Divya Gumudavelly: Overcoming "model minority" expectations

Wednesday, September 11, 2019 - 5:13pm

More often than not, the line between knowledge and fact is blurry. Knowledge is a combination of fact and experience. Facts are the empirical orders of the world and the social rules that shape mindsets, and experiences are personal documentations of charting the unknown and the unique perspectives that result from those journeys. Both must intertwine and support each other to create knowledge, but one cannot replace the other. 

The unknown: we are told at a young age to embrace, explore and experience it. What we aren’t told is that the burden of expectations that accompanies our identities can limit both the beautiful potential and harmful consequences of the unknown. The unknown is filtered based on race, sex, gender, sexuality, nationality, ethnicity and other divisions in society. Breaking those barriers and gaining the privilege to dissociate from the stipulations of our identities and fully experience the unknown is easier for some than for others. But it is important for everyone to be able to try. 

I grew up critically aware of the color of my skin, and how it outlined the expectations for me as an Indian American. From spending hours shuffling through cheap, off-brand makeup to find the perfect foundation, to trying to create a playlist that was not ‘too Indian’ or ‘too American,’ the first 18 years of my life were spent artfully incorporating my Indian identity into my American one. This included exploring my heritage through its art forms, literature, language and pop culture while concealing those interests under an artificial persona – one of which the Americans would approve. I was presented with a dichotomy of beliefs. "Indian" meant traditional, beautifully vibrant and ethnically distinct. "American" meant the right to free will, a plethora of opportunities and change. What resulted was an internalized struggle to satisfy the two, as on the one hand the unknown was forbidden and on the other, it was an entity to be discovered. 

These empirical and social facts served as the framework for the rest of my life, and my role within it seemed engraved in stone. My Indian culture presented a rulebook to foster my mindset, and my American culture paradoxically presented me with an array of opportunities without the freedom to pursue them. As a result, my experiences were limited to living up to the textbook expectations of the Indian American community and beating myself up every time I faltered.  

The burden of expectations began taking a toll. While I could pretend to like math and tolerate spice, the artificial passion for medicine, as I struggled to mirror my peers and idealize the dreams that were laid out for me, withered away in the competitiveness of the real world. 

Everything about me, from my career aspirations to my opinions, were not my own. They were reflections of the stereotypes the members and outsiders of my community had for me. Identity, in any capacity is what makes an individual remarkably unique. But often times we do ourselves a disservice by limiting our experiences to those of people who have similar identities. While there is a certain sense of comfort and stability in holding a shared set of beliefs and values, these frameworks must serve as reinforcement for a path to be taken on one’s own accord, not the path itself. 

I eventually realized that despite a massive immigrant generational gap — from explaining to my parents that it is normal to have a date to the senior prom to convincing them it is OK to change my field of study half way through college, and everything in between — in principle, our journeys were the same. At my age, my parents were newlyweds in a foreign country tasked with survival while I am blessed with self-actualization. For them, the United States was the unknown, and they were to embark on a journey that few had before them. Surviving meant sacrificing passions for sustenance. For me, breaking free from the shackles of social rules and having the opportunity to make that journey uniquely mine is the unknown. It is up to me how I define self-actualization – lining up certain experiences that force myself to wrestle with my hyphenated identity or maximizing my full potential and embracing what it truly means. Circumstances, and the subsequent experiences they create, vary starkly across cultures and societies. It was my responsibility to take ownership and advantage over them, to allow them to complement the Indian traditions so deeply rooted in me, in order to build my own knowledge and understanding of the real world, just like my parents did. Deviating from the mindset my Indian community cultivated in me for 18 years and instead delving into the unknown, even the parts the social rule book prohibits me from, has empowered me to discover my passion and its subsequent purpose. 

As college signified a fresh start, I knew that I had the potential to gain four years’ worth of experiences to accompany my ‘Indianness’ and learn what my place in society is, beyond that of the typical Indian American. From taking classes I never expected to take before, to experimenting with friendships and relationships, I learned that my community of Indians is my strength but my passions and purposes were two enigmas that I needed to uncover and etch for myself. 

The unknown is unfathomable. But it presents a host of opportunities, ones that cannot necessarily be defined by what we were told or encouraged to believe. Experiences we make for ourselves, ones that challenge us and force us to think critically may initially be difficult or seem impossible. Through charting the unknown, however, we inadvertently discover ourselves and establish roles that expand and build on our unique identities and offer a unique perspective reflective of our journeys. 

Divya Gumudavelly can be reached at gumudadi@umich.edu.