Back to School as an Indian American

By Shivani Tripathi

After an unprecedented gap, students are finally returning to in-person learning across the country. Yellow buses are again part of everyday traffic and cars snake around school parking lots to drop off, and later pick up, children. I recently noticed fliers outside of Desi grocery stores advertising Coaching Classes, a reflection not only of the large Indian population in central North Carolina, but also potentially the number of more recent immigrants familiar with the idea of coaching classes versus what is traditionally known in America as tutoring.

I chuckled to myself and thought perhaps American tutoring centers don't have the rigor a South Asian parent desires, although before the pandemic I witnessed mostly Desi kids pour out of such establishments. In the decades my family has spent in the Triangle, it seems some things have not changed when it comes to Indian parents and their children's schooling: magnet schools from my childhood still hold spots coveted by parents, and an informal indicator of how good a school is measured by the percentage of Desis attending.

It wouldn't be wrong to say that as a community we pride ourselves on how seriously we take academics. Personally speaking, in elementary school my father would help me with my current math assignments and teach me concepts so I could be at least a few grade levels ahead. My mother would get subscriptions to magazines like Highlights and National Geographic to ensure my siblings and I always had something educational to read around the house and she also involved us in extracurricular activities such as public speaking, also in elementary school.

Outside media would further reinforce the importance of academic excellence. India Abroad, a now defunct newspaper, was a way for many of us to stay informed about the Indian American community before satellite channels and social media. The paper would highlight whiz kids winning national science fairs, include photographs of smiling Fulbright Scholars, interview brainy teenagers getting admitted to medical school and so on. It seemed for Indian American kids and especially their parents, being featured in India Abroad was a badge of honor.

One of our main sources of entertainment were Hindi films and the video cassettes we would rent might contain melodramatic scenes such as a mother mortgaging her jewelry to pay for school fees and a family weeping with joy when they heard “first class, first". My siblings and I didn't know exactly what this phrase meant, but when we saw the protagonists and their parents with tears in their eyes at the announcement, we knew it was the proudest day in their lives. Since childhood, excelling in school was encouraged in our home, but upon entering high school my siblings and I knew high school wasn't about simply graduating, it was about doing your very best to get into a great college, which would guarantee a prestigious, lucrative career and ensure living happily ever after.

During Indian functions, it would be obvious our home wasn't the only one concerned about academic performance. The topic of SAT scores wasn't always mentioned unless an outstanding score was achieved and parents, whose children were not graduating the same year, of course, would share tips and pass along information on how to make a child a more competitive college candidate, and even pre-med/medical school candidate. Being a well-rounded person, or appearing as one, also had formulas as the word was that some extra-curricular activities were deemed more favorable than others to college application committees.

A child's academic success was tightly tied to what defined success as a parent, and how well a child did in school was considered a reflection of their upbringing and the values they were taught. And immigrants in America had the additional burden of proving that the opportunities available in the land of abundance were not wasted, and what were thought of as “Western vices" such as dating and dropping out of school, were successfully fought off from entering the home. Talk of AP classes, GPAs and college majors would also seep into conversations with my Desi friends, but the topic would soon be changed, as it didn't spark joy but encouraged competitiveness and insecurity, so instead we would talk about movies and music.

Now my South Asian peers and I are adults who have been working in the real world for years in careers ranging from engineers to entrepreneurs, scientists to singers. The majority of my friends have children ranging in age from infant to ten years and I recently spoke to some of my Indian American buddies who have school age children on navigating the current academic landscape. As a generation that took schooling seriously and is now exposed to more information and discourse on issues such as mental health, learning disabilities, school-life balance and student burnout, I learned it is often friends and peer groups whom they turn to for help in achieving the school-life balance they strive for when it comes to their own children.

When I asked a friend whether she feels being a student today faces more competition compared to when we were ten years old, like her daughters are now, she replied, “I'm glad I was a student then and not now! Kids are starting everything at an earlier age: music, sports, dance, etc. When we were younger, perhaps those with more access had these opportunities. I myself did one recreational sport and a handful of clubs. Now, many more families have access to great activities and resources because we are no longer the struggling immigrant parents... most of us can now afford to put our kids in activities early on so that they will be ahead of the curve when they need to be. At the same time, it seems like the competition to get into competitive schools has increased and it may very well be due to the fact that kids are having more access to activities."

When I inquired about the kind of values or ways of approaching a child's school-life that they learned from their parents and now use with their own children, the answers were touching, because they pointed to greater life lessons:

“It's important to do well in school, but just as important to have a personal life and time for leisure. I remember weekends being family time and enjoying each and every moment. We would be out and about every weekend: amusement parks, playgrounds, friends' houses, swimming with my dad on Sundays then coming home to hot eggs and aloo poori."

“My brother and I were told to work hard, try our best and never look down upon anyone. We all contribute however we can, in our own way because not everyone has the same opportunities, resources and talent. It's important to treat everyone with respect regardless of achievement and to remain humble."

“Do things that you enjoy. Purse your interests and passions because if you do, you will always be gainfully employed. Be creative. Be a happy student. Try your best".

The availability of different resources and opportunities along with greater discussion on mental wellbeing are some things that are different compared to when my friends and I were growing up, but some things remain the same including a parent wanting to provide their child with a life better than their own.

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Shivani Tripathi cannot remember a time she wasn't madly in love with Indian cinema and writing. She spends time in New York, North Carolina and Twitterpur at @Shivani510