In grade school, we sat in alphabetical order in homeroom. I was “Da”for Dass. My friend Shannon and her twin brother sat behind me for the better part of 18 years of school because their last name started with “Do.” We stood up and said the pledge of allegiance. The teacher took attendance. Afterwards, little girls passed out invitations to their birthday parties. I was so delighted when a little hand extended me a rectangular white envelope, with an explosion of red, yellow and blue waiting inside. “Jill is turning 8. Let’s have some cake,”As soon as I rushed in the door, I screamed, “Mom! Mom! I got invited to a birthday party! Can I go?”
“No,”was her answer. No was a word I heard a lot. No, you cannot sleep over at Janey’s house tonight. No, you cannot go to cheerleading tryouts on Friday night. No, you cannot sign up for chorus. No, you cannot go to the Friday night football game/dance/occasional ice cream with your friends/or the movies either.
I looked at her from my usual spot at the dining table, where I would sit and color. I could just see her out of the corner of my eye. She stood at her captain’s perch in the kitchen as she responded, perennially washing dishes, oblivious to me.
“But why?”I contested.
“Because I don’t know her parents.”
And that ended the conversation.
In my home town, kids spent their winter Saturdays whirling around the local ice skating rink. It was an ugly brown building that sat atop a hill, just above the strip mall. By the afternoon, the parking lot would fill to the brim as kids hosted their birthday parties. I would look longingly from the passenger side window of our own car as we made our way to Kmart/the bank/the pharmacy/the grocery store to buy whatever mundane things Indian immigrant parents buy in the suburbs. All I wanted was to experience all the sparkle inside that skating rink, but I never did.
My school decided to host a semester of gym class at the ice skating rink and the kids in my class rushed to pull on their skates, as they had dozens of times before. They laced them up lickety-split and took to the ice. The boys zipped with fury around and around in circles. The girls threw their heads back as they skated backwards, pony tails swishing. I had never ice skated before.
“I can’t skate,”I told my teacher as I death-gripped the wall. I could feel the breeze as the other students glided past and I stared at my teacher’s sullen, masculine face. She had attempted Farah Fawcett’s feathery do, but it failed to translate on her curly mop. She looked at me like she didn’t understand.
“I never learned,” I said, trying again to convey my message. She was unfazed by my statement. She just grabbed my hands and skated backwards, holding me up as she made figure-eights around the ice. I still remember the light blue polo top and pants she wore and the way her pants pulled at the seams, as the fabric worked to hold her stocky body in. The ice was unforgiving, the ground giving way from underneath me every time I tried to stand. My fear overpowered me. The fear of falling. The fear of failing.
We had to do eight different ice skating moves in order to pass gym class. Dadu took me the last weekend before class was over in a last-ditch effort to learn the moves. I couldn’t release my grip from the wall. I failed gym class that semester. A big fat “F”glared at me from my report card.
“I didn’t make honor roll this semester, Dad,” I told him as I handed him my report card. I made honor roll every month. That’s what Indian kids do. We have almost no street smarts. We can’t skate with furor around the local ice skating rink, but we bring our geeky report cards home to parents with straight A’s.
My dad glared at me. He was a volatile man on a normal day. We all tiptoed around him, waiting for the next eruption. “You’re grounded. For a month,”he roared.
And I was.
My parents never embraced the fact that they were raising an American kid, with invitations to birthday parties and gooey cake and frosting. They preferred to keep 1969 India alive and well inside the confines of 902 Valley Street. It was a puritanical existence living in my house. I would pretend to be an exquisite ballet dancer in my bedroom, mimicking pirouettes daily like I observed ballerinas perform on TV. I pretended my 60-year-old neighbor across the street was watching through the windows, applauding as I balanced on my toes so well at such a tender age.
My mom prayed at her shrine to her bevy of Indian gods. We went vegetarian on Saturdays because an astrologer told my mom we should. Apparently, the astrologer thought it would be good for my mom and dad’s relationship. My mom’s fate was always in “God’s hands,”which meant that she never had to put any real elbow grease into life. She could just be an idle passenger. She would sit at the dining table, comparing her lottery ticket numbers to the newspapers. Apparently, God was also in charge of her odds at winning the lottery too.
As an adult, and a leader, I’ve never subscribed to the fatalistic attitude that best described my mother. As a self-made person, I firmly believe that life is 99% in your own hands. But you have to be willing to put in the elbow grease.
My work today is not only in the reversal of this kind of conditioning, but a daily commitment to it. With affirmations. With listening to daily videos on motivation.
Daily. Not once in a while.
I had the privilege of hearing Diane von Furstenberg speak in the last few months. She said a ‘woman in charge’ is a woman who accepts her vulnerabilities and her imperfections. She makes them her assets. The one defining characteristic of a ‘woman in charge.’
She keeps her commitment to herself.
These are excerpts from my forthcoming book “The Perfect Indian Daughter,” a hybrid of memoir and lessons on leadership.
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