How I Broke Away From the Indian Standard of Expectations in the Middle East

I grew up outside India – a stone’s throw away in the Middle East. But my upbringing, at least at the time, seemed Indian enough.

Life was somewhere between “Indian born and raised” and “American-born Confused Desi” (ABCD); a complex fusion of worlds, unable to belong to just one. The classic internal struggle of an NRI.

Although I was farther away from the culture, the large influx of Indian expats in Dubai attempted to make up for it, not out of a formality but to satisfy their deep yearning for a familiar taste. I, too, was raised with tuitions, poojos, curfews and discipline. The rules were also mostly the same: daily interrogations before going out with friends, allowed to explore career options but never venture too deep into something ‘impractical’ and Ma’s homeopathic concoctions could and will continue to cure all deficiencies.

These cultural idiosyncrasies have created a special relatability with us, Indian ‘third-culture’ kids, through tasteful memes and conversations of nostalgia worldwide. What’s less discussed, however, are the scars we carry from the childhood for champions.

At the tender age of ten, I was stripped of my confidence.

Nothing I did seemed good enough. I didn’t have many teachers showing me my potential and my parents did not compensate for it. When I did manage to score a high grade, it was deemed as a fluke or a result of an easy exam. When I failed an exam, it was because I was perpetually a failure. I could never win.

More tuitions, more disappointment, more self-loathing.

We were miles away from the motherland but the Indian mentality toward academics lived on.

Constantly reminded of my little worth, I struggled to understand my abilities and was heavily worn down by the disappointment and incapability to perform to the expectations set by my parents. Like most NRIs, I was a big investment, an opportunity they never had, a fruit of their struggles in a foreign land.

And I hated it.

Not because it was a daily reminder but because failures hit harder with that playing in my mind.

In the Indian middle school I attended, the focus was always on achievements and less on learning. And I could neither achieve nor learn. There were limited choices, little room for creativity or practical implementation and I struggled to cope. I was no engineer or doctor or accountant.

My parents, understandably, couldn’t comprehend the root of my shortcomings. They had struggled through the gauntlet of India’s competition, so why couldn’t I? In response, they – along with my teachers – decided to amplify negative forms of motivation to “push me” in the right direction. It was the cruellest way to instil drive – one fuelled by fear and anxiety – yet I still could not perform.

“Was I born a failure? Am I destined for mediocrity? Nothing I do is seems worthy.” A series of thoughts that embody the struggles of broken self-confidence.

In fact, the influence that a style of teaching or a positive environment possessed had never crossed my mind. Since I was unable to prove them wrong in my academic pursuits, I succumbed to the word ‘failure’ and formed an identity around it.

When it came time to move into grade ten, my parents took me out of the Indian school and put me in an International school. Till date, I do not know if their decision was out of sympathy or shame, but what I knew for certain was I could breathe again; I could start afresh, try harder, maybe even achieve. The move was the turning point in my life.

This new environment fostered learning and reflection in a way I could truly grow, and also because I escaped the murder the Board exams were going to commit. In the new school, it wasn’t just Science or Commerce – one could study Art, Economics, Philosophy and Physics together. Plagiarism, the very essence of “ratta marna” (rote learning) was heavily penalised.

My abilities weren’t determined by two exams but over two years of consistent dedication to six subjects, independent research, presentations, a 4000-word essay, community service and understanding academic ethics. I started performing better, distanced myself from my parents and was slowly building myself ground up. I certainly could not meet the Indian standard, but was still impacted by the idea of it. In fact, it took me years to wash the stubborn stain of the fear of failure.

However, a shadow remains, often creeping up to remind me of the repercussions of disappointment. I try to stand directly under the light.

For all of you trembling under the weight of failure, know this: whoever your intimidator is, they are people like you and me who make mistakes, have opinions and sometimes project their emotions only in a way they have been exposed to. It doesn’t make it right, but it helps to understand the other perspective. Try to own your failures to rob away their power by expressing your troubles before your subconscious does it for you.

Most importantly, take the time to know who you are: built stronger on your experiences and seeking new ones to shape you better. In time, you, too, will understand the immense power you possess.

Oendrila Das studies Economics and Political Science at Pennsylvania State University

Featured image credit: Flickr