One major thing that has kept me tied to my cultural roots is Carnatic music, which I’ve been learning for the past 10 years. And in high school, I was very involved in Key Club, a service-leadership organization. I eventually served as the Governor, and throughout that journey, I learned a lot about public speaking, leadership, and communication, which helped me with my confidence and self-awareness. Key Club was an activity that wasn’t very traditional. Sometimes people would make fun of me, and my parents would question me: “This doesn’t seem like a great use of your time. Shouldn’t you try to spend more time on activities that are more academically oriented?” With Carnatic music, people ask me, “Why don’t you perform more? Why don’t you compete more?” I don’t understand why it was considered “ambitionless” to spend time on things that I wanted to do simply because I enjoyed it, not because I wanted to constantly compete with others and win awards.
Looking at a lot of my Indian-American peers, I felt like I was supposed to be “great” at certain things (I can’t be the only one that has heard the phrase “but you’re Indian! You’re supposed to be good at math!”). I pressured myself to pursue science, because so many people told me that it would undoubtedly lead to success. But I still don’t know what success means to me, because I grew up around the idea that success is measured only on the basis of monetary value and stature.
Looking at only a financial marker of success is very cynical, but something I understand now is that success is a construct. It means different things to different people. In the desi community, if you’re financially well off, that is it. You have succeeded. No one really asks “Are you happy?”. I don’t know where being financially comfortable and feeling fulfilled intersects. The way my definition has evolved is to ask “Are you satisfied with what you’re doing? Are you doing something that sparks joy within you?”. And unfortunately, as a first-gen Indian-American, that perspective doesn’t always match up.