“Aunty, I’m studying anthropology and interdisciplinary studies. I wrote my 45-page undergraduate dissertation on South Indian Jews …” And then cue the inevitable line of inquiry that follows any compulsory conversation about academics with an Indian aunty.
This is because none of the words I’d said to her had included “medicine,” “computer science,” “engineering” or “law.” For many of us who hail from immigrant backgrounds, we know that one of our parents’ dreams is to have their child’s name bear the prefix of “Dr.”
Immigrant parents are often fixated on prestige, financial security and white coats. Perhaps it’s because embedded into the immigrant narrative are the insecurities and status anxieties faced by the immigrant while making it in America. Arriving in a foreign country with no fallback options makes landing a job title including the coveted words of “doctor,” “Google” and “Citadel” very appealing.
The first movie I watched in theaters was “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” — also known as the best one. I was helplessly captivated by the movie’s operatic soundtrack fueling a rush of endorphins in me as I watched two space ninjas duking it out over a river of lava. Ever since that night, I knew that I wanted to become an actor: someone who could partake in creating emotionally evocative cinematic art.
My precarious professional aspiration has supplied my mother with much anxiety and dread. Despite her periodic suggestions for me to attend the University of Michigan as a premed, I deplored the prospect of dreary gray hospital hallways and studying calculus, as decipherable to me as Egyptian hieroglyphics. To my mother’s dismay, after graduating high school I left Michigan for Los Angeles to actualize my thespian dreams.
Luckily for my mother, the role of “Dr. Moidunny” has been filled by my older brother. Like in so many immigrant households, being the eldest child entails being subjected to significantly more pressure, stress and moral obligation to walk a secure and conservative professional path. Even though my brother is passionate about health care, he himself has grappled with balancing between his artistic and professional interests. So while his hair receded and grayed as he learned about carbon compounds, I worked as Corpse #3 on “NCIS.”
In between acting and promotional work, I attended community college and transferred to UC Berkeley. It was the weight of this institution’s name that finally pacified my mother and gave her the confidence to update friends and family on my academic situation. When I informed her of my acceptance into the vague, multisyllabic interdisciplinary studies program, she reflexively asked me, “So, what exactly are you planning to do with that?”
I still don’t quite know. My tentative plan was to have the “university” experience and then to reconvene my acting career after a four-year hiatus. I’ve begun to realize more clearly now that my ability to pursue this passion and join a hundred other Indian actors in Hollywood, all competing for similar roles, is the product of privilege. My mother may never be truly content until I am financially stable or pursuing something “secure,” but Dr. Moidunny has freed me from much of this burden. I may struggle with understanding carbon compounds, but I’m infinitely more happy learning about what I love: culture, society and philosophy. I hesitantly rejoice that I was born after my brother, for he couldn’t have conceivably embarked upon my same journey.
At UC Berkeley, I’ve seen so many premed and engineering students from immigrant backgrounds reluctantly consigned to the grim fate of chronic sleep deprivation in the after-hours of Moffitt Library. I can’t help but wonder if they’re wallowing in the misery of solving problem sets in the face of their forlorn passions.
How many are embroiled in academic performance anxiety because they don’t want to let their parents down and make their parents’ sacrifices be for naught? Among those beleaguered students, how many secretly would’ve preferred learning Marxist theory, poetry or music? I wonder if many of them are forswearing self-fulfillment by choosing a path in STEM in order to ensure the security of their future professions.
Aside from the lone South Asian student in my humanities classes who is fulfilling breadth requirements, where are the rest? Despite my brother being a doctor and me going to a prestigious university, my family still labors under the immigrant mentality of survival. And this is fair — if my brother wasn’t financially supporting my retired parents, it would’ve become my responsibility. Not everyone has the socioeconomic privilege of majoring in anthropology.
For those of us who do have the privilege of pursuing our passions, if those passions are in the humanities, we can create a new generational legacy. I want to construct a new archetype, in which our prowess is reflected proportionately in the arts.
“So, Aunty, upon graduating, my diet may consist of ramen noodles at some point, but I’m planning to enter a field where I can be self-fulfilled.”
Maybe one day an Indian mom can say to her son, “Look at Moideen, he’s a successful actor. Why can’t you be like him?”