Saturday, June 9, 2007

Granite box and Bamboo Ceiling

If you thought sky is the limit, you were not born in an Asian home. For “those Asians”, we have granite box and bamboo ceiling for our dreams. Heavy and non-abrasive walls of granite and light but sturdy bamboo canopy for the roof; abode for our dreams. We looked at the moon through the bamboo ceiling, never thought of going there. We took pride in our ancient mathematics that formed the basis for the astronauts to compute their path to the moon. We took pride in inventing zero without which the computer revolution would not have been possible. We, for long, tried to take solace in the fact that most of the modern scientific and technological advances in the modern times had a Vedic past. Be it Atoms, be it medicine and surgery, be it mathematics and astronomy or be it the concept of flying an aircraft. We banked heavily on the foundations laid by our forefathers without really being successful in advancing them. We were boxed in a granite cage; each stone telling glorious stories dating back thousands of years.

If you are an Indian kid, lot of time and energy is spent to make sure that you think inside the box. Lot of work is done to train the kid to win spelling bee even before they are potty trained. They all get a “doctor’s kit” toy to entice them of the joy of becoming a doctor. They solve math puzzles with such an ease and joy which adults can’t derive playing Grand Theft Auto. At age 3 they all learn to count and add! By age 5, their report card will say ‘extra ordinary in math and science and average in verbal and social skills’. Even when the parent does not try to raise the kid the “Indian Way”, this will happen. I don’t know if it’s in the genes or gene mutated to accommodate the box.

But they all have bamboo lattice through which they look at the skies and starts. They all grow up to get higher degrees in Science, Engineering or Medicine. The handful will end up making Sixth Sense (M Night Shyamalan) against their parent’s wishes to become neurosurgeons. But most actually become neurosurgeons and some get to practice on live TV (Dr Sanjay Gupta). When a newly wed couple walks into a car dealership, the sales person asks them with an air of sarcasm, ‘you guys don’t test drive before owning, do you?’ For which most of us will nod our head east west and north south in a classical Indian nod of the head.

I grew up in India, before India opened up to the world; we were told that we could become a high ranking officer within the prestigious and highly competitive Indian Administrative Services (IAS), if studied hard. Nobody told us that we could become politicians whom the IAS officers worked for with subordination and expected servitude. We were not told to become leaders but were told to work for the leaders. That was the time when an Indian woman lost an Olympic medal by thousandth of a second. Nobody told us to become an Olympian. Other options presented to us were doctors and engineers. Everything else was considered the options for the failed ones. Nobody dared to dream to be different. The cost of being different was very steep for middle class boys and girls. If they failed, they not only failed themselves but also the family. It doesn’t matter whether we did not dream to become Abraham Lincoln or Beatles or the dreams faded within the granite walls we were boxed in. I can’t blame my parents for telling me what I had to become. They wanted me to be an IAS officer. I could also become a doctor or engineer, in that order and anything else would be deemed “failure”. I did not even think of any other goal in life. I worked hard to fulfill my parents’ dream of their son bringing monthly salary that exceeded manifold to theirs. I finally became an engineer, their third preference, and when I brought home my first month wage, it far exceeded their combined monthly wage after working 30 years for the government. They declared me “successful”. My siblings were not that lucky. They started working for the government almost at the same level as my parents at retirement. They were just short of declared “failure”. I declared victory and felt very happy to be successful not realizing the world of success waiting outside of the box. But I never saw them, never bothered to see them. It was not my world.

If you grew up in the US to an India parent, you may have similar stories to share. Replace “IAS” with “Neurosurgeon” or “Engineer” with “IV League”. Your dreams were assigned to you. You did not pick your dreams. Except if you are Night Shyamalan or Russel Peterson and few others. I can’t blame the parents. Their generation saw famine and starvation. They saw poverty and death. They saw people with college degrees pulling themselves out of the misery and hopelessness that prevailed all around them. They believed that education is the only way to succeed. Because an entire generation of doctors and engineers and other professionals pulled off break from conditions ranging from middle class agonies to abject poverty. That became the gold standard for them. They did not grow up seeing school drop outs starting up tech revolutions and becoming millionaires and billionaires in the process. They did not grow up seeing million dollar endorsements to players. They saw people working hard to make it big, not working smart. Plus all the hard work guaranteed to take them somewhere ahead and nothing else guaranteed that.

So they ran dry clean machines and gas stations 24 x 7. They did more surgery than they would want. They worked very hard and paid their kids school bills. Asian kids did not have to work at burger joints or car wash. Their parents made sure that they paid the college bills in time. That does not help much with the boxed kids. While white kids work at Star bucks and Whole foods, they are learning the most invaluable lesson that no IV League can offer. Social skills to seamlessly fit into the society! Some of the kids get frustrated so hard that they end up shooting other helpless kids locked up inside the class rooms. A bloody reminder that isolation can never be a pleasant thing whatever may be the reasons for the isolation.

I am not being an ungrateful kid to my parents. They did what they thought the best for their kids. Their economic condition influenced their parenting style in a big way. Now that our generation is financially on a better footing than our parents, we have an opportunity to raise our kids outside of the granite box. Their survival will not be threatened if they failed to become a singer or football player or a movie maker. But then, there are no set rules for parenting. It all depends on the kid. I am sure the Hilton's did not raise Paris Hilton to go to jail for driving drunk on the opposite direction in a freeway.

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