Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Sheevani < Perfect Indian Daughter

"Did you call, Sheevu?" Daddy asked.

"Huh?" I stalled.

"Did you call Sangeeta's office?"

"Oh, um, yeah. I left a message, but she hasn't called back," I lied.

"If you don't hear back by tomorrow, you should call again, bheta."

"Yup."

I hadn't totally lied. I did call, but I didn't leave a message. My parents, mostly my dad, had been hounding me to try and get a summer internship at a law firm, seeing as how I was going to be a lawyer... apparently. A family friend's daughter was a practicing attorney, so she'd be the perfect person to contact. 

I had no real plans to pursue law. I was barely keeping my head above water at Michigan State as a Political Science - Pre-law student. The ruse was a burden, but the fear of admitting the ruse was ten times as heavy. Going through the motions of being a future law student, it was only logical to try and get an internship. Only, this was a possible internship with Sangeeta Gandhi, THE Sangeeta Gandhi. In our house, she was regarded as one of the "most brilliant" girls in our community. My whole life I had heard about her accomplishments from college-level courses in high school to being one of the youngest partners at her firm, with a mountain of accolades in between. Just saying her name in our house prompted a Pavlovian response from my parents... only instead of drool, they would light up and repeat one of her many successes with grandeur and dramatic flourish. 

She deserved all of the praise and admiration, believe me. I loved visiting with Sangeeta whenever we'd go to her house, but most of the time she'd be holed away studying or out doing something more fun than hanging out with a girl 10 years her junior. There was never a hint of superiority to her, even though she excelled at just about everything. In addition to being brilliant, she was an incredibly kind and generous person. The fears about working with her were completely on my side of the net.  

After dodging the internship queries for another week, Daddy threatened to call Sangeeta's father. My dismissive excuses had backfired into what I thought was impossible: Daddy was disappointed in the almighty Sangeeta. 

"I'll call Haren and see what's going on," he said as he grabbed the cordless phone from between the couch cushions.

"No, Daddy... don't!"

"Bheta, don't worry."

"Please, Daddy, don't call Haren Uncle!" 

Right on cue, Daddy's expression changed from one of confusion to suspicion.

"Sheevani... did you really call Sangeeta's office or not?" his tone was everything I deserved. Actually, it was way less than I deserved... pathetic liar that I was. 

"Well... yeah, I did. But..."

"Don't lie!" 

"I'm sorry! But... I don't think I want to intern with her."

"Why not? This will only help you, bheta!"

"She's so smart, Daddy! I'd feel really intimidated and stupid around her!"

I was staring at my lap, but could feel every ounce of disappointment emanating from my father's eyes. We sat in silence and I saw him place the phone next to his thigh. He took a deep breath and I peeked up at his face in slow motion. His eyes were fixated on a distant focal point, the rapidity of his blinks surely matched the speed of his snowballing thoughts, all of which I was terrified to hear. 

"Okay."

Wait... okay? OKAY?! No, bring on the yelling! Tell me I'm being ridiculous! Shame me! I'm ready!!

There was no need to say anything else... that one word confirmed everything I already knew: I was a disappointing Indian daughter.  

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I recently listened to an interview with the CEO and founder of Girls Who Code, Reshma Saujani. She was a guest on Armchair Expert, my favorite podcast, and while discussing her childhood, she described herself as the "Perfect Indian Daughter." My ears perked up at that term and I knew exactly what she meant even before Dax Shepard (the host) asked her to elaborate. The Perfect Indian Daughter (PID) raised in America by immigrant parents is, in a nutshell, an overachiever. She gets perfect grades, attends top schools, receives academic scholarships, embraces religious traditions and Indian culture, marries an approved Indian boy... you get the picture. I was surrounded by these daughters growing up and saw firsthand how this path overjoyed all the parents. However, there was always a disconnection between those daughters and me... like a faulty wire or malfunctioning microchip in my make-up that prevented me from reaching those standards.

Ever since listening to that episode (twice), I dove deep into my "imperfect" path, full of winding roads, potholes, steep grades and u-turns. Candidly, I'm nervous to write about this because I'm hyper-paranoid about unintentionally inviting sympathy. As I mentioned a few posts ago, I'm trying to figure out a way to write about the areas where I feel like an imposter or failure without eliciting condolences, no matter how well-intentioned they may be. I've never subscribed to the "woe is me," way of life. In fact, I've swung the pendulum of self-criticism so far the other way that I'm actively trying to forgive myself for having very human flaws. Speaking of flaws...

Lazy Dayz
I'm a lazy ass. I really am. It's my core competency. There have been periods in my life where I didn't fight it and then times in my life, like right now, where I fight against it every minute of the day. Pretty sure that any overachiever is not lazy, so I had that going against me from the start. When I think back to the last few months of college, I literally get queasy. Not only because of the copious amounts of Vanilla Stoli and Cokes I drank, but at how much time I wasted lazing around. It was the height of my lazy era. Part of that was a depressive state of knowing I had very little to show for my college career and part of it was just my preferred state of existence. 

From ages 22 to 29, my efforts in the professional world were minimal at best. For those of you following along in my posts, you may notice those years overlap with a big chunk of my career as a Merchandise Planner. Granted, I'd have spurts of motivation where I did bust my ass to get a promotion or new job, but mostly it was to give the appearance of ambition. After I had frittered away my college years with a useless (for me) area of study, I still thought I could jump back on the Perfect Indian Daughter route by working my way up from data entry clerk to high powered corporate executive. 

During one of those bursts of ambition, I got accepted into the Executive Training Program at the first company for which I worked. My father was so proud. One day, I heard my dad on the phone with his cousin in India. "Sheevani just got accepted into the Executive program at her job! It's a very good thing, yes... she will be trained in all different departments and at the end, she will be placed at a high post in the company." I was practically blushing sitting next to him, his hand on mine as he shared my career news. Even though I knew a life in the corporate world would never fulfill me, that moment almost changed my mind. 

Alas, those motivated moments were fleeting and my inconsistency in work ethic led to one of the most humiliating experiences for me professionally. At my last job prior to the decision to stay home, I received my worst performance review of my career.  

"We're noticing you spend a lot of time on the internet during the workday, Sheevani."

My face went numb and I acted confused. I fumbled around to explain that I keep my browser open to keep tabs on my Gmail account, but that I wasn't...

"Well, we do see keystrokes, clicks per minute, websites...  it's all here..."

I was handed a piece of paper with graphs and usage percentages. The figures all blurred and I was suddenly aware of a pulsating vein in my neck. If there was ever a moment I wanted to be Zack Morris with his "time out" powers, that would have been #1. There I was, thinking it was going to be a normal Sheevani-type review; good communication skills, always on time with reports, positive attitude, etc. Nope. I got called out and I wanted to melt away into the floor. While incredibly mortifying, it was certainly a wake-up call I needed. 

As I wrote about in my post about self-worth, there have been a number of factors that led me down the path of least consistence. Between trying to keep up an image of what I should be doing and feeling empty inside while doing that, I'd go through periods where my frustration would shut off all motivation. My laziness would take over because I didn't give a lick about the work. I felt so useless and ashamed. 

Today, I know better. I mean, there is still a lazy lady inside me, but most of the time she is dormant save for the occasional rainy/snowy/PMS-y days when I set her free. But, mostly I embrace the feeling of hard work, whether it be organizing all the closets in my house, going to the gym 5x a week, or writing pages and pages for this blog, sketches, one-woman show or other projects. I finally found the "fire in my belly" that my father always told me about and turns out I can be a total workhorse when I want to be... and honestly, I am thankful for my lazy side sometimes! It allows me to reset, so I can focus on kicking some serious ass in the future. 


Competitive Disadvantage
I'm not competitive. Whenever I heard about a PID getting a full-ride scholarship, winning some math competition or skipping a grade, I'd think,"Wow, that's awesome for her... that'll never be me." Call it self-criticism or just self-awareness, but most of the time if someone got something over me, I'd just chalk it up to the fact that they were more talented, worked harder and more deserving. 

But why? Why couldn't I be one of those girls? The internal exploration for this post had me wondering when and why I decided I wasn't smart enough to reach those heights of achievement. I mean, I remember school being easy early on; I could read before Kindergarten, concepts were well within my grasp and, for the most part, I was able to coast along without a lot of effort. Things started to change in junior high, however, when homework and complex concepts were introduced. When something wasn't clicking, I recognized a need to up my efforts in order to understand. This was especially true in math and science, two subjects my father said were "most important." I worked just enough for Bs in those subjects, but not hard enough for As. 

Between my aversion to hard work and little desire to be the best, I glided my way to mediocrity. As school got harder, instead of putting in more hours of studying, I quietly accepted that this wasn't the area of my life where I would stand out. Inside I was okay with that, but for the sake of my parents, I felt bad that I would never be the daughter they could brag about at parties. There would be no, "Sheevani is going to the state debate championship," or "Sheevani was selected to visit the Governor as one of the top students in Oakland County!" But, didn't I want to make my parents proud? Of course I did, but perhaps I didn't feel the pressure that others felt? It wasn't like I was surrounded by deadbeats. My dad had 5 degrees and when my mom wasn't booked solid at the salon, she was busy taking care of us and the house. My world was full of people who were the opposite of lazy and unaccomplished. I looked up to the girls in my community who excelled and I remember feeling envious of their success. Not a bitter jealousy, per se, but I just wished I was as naturally gifted as they seemed to be. It's hard to explain, but deep inside I just knew I could never compete with them... so I didn't. 

I'm still not a competitive person, and I'm kinda sorta starting to forgive myself for that. I believe finding solace in doing your best, but not being the best, is nothing of which to be ashamed. That is an important distinction. For years I have felt less-than because I don't have this competitive spirit just bursting out of me... I've blamed that as a reason for my perceived failures. Everyday I'm trying to accept this part of myself and also recognize the beauty of it. I'm married to an ultra-competitive person and while he has so much to show for his hard work, there is also this constant "I need to be doing more all the time" energy that I'm thankful is absent from my persona. Being a supportive presence is where I excel, and I can certainly live with that. 

Studying for a Husband
When Reshma explained her PID path, Dax expressed how it seemed very progressive for these immigrant parents to want their daughters to achieve so much for themselves. After a short pause, Reshma said "Yyyeesss, but..." and went on to clarify that a lot of times, the achievements are to build up a good resume to find a suitable husband. Whoa, that went backwards! Again, I could totally relate to what she was saying. Now, I know many Indian parents who do not subscribe to that line of thinking, thank goodness, but I certainly do remember a lot of the PIDs being discussed as good "bait" for boys who come from good families. Shudddderrrrr...

I never dated Indian guys. Well, I barely dated any guys, but when I did, they weren't Indian. There wasn't a self-imposed ban or anything, in fact, as a young girl I always imagined finding a nice Indian boy to marry and carry on the traditions I grew up with. My parents also never made any rules or conditions, but it didn't take a clairvoyant to guess that they wanted to find me an Indian boy who was a "good match." Whenever the subject of marriage came up, I made it perfectly clear to my parents that they would have nothing to do with that decision. We had plenty of spirited debates about the pros and cons of arranged marriage and they usually ended with me saying, "If I marry the wrong man, the only person I want to blame is myself." 

With my mediocre credentials, I was very aware that I would not be a desirable candidate for the Indian boys and their parents. Perhaps that's why I didn't even try to date an Indian guy. One time I did express to my parents that I kind of liked a boy in our community and my dad's first reaction was to say, "His mom would be the first to stop that." I didn't ask him to clarify because I didn't need any further explanation. The boy was from a very well known and prosperous family, so he was a sought after eligible bachelor. Who would he/his parents choose?! Well, certainly not a girl who had never taken an AP class! 

Look, my dad was just being honest and while that comment did hurt, he certainly wasn't wrong. This was just the way it was in our community. Now, in the interest of being fair, the guys were also required to have an impressive roster of accomplishments, but staying true to the rules of patriarchy, it certainly wasn't as high a bar to live up to. At any rate, my jackpot fair skin and hazel eyes couldn't outweigh my unimpressive academic record and lack of accomplishments, so I resigned myself to pursuing non-Indian dudes. This wasn't some big sacrifice or shattered dream. As I wrote about in another post, my identity was always torn between my Indian self and the non-Indian surroundings of my upbringing. Truth be told, my ideal marriage scenario for years was fueled by the show Mad About You, so I was much more interested in finding my true love in a Paul Buchman-type played by Paul Reiser and whattayaknow? I found my Paul Ignasinski

False Pedestals
A huge self-realization moment in Reshma's life was how unfulfilled she felt even after taking the PID path. In the interview, she talks about working herself to the bone to get into Yale Law School, and that when she got there, she didn't feel the validation she so wanted. After that, she landed a lucrative job as an attorney where, again, she sort of hated her life. To me, the Imperfect Indian Daughter, this was kind of a shock. All this time I thought I took a "wrong" path and if I had only done what Reshma and so many of my friends had done, I would be happy and successful with really proud parents. 

I don't think this is the case with every PID, but it was sort of refreshing to hear from Reshma. Granted, she's still hugely successful, but admitting that doing everything "right" didn't fulfill her, and that she sort of had to start over on a totally different path was something to which I could completely relate. We all have our own ways to our true selves and success is not necessarily defined by a certain college, a handful of career choices, or marriage method. 

For so long, I have felt less-than in my community. Most of the time it is probably my own projection, but there have been explicit instances where I have felt judged and looked down upon by other Indian women... women who I have put on pedestals for as long as I can remember. Only recently did I realize that those pedestals weren't necessarily deserved. My scope of worthiness had been so narrow and specific; so perfectly designed for those women who made me feel shitty that I turned a blind eye to other characteristics that make someone a truly good person. It took about 25 years, but waking up from my shame coma has been a glorious experience. The only pedestals I recognize now are populated by Beyonce and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. 

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Feeling imperfect has been my own self-imposed demon. I want to clarify that all this talk of being a daughter who fell short of expectations was borne out of my own insecurities. My mother and father never once made me feel like I was a disappointment in their eyes. They always encouraged me and told me how many strengths I was lucky to have... if only their voices could drown out my inner monologue of negativity.

There are days when I'm really proud of where I am today and days where I cannot help but curse my bad habits and decisions of the past. I'm not sure I'll ever really get rid of the shame of falling short of what the Perfect Indian Daughter should be, but I know that I can own my path and figure out how to keep improving every single day. I still want to make my parents proud (my dad from the great beyond), but more than anything, I strive to make myself proud. Of all the people I know, I am the least forgiving to Sheevani Desai Ignasinski... and now I'll try and forgive myself for referring to myself in the 3rd person. It never ends!!! 

I no longer chase perfection, but I do chase self-improvement and to me... that's a life worth living. 





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