I come from an Indian family with lovingly obsessive parents who will continue to baby me even when I’m living on my own. One day over Thanksgiving Break, my mom drove me to my ophthalmologist’s office for an annual check-up. She sat with me before the doctor walked in, and interestingly enough, found that it was the perfect time for my daily career counseling session. We sat there having a ten-minute tête-à-tête. She constantly prodded me about how I would be spending my summer, and I constantly deflected her questions with half-baked placations.
Our doctor walked into the room soon after, saving me from the interrogation. Dr. Bhatia is a second generation Punjabi – he went to college in New Orleans, medical school in Toledo, and now lives in Dallas with his wife and two kids. In pretty much every respect, he was just as Americanized as the generation of Indian Americans I grew up with. In his slightly rolling accent, he asked me to give him updates on my life. I knew the ultimate question was coming, and it eventually did after a few minutes of small talk. “So… any special guy?”
My laugh was instinctual and lasted slightly longer than it should have. “Nope, you’ll be the first one to know if I ever do,” I joked. I heard a small sound escape my mother’s mouth, but I didn’t expect her voice any of her concerns. Luckily, my parents have always understood my career-focused future. Dr. Bhatia, on the other hand, seemed more concerned about what he called my “biological reality.” I was shocked when I heard these words come from a man who has spent his entire life in the States. I almost expected him to align with my culturally progressive mentality, but he approached the topic from what he described as a purely scientific perspective, though he was obviously tinged cultural bias. He proceeded to discuss how Indian women face a specific disadvantage because they don’t typically seek arranged marriages; men usually approach women first, and on the basis of their own timelines. While he accepted the generalization that men usually mature and want to settle down later than in life that women do, he claimed that men who seek relationships and focus on marriage prospects much later than women interfere with women’s biological timelines, making it difficult to have healthy children at a “reasonable age.” Secondly, he felt that if women waited until they were ready to get married (usually, once they have settled in their careers), there would realize that there was a dearth of eligible, available men.
My response to these claims: why should we women worry about conforming to the timelines of men? Dr. Bhatia’s assertion came with the expectation that we are constantly stressing about adhering to stereotypical age ranges to fulfill certain life goals, and that some goals are always prioritized over others. How are Indian women supposed to carry the onuses of studying well, finding lucrative jobs, while simultaneously finding a life companion, having children, and securing their futures as well? Why do our overbearing parents teach to focus on our studies and avoid boys like the plague, but then expect us to effortlessly navigate our relationships when we reach the age for marriage? South Asian elders seem to instill in us a fear of disappointment that causes us to act like our lives are in pristine order; in reality, however, we are faced with this paradox that hinders our ability to live life on our own terms. As an Indian American woman – I told Dr. Bhatia –I shouldn’t have to obligated to take on societal commitments I am not prepared for, and I shouldn’t have to shoulder the burden of measuring up to such demanding biological realities.
I realized for the first time, a little dejectedly, that concepts of love, dating, and marriage don’t necessarily progress through generations. Traditional family-based values are perpetuated regardless of whether we are first or second-generation individuals. While I grew up learning the importance of unity and family, I never expected that the idea of getting married and having kids within a certain timeframe would be imposed upon me by other second-generation adults. Hearing Dr. Bhatia tell me “Don’t lose sleep over it, but just keep in in the back of your mind because your responsibilities will creep up on you” made me question the extent to which we pride ourselves on progress. His comments made me see the stark disparity in the way South Asian communities treat females in comparison males – it is a disparity that has crossed continental borders and embedded itself into the roots of our society. Its ability to permeate diverse cultures is not restricted by the soil we are on, and that should be something we consider in our feminist efforts!