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The South Asian Cultural Arms Race for Impressive Biodata

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Anyone who has grown up as an Indian American knows it's a culture of immense pressure, expectations, and judgment which comes from family members, peers, and community.

But there's an opportunity cost to this.

I've always joked that when an Indian parent gives a motivational speech, it can be summed up one sentence.

"You can be any kind of lawyer, doctor, or engineer you want to be."

We force people to choose from the options in front of them and blind them to the possibilities that surround them. This limits a young person's entire future to just a few possibilities before they even know who they are.

As a result, we rob them of the opportunity for self-discovery, exploration, personal growth, and many other things that lead to a meaningful life.

Why?

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Because in Indian culture, we define ambition and success by crossing off the checkboxes of society's life plan instead of designing a life plan of our own. What are the checkboxes?

  • A prestigious college
  • An impressive resume
  • A wedding
  • Kids

From the time we're old enough to understand what it means to have ambition, we race towards an imaginary finish line or mythical date in an unwritten future. Whenever I felt like my life plan wasn't on track, my best friend from college used to say to me, "Srini, it's not a race to death."

But it is for Indians. Sometimes I think they're on what author Randy Komisar calls a deferred life plan because they believe in reincarnation. With the shit I've done, I'll come back as a cockroach, so I'm going to take my chances in this life instead.

In his book, The Road to Character, David Brooks makes an important distinction between resume values and eulogy values, which he defines as follows:

The resume virtues you list on your resume are the skills that you bring to the job or the market. They contribute to external success. Eulogy virtues are deeper. They're virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being – whether you are kind, brave, honest, or faithful, what kind of relationships are formed.

Biodata (which Indians should consider discarding from our vernacular) is all about resume virtues, while eulogy virtues are like the extracurricular activities we list at the bottom of our resume.

As my sister said to me, "At the end of the day, you marry a person, not a resume."

The pressure to meet their expectations and avoid the judgment of parents, peers, and community has put Indian people in a cultural arms race for impressive biodata.

Parents

Children often internalize a parent's critical voice and carry that with them throughout their lives – Kristin Neff

Our cultural arms race for biodata begins with parents. I used to be angry at my parents for not encouraging my creative pursuits sooner. But I realized that the advice they gave me about making my way in the world was because of their experience.

When they grew up, life outcomes were binary. It was security or poverty, with nothing in between. So I empathize with Indian parents who encourage their children to seek safety, security, and stability. They give us their advice with the best of intentions.

But there's also a downside.

The pressure for academic excellence is a given in an Indian family. When you tell an Indian parent that some white kid gets money for each good grade, you're told that you get a meal and a roof over your head and you should go study.

This isn't a bad thing because it teaches us the value of intrinsic motivation, self-discipline, and consistency, all of which serve you well in adult life. If hadn't been for the discipline and work ethic my parents instilled in me, I wouldn't have been able to write books or do any of what I do today.

But when kids feel so much pressure to meet parental expectations, they learn to base their self-worth on their accomplishments. They learn to believe the love is conditional.

When your entire sense of self-worth is based on being productive and successful, when failure is simply not allowed, then striving to achieve becomes tyrannical. -Kristin Neff, Self Compassion

Many Indian parents categorize, rank, judge, and compare their kids to others. For a developing brain that's prone to comparison, learning to deal with insecurity and all the other baggage and bullshit of adolescence, this only adds fuel to the fire.

It begins in childhood and continues into adulthood when it stops being about your grades and becomes about your marital status.

Between the pressure to meet parental expectations, be as impressive as our peers and avoid the judgment of our community, our identity is shaped from an early age by this cultural arms race for impressive biodata.

Peers

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Within our peer groups, there's an invisible caste system. It plays a pivotal role in our cultural arms race for biodata. Our parents and community put the structure in place. But we carry it from one generation to the next.

Doctors

The most sacred profession in the world by Indian standards is to become a doctor.

I have nothing against doctors. My sister is one. But what a friend said to me is perhaps the best way to summarize the role of doctors in this invisible caste system.

"Your sister is every Indian parent's dream come true."

With a resume that's beyond impressive, she is. And I told this friend (who is also a Harvard Neurosurgery resident), "And I'm every Indian parent's nightmare come true."

Academics, Engineers, Lawyers, and People with "Real Jobs"

If you're not smart enough to get into med school, no worries. There are some other options on the fast-food menu of an Indian life plan.

While they pale in comparison to being a doctor in the cultural arms race for biodata, at least you'll seem like you have your shit together. You might also end up with more money than a doctor.

You may not be an Indian parent's dream come true. But at least you're not their worst nightmare.

Artists/Creators/Entrepreneurs

Despite being intelligent and well-read, sometimes I think Indian people believe the art they consume falls out of the sky.

They don't seem to understand that their artists, musicians, authors, and actors compose the music they love, write the book they read, and produce the movies they love. As, I said in my first book, Art that rewards its creator long after the average person quits is something we admire, but certainly don't encourage.

That's even more true if you're Indian.

Unless, your Shahrukh Kahn, Mindy Kailing, or Hasan Minaj, you're the lowest caste in the cultural arms race for biodata. Their success makes the need for compelling biodata irrelevant.

The irony of course is that we idolize these people. But there's a pretty clear message we get growing up. You're probably not going to become one of them. So it's best to keep this thing you love as a hobby.

For misfits like us who don't fit in, our relationship with the community is complicated to say the least. But it's best summarized in what author Dani Shapiro says in her beautiful book Still Writing.

I've asked around and discovered that every artist and writer I know contends with a version of this question. It's asked of writers who are household names. It's asked of photographers whose work hangs in the museum of modern art. It's asked of stage actors who have won Tony Awards. Of poets whose work is regularly published in the finest journals. No one who spends her life creating things is exempt from it. Still Writing?

Yes, Aunty, I'm still writing. But, probably not what you're looking for in your future son-in-law.

Community

The Indian community is unforgivingly complex. On the one hand, it's a place where you'll find an unrivaled level of loyalty, camaraderie, and compassion.

I'm still baffled that my dad opened a phone book in Edmonton and called the first Telugu name in the phone book and became friends with people who are still in our lives 30 years later. My parents' closest friends are like family. They talk to each other daily and before the pandemic saw each other multiple times a week. And they are loyal, kind, and generous.

That's a beautiful thing.

On the other hand, Indian communities are full of judgment. People who will never live with the consequences of your choices offer you unsolicited advice about everything ranging from your health to who you should marry.

What will people think

If you're an Indian person, you've heard that question countless times. Of course, we don't want people to say and do things with no concern at all for other human beings. That would make you a sociopath. But there's a cost to living your life according to the judgment, expectations, and pressures of other people.

Self-image

It would be incomplete to write about this arms race without talking about skin color. Up until the summer of 2009, you could say I was fair-skinned by Indian standards. Then, I started surfing every day, which meant being out in the sun for a long time.

Anytime I saw some aunty, she would comment on how dark I'd become. That never stopped me from surfing. And I celebrated my 10th year of surfing in India at the Mantra Surf Club.

I asked Tanvi, India's female stand up paddle-boarding champion about why there weren't many women in the water. She told me that for the majority, their parents didn't want them in the sun because they would become dark.

Given how much surfing has done for my confidence, self-image and personal growth, I found this sad. When I sent my cousin this article for a first look, she sent me a detailed response. She highlights this issue better than I ever could as a man:

My eldest sister was considered good-looking (she met all the criteria of Telugu aunties – fair-skinned, long-haired, good-looking). My second sister was dark and so not considered good-looking. I was too skinny and my younger sister failed every criteria because she did not do so well in her report cards too. People would tell my parents to their face, "Why do you need engineers or doctors for these faces? You can find any guy and get them married."

Imagine what that does to a person's self-image. After a certain point, if you hear something enough times, you'll start to believe it's true.

Mental Health

There's nothing more taboo in South Asian culture than discussing mental health. We have one word for people with mental health issues: crazy. Fortunately, it's starting to change with the next generation.

I've dealt with depression on and off throughout my life. But I never knew it. I only saw a therapist once in college. It wasn't until I couldn't get out of bed in the morning a few years ago that I realized I needed help.

I was 36 years old when I started seeing a therapist. My only thought was, "Why the hell did I wait so long?" Even though I don't anymore, I took antidepressants for a few years.

When I forgot to refill a prescription, despite knowing enough doctors to open a hospital, I couldn't call any of my family friends. What would they think?

"India has the highest suicide rate in the South-East Asian region, according to the World Health Organization's latest report." — Rohan Gupta, Down To Earth

We can keep sweeping this all under the rug and just attend funerals. Or we can make it acceptable to talk about this.

Marriage

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"Letting go of the maddening myth that happiness comes from coupling up is the first step to freedom. Stressing out about meeting someone will not help you meet that person faster. The healthiest way to increase your chances of finding love is to increase your happiness right now," says Dr. Jenny Taitz in her book, How to Be Single and Happy.

The cultural arms race for biodata perpetuates this myth, while paradoxically decreasing the likelihood that a person will find love.

If you try to tell an aunty this, she'll fill your ears with advice about why you need to get married on time, etc. But she's not the one who's going to pick up the bill for your divorce if it doesn't work out.

Unmarried Women

When my friend Elizabeth Dialto interviewed me on her podcast, she started by asking what I liked most about being a man.

I explained to her that in our culture we have a double standard for how we treat unmarried men and unmarried women. A man who is my age and single has to deal with a lot less bullshit than a woman who is the same age.

"For an unmarried woman, I am now considered downright ancient by Indian standards. This is a huge relief as I don’t have to face any more ad hoc introductions to putatively eligible Indian men by extended family members," writes Natasha Scripture in her memoir, Manfast.

To treat women in our culture like a ticking time bomb with an expiration date is cruel, unkind, and toxic.

Worst of all, many of the women in the older generation are the biggest culprits. If you're one of them…

Think about what it feels like for your daughter to live in a state of perpetual anxiety, feeling like she's not good enough, that she has no value without a man in her life, and that her value is declining by the minute.

Think about how much pain you cause your daughter every time you express your discontent or distress over her marital status.

Think about how much you break the hearts of your daughters each time you say something like "time is running out".

Think about whether they'll choose their partners wisely or out of desperation under the stress of your expectations.

If this is what mothers are teaching their daughters, implicitly or explicitly, it's time for a long-overdue change in this to the narrative that fuels this cultural arms race for impressive biodata. This is the antithesis of unconditional love: what a daughter expects from a mother more than anyone.

Unmarried Men

While unmarried Indian men have it easier than women, many still have to deal with the emotional blackmail of distressed mothers.

In their book, The Three Laws of Performance, the authors share a story about an Indian woman whose husband leaves her and whose daughter dies within less than a year, leaving only her and her son.

As any parent who loses a child, she's consumed by grief. But she comes to the realization that she robbed her son of what he needed most: a happy mother.

We're attracted to people who are familiar to us. So we have all this unconscious material that makes someone unconsciously suitable to be a mate. So if you haven't looked in the unconscious place, if you haven't done a lot of therapy to get that up and out, you will have what I call your repeating reality. – Terri Cole, Love and Boundaries

When a mother isn't happy because her son isn't married, he learns the lesson that her love is conditional. Unless he's self-aware, he'll recreate that same dynamic in his relationships.

Attending A Sibling's Wedding Without a Date

The week my sister got engaged was one of great joy for my parents because it was the same week that my second book, An Audience of One, was published.

I was beyond happy for her. But when I went to see my therapist the following week, I was in tears. I told him, "You know I've attended almost every friend's wedding without a date. But my sister's? Really? This is a new low."

If you're the unmarried sibling at an Indian wedding without a date, you're a moving target for the aunties in the audience.

Fortunately, I realized that day was about two people: my sister and my brother-in-law.

So, I began my speech by putting a slide of my phone number on the screen and saying, "For all the Aunties who want to know when I'm getting married, you can text profiles, pics, and all other relevant information to the number on the screen. I'll expect a report on your progress by the end of the week. Now let's get on to why we're really here."

Three months after the wedding, I jokingly called them the worst unpaid employees in the world because nobody had done anything. But at least I got to avoid a lot of uncomfortable conversations.

For all those Indian parents with unmarried children: Do those who are single want to meet a life partner and fall in love? Of course, we do.

I want to fall in love with someone, start a family, etc.

Talk to any of us and we'll tell you that. We want the same thing our mothers, fathers and other family members want. But when we go to every date with such high expectations from you and from ourselves, it not only salts our game but usually leads to disappointment.

To quote my friend Emily Fletcher,

Detachment is sexy. Neediness is not.

Character

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I started this piece by quoting David Brooks' book, The Road to Character. So it makes sense to end it with how we define character.

While character might mean different things to different people, there are some universal commonalities to people we consider good human beings.

1. Unconditional Love

If there's one thing I hope to convince the parents who are reading this, it's the importance of unconditional love. We all know if you're lucky enough to have a family like mine, that the door is always open, and there's always a warm meal on the table. But we can do better.

Teach children that their value isn't determined by their grades, where they get accepted to college, or what their occupation is. It might seem soft on the surface. But when they're not motivated by external validation, they'll be more likely to develop intrinsic motivation, which is essential to professional success in adulthood.

2. Selflessness

Stop basing your happiness on their relationship status. You'll not only have a better relationship with them. They'll be happier, more confident, self-compassionate and a hell of a lot more attractive to a future romantic partner.

3. Kindness

Resist the impulse to criticize, judge, and put stress on young children or unmarried adults. If we're always being made to feel as if we're not good enough, that will show up in every relationship in our lives. We'll have no boundaries, which is a recipe for disaster.

Maybe it's time we end this cultural arms race for impressive biodata and reconsider how we go about Indian matchmaking.

Before you Go

If you feel like you don't fit in, and looking for a community where we celebrate the fact you stand out, The Unmistakable Creative is for you. To get access to a list of interviews with creatives who've blazed unconventional trails, click here.

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