Short stories

What are you studying?

Parents who move to a new country usually start by build a community. It’s supposed to feel like family. It’s a survival tactic.

My parents joined a group of Indian uncles and aunties who rotate hosting regular Saturday night dinner parties at their houses. It’s probably what real American families do too. Right? I eventually came to love the cold plum-colored lipstick smeared on my cheek from forceful loving aunty kisses.

The comfort of these dinner parties was the predictable and reliable schedule of the night. Ladies socialize in the kitchen preparing dinner while the men drink scotch in the living room. The kids, who really aren’t kids anymore, hang in the musty semi-finished basement watching Saturday Night Live reruns while eating spinach and daal on styrofoam compartmentalized plates. We pretend we aren’t secretly going on dates or staying up late listening to Loveline with Adam Carolla and Dr. Drew. We become good Indian kids for the night. It’s part of the package.

The kids, who again, aren’t really kids, try to find something in common other than the fact our moms and dads are from India. This too, is a survival tactic. From boredom, that is. Boredom is a luxury I’m sure my parents would have loved to have. How could I possibly relate to a high-schooler from a completely different school district? Impossible.

Just as Weekend Update with Norm Macdonald is wrapping up, I take the cue from my brother to poke upstairs and see how much longer we’ll be here. If the aunties are still doing dishes, there’s at least another hour to go. I smile politely scanning the kitchen looking for mom until I shoot the can we go home now? rolling-eyes-of-death. I predictably get the look back reminding me we are guests and it’s rude to leave this early. Whoever is chatting me on AOL Instant Messenger has to wait.

So I wander away from plates splashing in the sink and aluminum foil crunching tightly around porcelain dishes of leftover cauliflower. The uncles are playing poker in the next room at the glossy oval-shaped mahogany table under a blindingly bright crystal chandelier.

I hear banter about George Bush and oil prices. My ears perk up. Finally, someone is having a real conversation. I try to keep my mouth shut and just listen for a few sound bytes. Maybe I can make sense of the streaming CNN headlines dad keeps on mute when we’re eating dinner at home.

One of uncles catches my eye and sees I’m looking for a buddy. He lets me hang on the back of his high-back chair and peek at his cards. We grin because I’m pretending to understand his hand so I can be in on the secret. Uncle looks back to me, slightly tips his cards down, and asks about my plans for college. I think we’re on the same team for a short moment.

“Indiana University. The campus is really nice…. we went a few weeks ago…it’s a really great school, a lot of choices there….I’m so excited.” He doesn’t reciprocate the enthusiasm but I can see him doing a calculation in his mind. He glances at the table. Then back at his cards. Then back to me.

“Oh?” he tries to try to ask neutrally. “What will you study?”

“Political Science” I say very proudly. I had big plans to work on human rights issues. Something meaningful and with purpose. “I’ll probably double major in Journalism …they have a good school… and I–.”

I’m ready to go on-and-on because first of all, I’m a teenage girl, and second I might actually get to talk about something interesting for the first time tonight.

“Why not engineering or medicine?” he said cutting me off as if those are the only choices and getting a liberal arts degree might as well be going to community college. Uncle wasn’t calculating his next bet, he was recounting if there were any respectable degrees at Indiana University. Because, if I can’t change schools, at least I can change majors. Uncle deflates my spirit with what he thinks are reasonable and rational question he has the right to ask.

His retort sounds like ‘Why are you throwing away your education? What good is a liberal arts degree? Do you know how hard we are working so you can live a great life in the U.S.? Why are you voluntarily earning less money? Journalism? Politics? Those are not careers for respectable Indians. 

Uncle is simultaneously competing for best-immigrant-award and trying to give my parents a hand by convincing me to switch majors. Uncle’s kid has his choice of Ivy League schools so it’s already obvious who won the bet. It certainly wasn’t me.

“Because I like writing,” I say lowering my eyes knowing the answer won’t translate. His ask was never about my personal interest, passion, desire, or life purpose. What I want doesn’t matter. Not in my career, not in my life. I realize he is preparing me for the many inquisitions Indian girls get after age 23 about getting married. Yes. Girls. We are girls until marriage.

Good girls should study engineering, go to med school, fold perfect corners, and make well-behaved offspring. Don’t get too tan during summer and try not to work more than 20-hours a week. Make the ID card in mom’s wallet that says “Alien” worth it. And for god sakes, Nina, please don’t talk politics. Not at the dining table. And not around men.

Nina Mehta is an Indian American writer and product designer in San Francisco. She started writing online in the 90s and began her career in journalism near sweet home Chicago. Nina has since lived and worked in Berlin, London, and Tokyo.

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