Comments, criticism and courage: What it’s like being a desi parent
If you’re an Indian person living outside of India, you should be familiar with the term desi.
You should know that the word desi—derived from the Ancient Sanskrit word for “country”—is a term used for anything derived from the Indian subcontinent. And my family- with our Indian ancestry- is most certainly desi. If you didn’t know there was a word for that, now you do. Even though we were all born and raised in South Africa. It’s an unusual mix to explain to people- being desi/brown/South African Indian, whatever you want to call it. But you now know my ethnic background.
There are so many articles written about what its like to be a desi child in today’s society- the struggle of immigrant children, the choices children make between culture and nationality, the rebellion against strict cultural norms… yes there are many. But no one is writing about being a desi parent- the struggle of our acceptance to deal with children who are dealing with challenges we could never have dreamed of existing when they were born. Being a parent is not easy as everyone knows but being a desi parent who is also stuck between tradition, family expectations, religion and children who seem to want everything that contrary to the first three points is bahut mushkil (very difficult).
As I am sure you have guessed by now, I am Mummy Panda, Expat Panda’s mother and one half of the parental pandas (as she refers to us on social media). You may wonder what makes me suitably qualified to write a post about my experiences as a desi parent and the truth is, maybe I am not. But I do have four adult children (3 of them are triplets) and since they are all out of jail (for now) seem somewhat healthy and are quite content with their personal successes, I think its worth sharing what my parenting experiences have been. Perhaps you can relate or perhaps you are just curious. In either case, here are 4 things that you have to deal with if you are a brown parent:
Even though neither myself nor my husband are first generation immigrants, the Indian culture passed down to us from our grandparents who did originate in India is still very strong within our community. This always shapes and sometimes defines the parenting style of some brown parents.
For us, we exist within an extremely strict religious family environment and the pressure to have our children concede to the norms of conservatism is high. We had to make choices about their education from the day our kids were born- would they attend secular school? Should we enroll them in religious school? Should we speak to them only in English? How will all of this impact on our kids? The choices of course aren’t limited to education but also to the amount of culture you expose them to. When you are a minority, you want to keep your culture alive in your kids, but you also want it to be easy for them to integrate into a society that doesn’t conform to your cultural ideals.
Ultimately there is no right or wrong answer with all possibilities having pros and cons. We tried to give our children a combination of liberal secular education as well as religious school and then left them free to make their own choices about what they would do after high school. We chose to keep the culture alive and the religion strong in our home but also expose our children to many aspects of Western culture. We let our children go out with friends but gave them curfews, rules and guidelines. No matter what you choose for your children there will be people within the community who will find fault with your choices but I will expand more upon that later. You will choose and some choices will work and others may need tweaking. Raising children is a constant battle of choices not including but not limited to: Do I actually want to keep these children?
Being a desi parent means you will deal with a lot of criticism. Brown people LOVE to give their unsolicited opinions on your family matters which rarely apply to them. For example, Panda decided to pursue an undergraduate qualification in Psychology, Media Studies and Journalism. People were AGHAST that she was not studying something more appropriate like teaching (so she can be home every evening to cook for her husband) or law (she should at least follow in the footsteps of her mother) or the other usual acceptable professions of doctor & engineer for brown children. But what’s the point in forcing a child to study something they don’t have any interest in attending classes for? I should also mention that people who made these comments were not paying her university fees. As her parents, we didn’t say anything, just paid the fees silently and was glad that she was actually going to the classes we were funding.
Let’s talk about when Panda completed her first postgraduate degree (and yes I say that with pride because it was the first of many to come) and decided to teach in South Korea. Although we would miss her, her father and I accepted that this is what she wanted to. But people in the community were SHOCKED and HORRIFIED finding it necessary to criticize her choice by asking us:
- “Why is she going to South Korea?”
- “Why can’t she get a job here?”
- “She did her degree in psychology; why is she going to teach?”
- “When is she getting married?”
- “She is supposed to work and support you.”
We gave her the gift of education and it opened her mind. How are we supposed to take that back and cage her in our home? Why would I deny my children opportunities to see the world, things that we could not have imagined for ourselves when we were that age? We grew up being oppressed by apartheid where the opportunity to have access to tertiary education was one of the highest privileges. Getting a passport and traveling the world was a concept only seen in movies. And now you are criticizing me because my daughter has the ability to enjoy this freedom people DIED for?
I listened to the criticism but I did not find it necessary to respond. There was no need when my daughter’s smiling face was on Facebook as she posted pictures from Malaysia, Cambodia, Singapore and her cute kids in Korea. That was answer enough for me.
In addition to criticism you- as the desi parent- are also the lucky recipient of COMMENTS. Comments can be nice, encouraging and helpful but most times- when it comes to parenting- comments are quite the opposite. Comments can come from ANY person whether they know you personally and although are often said behind your back, once in a while you will hit the jackpot and have them said in your presence.
For example, Panda returned to South Africa after two years of living in South Korea and traveling extensively. She wanted to complete a degree in teaching and then pursue a Masters Degree in Education. Obviously this was thrilling news for me because my eldest child was back in the country and our family was reunited. But no not everyone could just be happy for us. A comment came my way and I will never forget that. Upon hearing that my eldest child was back home someone had to say, “No matter where you go in the world, you’ll still have to come back to wash pots in the kitchen.” Told you it was a gem.
More comments came my way when Expat Pug received a job offer from the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Dubai. But we supported her every step of the way and Expat Panda welcomed her to the UAE with open paws. There were even more comments when my youngest daughter, Penguin, went to a university residence 900 km away from home pursuing her own dreams of becoming a veterinarian. In spite of the fact that all three of our daughters were living away from home, we were content that they were fulfilling their aspirations and becoming adults we could be proud of. Comments came even harder and faster when Panda got divorced but this only served as further proof that the cultural norms- like getting married young- is not for everyone these days. People can be happy and successful without living their whole lives in pursuit of marriage and children contrary to what we were taught to believe and to the comments you hear at every family shaadi (wedding) suggesting otherwise.
If you’re going to be a brown parent in today’s day and age, you will need copious amounts of courage. Courage to know that while everyone is criticizing you, your kids and their actions, you’ve done your best and that you will be happy with whatever makes your children happy.
The comments & criticism from people subsided when they saw my daughters succeeding in their respective fields: when Pug posted pictures of the stunning handmade creations she presented at the Ritz Carlton buffets; when Penguin obtained her BSc Degree and when Panda bought her first car and visited places we could only dream of seeing despite having gone through a stressful divorce. As a result of the success of my daughters, some extended family members have now encouraged my son to complete his degree and apply out of South Africa for a job. We support this plan in any way we can knowing that only if one travels will one gains valuable life experiences that nothing else can match.
Of course it wasn’t easy to be accepting of all the things my children wanted to do; of course we worried about what would happen if they went away from us… societal judgment, safety, unexpected pregnancies, possible drug addictions, anarchy, chaos and possible world destruction. But if you have courage, you will be able be look past all of things and see that letting your children live their lives is important for their growth. Maybe their decisions will work out and make them happy. Maybe they won’t and instead they will learn a valuable life lesson. Either way at least let them find out. My husband and I visited both our daughters living in the UAE last year; they’re both thriving in career opportunities and a lifestyle that wouldn’t have been possible had they not left South Africa to live independently.
It took many years, many comments and a ton of criticism to find the courage to know that the world is not the same place it was 20 years ago. Therefore, cultural pressure and family expectations do not pay the bills.Hence, they have no place in my life. My children must experience the world and all it has to offer.
As parents know, parenthood is both wonderful and awful at the same time. Raising children is hard, and any parent who says differently is lying. Parenting is emotionally and intellectually draining, and it often requires sacrifice and self doubt. Couple that in with cultural pressure, age old traditions, conservative religious practices, comments and criticism and being a desi parent is an entirely different experience depending on the time period, local community, and the individual. There is no right or wrong way of being a parent. Each of my 4 children is very different (yes even the triplets) and I would imagine that every child in the world is different too. Expecting them to all do the same things just because things ‘have always been done that way’ is unrealistic. I am happy that each of my children have their own distinctive ways of navigating through tradition, culture, religion and society at large. But more than that I am glad we didn’t limit them or force them into anything so that they could find their own way to do this and find their own happiness.
I was unfortunately not paid to write this post.
Quite a few of you are parents… are you also battling the struggle between culture and a globalized society with your kids? How different has your sojourn into parenthood been? Share with us in the comments below!