While sustaining culture is the concern of immigrant Indian and South Asian parents who care for education, pursuing creativity is the passion of their children. Consequently immigrant parents are more open to career choices of their children.
By Keenya Hofmaier and Kelsey Sheridan
Tradition-bound Indian parents, who have immigrated to this country, usually try to put their ideas into their children in matters of their culture, traditions, education and career. But these children born to them in this country, with their creative mind, develop an independent attitude and assert themselves as far as their choices are concerned. After living their lives here for several years, the elders also have learned not to rub their ideals on their children. While they are keen on continuing their culture, they allow more freedom of choice to their children. In fact, it is true with all South Asian families.
Some South Asian artists converged one night in early May at the Ethiopian Diamond II restaurant on the northern edge of the city for an open mic night. The event was sponsored by Subcontinental Drift which hosts open mic events around the country to foster creative expression and artistic involvement in the South Asian community through stand-up comedy, spoken word and Bollywood performances.
To warm up the crowd, one of the performers opened his act by shrieking, “It’s quiet in here! This is like telling your mom that you’re-not-going-to-medical-school quiet!”
The audience howled. The joke had hit close to home where young South Asian adults feel their way through informing their parents of their intentions to pursue creative vocations instead of careers driven by math or science.
Some young adults are finding it easier than expected to tell their parents they would rather pursue an arts education. Rachel Paturi is one such college student from Illinois Wesleyan University studying business administration and film.
“I’m a bit of a black sheep,” Rachel Paturi says in relation to her medical-oriented family, which includes two brothers studying medicine in addition to her father, who has a medical practice in Bloomington, IL.
She began working up the nerve to tell her parents she wanted to pursue a career in the arts when she was about 17. She says it was her father’s harrowing success story as an immigrant from a poor family, who came to the United States with so little and made so much that gave her the courage to speak up.
From her father, Dr. Raju Paturi’s perspective, he never pressured his children to choose more traditional careers like being a doctor or a lawyer. He says he sees himself as being different from some other parents in his community whom he called “helicopter parents” because they “make decisions for their children” or exercise too much control in their children’s lives.
While Rachel Paturi says she is blessed to have a family as supportive as she does, she remembers a slightly different story.
“At first (my dad) was extremely hesitant but he’s starting to come around because I’m so passionate about it,” she says. “He’s just happy I’m happy.”
Danish Alidino recalls a different experience. As one of the vocalists for his band, “Six to Nothing,” at open mic night Alidio provided beautiful melodies in Hindi while singing alongside his partner, Ankur Thakkar, who provides the English vocals.
“I’ve always been passionate about music, but I never told my parents,” Alidino says. “I was too shy to tell them I sing.” Hesitant to ever tell his mother about his passion, he is graduating with an engineering degree and he currently works as an IT engineering professional. “I was never interested in engineering. I just felt I had to do it for (my parents) and job security,” he says.
Too much risk?
Alidio brings up a good point. While communication and fulfillment are good, they don’t pay the bills. Were his parents so off-base to push him to a traditionally lucrative career? What parent isn’t worried about their children’s future ability to support themselves?
This is especially relevant given that the Indian-American community is the highest earning immigrant population in the United States with a median household income of $61,322. The children of the Diaspora feel especially pressured to do well because their parents have invested so much in making a better life. Young people’s parents expect them to surpass their own success.
Aroon Shivdasani, Executive Director of the Indo-American Arts Council Inc. in New York City, says this fear is founded but it can be resolved.
“Everyone needs to make a living — and unfortunately the arts don’t give you a living,” she says.
But she offers a possibly unpopular solution — parents, start donating to the arts!
“Parents need to start giving to the arts. How can you expect your children to earn a living if you are not contributing to their field?”
Creativity is culture
At the open mic night, the audience couldn’t help but be reminded that artistic passion is embedded in many South Asian cultures. Kareem Khubchandani, a Ph.D candidate in Performance Studies at Northwestern University, performed an individually choreographed spoken word routine that infused archetypal Bollywood dance and popular culture.
“In temple and in cultural functions, creative endeavors symbolize culture instead of creativity because it is ritual,” Khubchandani say. “But some people find they can take this (into the mainstream) and perform it in theater.”
That is exactly what Khubchandani has done. Having grown up performing traditional Bollywood dances, he now choreographs plays and dance performances as a way of critically understanding South Asians in different contexts.
“What people may not realize is that sustaining cultural practice is sustaining creativity,” he says.
With many creative avenues opening up for South Asians and the stated cultural importance in engaging in cultural endeavors, Khubchandani says that it seems as if the youth should have little problem with having their parents become accepting of an artistic vocation.
The perception that South Asian parents won’t accept their children’s study of fine arts is a common fear but Khubchandani says that the perception is a self-perpetuating myth. He thinks the youth should have more faith in their parents.
The future of South Asians in arts
Alidio believes that in order for change, more South Asian representation is needed in the arts.
“Having a South Asian role model will encourage (youth),” he says. “They can see it’s possible.”
Khubchandani agrees that visibility is key, and points to Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate” sculpture in downtown Chicago, known to locals as the Bean.
“South Asian tourists look at it and say ‘Oh that’s amazing!’ but no one can imagine that it was made by another South Asian. The visibility isn’t there.”
Fortunately for Alidino and Khubchandani, there are many organizations working to increase South Asian visibility in the fine arts.
“Thirteen years ago, when we started the Indo-American Arts Council, South Asians were not visible at all,” says Shivdasani. “It is because of the efforts of the arts council that they started getting mainstream visibility.”
Since the formation of the Indo-American Arts Council in 1998, several other fine arts organizations have come up that incorporate disciplines in theater, dance and film, all with the common mission of giving South Asians artists a platform in which to thrive.
South Asian families living in America continue to enroll their children in classical Indian dance and music lessons so that their children may be more connected to their roots.
Raja Salao, the manager of an Indian and Pakistani grocery store in Chi
cago, says he doesn’t think many Indians will ever pursue the arts as a career sees the cultural benefits in teaching kids Indian arts as a hobby.
“You always love your culture,” he says. “Arts are a way to do that. You can perform on your countries’ days, like India Day or Pakistani Day and stay connected to your culture.”
But there may be an added benefit to exposing one’s children to the creative arts at a young age. They’re likely to learn skills like determination and the importance of practice that will aid their future endeavors in whichever career they may choose.
In addition to possible career benefits, children can also develop a rewarding passion that contributes to their understanding of their self and culture. Sometimes this passion comes in the form of a lasting commitment to the arts, which children may one day want to make their career. Other children may want to keep dance or music in their lives as a hobby and pursue more traditional paths as their career. Whether or not children decide to become doctors and lawyers, or Bollywood-inspired dancers remains to be seen.
(Keenya Hofmaier and Kelsey Sheridan are undergraduate students at the of Medill School of Journalism of Northwestern University in Evanston, IL).