By Tanvi Shah
Strength. If you asked me to use one word to describe what being a South Asian American woman means to me, I would use the word “strength.”
A social study conducted throughout major cities of India revealed that most Indian women used the word “mother,” “sacrifice,” or “giving” to describe themselves. The Washington Post explained that women surveyed for the study felt a burden of duty — expectations imposed upon them:
In fact, most words chosen by women describe the emotional qualities and strengths needed to cope with the duties of being a daughter, wife and mother, in other words, meeting everyone else’s needs selflessly.
In many traditional Indian families, this meant staying home while your brother attended school because your parents could only afford to pay for one child’s tuition. It meant learning how to complete household chores at an early age while your brother watched television or played outside with his friends. It meant learning how to cook before you turned twenty because you would be expected to provide fresh meals for your family. It meant unequivocally quitting your job when it was time to have children. It meant accepting that men belonged in the workforce while women belonged at home.
My mother was raised in a traditional Indian family not dissimilar to the ones described, but she made sure that I wasn’t. Of course, there is one crucial difference between my mother and me — she was born and raised in India while I was born and raised in the United States. However, I recently realized that the simple change in location had little to do with my more modern upbringing.
For as long as I can remember, my mother encouraged me to pursue a professional career. I thought this was a function of her immigrant mentality and desire for me to take advantage of opportunities she never had. I now understand that it was less about the opportunities and more about creating something in my life that she felt she could not to attain — independence. She never wanted me to feel like I needed a partner to provide for me or my family or that it was more important for me to do things in the house than it was for me to study or excel in my career, as she often did.
In effect, this meant that she did even more of the things that we both had a “duty” to do as the women in our family so that I could focus on my schoolwork or other things that were important to me. Even today, while my mother lives in Texas and I live in California, she visits often, stocking my apartment with food and other goods so that I don’t have to spend the time on “such basic things,” as she calls them.
I know that my mother happily engages in these difficult, tiresome chores to make it easier for me to pursue my dreams and excel in the ways that I choose to. As a result, I owe it to her to work hard toward continued independence. When I encounter moments of trial or tribulation in my path, her story gives me strength.
“Sacrifice,” and “giving” are words that I would instantly use to describe my mother and what her traditional Indian roots combined with her American citizenship made her out to be. But, more than that, I think it took strength for her to make the choice to move to the United States, become an American, and raise me differently. It continues to take strength for both of us to break the mold from which she was made and continue our journey. It will take strength for me to practice the lessons she taught me regarding her past to create a better future.
For these reasons, I believe that Asian American heritage is defined by strength.
*This series has been created to celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.