a “practical path” that at least incorporates these talents.  How does one know whether his/her child can formulate solutions to the world’s most pressing problems?  Or be one of the few South Asians to excel in a career where South Asians are not traditionally represented?

In asking these questions, my question is: Is there that much fear of failure?

Failure is a part of life, but it provides insights into how to do better or how to channel efforts.  There is a predominant “fear of failure” culture amongst the South Asian community that discourages real progress.  Progress is made possible by innovation and creativity not just in diversity of careers, but also willingness to look at the world in challenging and less conventional ways.

Fortunately, there is hope, and that is seen by the South Asian men and women who decided to “go against the grain” (no pun intended) and venture into careers their parents never would have imagined.  These are the new role models that I hope to see South Asian parents talk about with their sons and daughters.  To those who are in traditional career paths, love it, and do not regret it, keep strengthening your communities and the world with your contributions.  I do not have an intentions of encouraging snobbery towards people who choose the “traditional” options.