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The Paradox Of Being An Educated Indian Girl

16/02/2016 8:25 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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"Remember, B stands for bad," my dad said as he underlined the subpar math grade on my report card with a ballpoint pen.

I gazed at the floor and clenched my fists. My fifth grade self refused to cry.

I expected my dad to commence with a lecture, something about working hard and not settling and all of that other stuff that children of immigrants metabolize through their parents' disappointment. Instead, he asked me for my last homework assignment. We spent the rest of that Saturday reviewing all of the questions I answered incorrectly.

I wonder why it seems as though we expect one thing out of girls for the first 20-something years and then another thing after that.

Throughout the years, my parents pushed me to work hard and exceed the expectations I set for myself. Education and opportunity were the reasons they sacrificed their lives in India and came to the United States. My schedule was jammed with everything from schoolwork to sports. All around me, Indian children were excelling inside and outside of the classroom. I became friends with other Indian girls. In our free time, we giggled during Bollywood movies, when the hero and heroine broke out in song against the backdrop of a mountain. We whispered about boys with code words. We lamented on the woes of hair removal. We wrapped bells around our ankles and tried to master the swift, fluid movements of Indian classical dance. We were forbidden from dating or really, anything that could have deterred us from a spot on the honour roll. Our families' encouragement motivated us to cultivate dreams, establish career goals, and expand ourselves.

As I glided through my life, I caught glimpses of my mother in her own. She darted from task to task in the kitchen as a cacophony of pots and pans provided background noise. She poured chai for guests and mixed in milk that swirled like a delicate tornado. She scrubbed dishes and hummed to old Hindi songs as her fingers shrivelled. She was talented. She was intelligent. She was exhausted. She and the women of her generation had enough pressure when it came to proving themselves.

At the time, I was too veiled by the ignorance of childhood to truly understand what she was going through. But I noticed a shift as I approached my early 20s. People began giving advice about jobs that were "better for women than men." Men could continue to cultivate ambition, independence, and empowerment, while women had to stifle these qualities if they interfered with domesticity. The same girls who were pushed to work hard in school were now being asked when they'd finally settle down and get married. The single ones (rightfully) dreaded weddings, where they'd be asked to explain themselves. The ones who did marry were quizzed about when they'd have children. More steps, more questions, more expectations.

Now, it is almost midnight. My husband is washing the dishes while I'm writing. We have cultivated a sense of equality that suits both of us...

I wonder why it seems as though we expect one thing out of girls for the first 20-something years and then another thing after that. I also wonder how these preconceived gender roles hinder both women and men. Over the past few years, I have noticed how these ideas transcend Indian culture. In an article in The Atlantic, titled "Why I Put My Wife's Career First", Andrew Moravcsik mentions, "Nothing quiets a dinner party conversation more than a chance mention of the fact that my wife outearns me". I have had friends say they would be open to the idea of being stay-at-home dads if it was not for the judgment from other people.

Now, it is almost midnight. My husband is washing the dishes while I'm writing. We have cultivated a sense of equality that suits both of us; one that I'm sure will need to be revisited and revised throughout our marriage. Although our household is a stark contrast to the traditional ones we both grew up in, both of us have incorporated lessons from our pasts.

I no longer have report cards to measure what I've learned. And while I'm sure that I will make plenty of mistakes, I hope I can continue to nurture the qualities I developed as a girl.

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