The world according to Tumpa

I know that when my proud parents pick up this magazine and start leafing through the pages, hunting for their daughter's masterpiece, I am going to be repressing an urge to rip it away and burn it. On second thought, I might not repress the urge after all. You might wonder why the idea of my parents reading this article fills me with such anxiety. Well, in short, the reason is that a major portion of this article focuses on sex and sexuality. Actually, now that I think about it, my parents have probably dropped the magazine like a hot coal after that last sentence. Sexuality is not exactly common dinner-table conversation in most South Asian families. While this is true in most families, many South Asians take it to a whole new level.

My parents are Indian. I am not. I don't think that it's possible to get two more opposing viewpoints than those. We have natural difficulties, some little ones and some big ones. For example, I am sixteen years old and my father still gets upset when my mother lets me go to a movie that she hasn't scoped out first for fear that there might be stuff like nudity and sex. Little does he know that we witness X-rated stuff in our school hallways anyway. And that's in person. However I don't particularly wish to enlighten him, considering he would probably insist on sending me to a convent in Alaska or something. I was curious to know if it was just my admittedly strange family that acted like this, or if it was a more widespread problem. So I called other South Asian kids (mostly Indian) and asked them about their experiences in dealing with their parents and also dealing with their own sexuality. Of course I only talked to a few people and there are probably many viewpoints that I didn't cover, but this article is based on what they told me and my own experience.

My South Asian friends and I often complain about how our parents can appear incredibly out of it. This can be really annoying in two ways. First it can be embarrassing. One of my friends told me a story about how he had invited a girl (who happened to be white) to his house. It was a hot summer day and she arrived in a thin strapped sundress and his mother whispered in his ear really loudly that she looked like a slut. The girl was not pleased, to say the least. I can tell you from personal experience that it's also really irritating when your parents blush and tell you to go change before someone sees you when you wear shorts and a tanktop. I have one friend who in one hundred degree weather has to wear her jeans and LONG-SLEEVED SHIRT out of her house. Naturally she sneaks her skimpy tank-top and shorts out of the house to change into. Some South Asian parents pretend to assimilate, but since, a lot of the time, they're kind of out of the loop, they often tend to do it wrong. This of course shows exactly how out of it they are. One of my friends (from a genuine middle class background) was having her sweet sixteen last year. Her mother wrote out the invitations, which invited all the guests to her daughter's "debut into society." Luckily my friend caught the invitations before they were sent and embarrassment was averted. She told me this story, between blushes and giggles and made me promise not to give her name. She says that to this day, her mother still hasn't figured out what she did wrong.

Looking on the bright side of things, however, there is an advantage that comes from the culture gap. When parents have no idea what's going on, lying is really easy. You just tell them you're doing something innocuous, like going to the library. You could be going to the "library" (i.e., Washington Square Park) and come home smelling like pot every day and they wouldn't notice unless you were really really obvious (Um.. not that I've tried it or anything..). They want to "see no evil; hear no evil." I have one South Asian friend who managed to make his mother believe that his constant hickeys (from his rather energetic girlfriend of two years whom she'd never met or even heard of) were "guitar cable burn." Now I have never heard of guitar cable burn, although I've been playing for a while. All of us happen to practice guitar a lot at his house and she never wondered why we didn't also get "guitar cable burn." I could have told her -- we were all single and lonely. So his mother was perfectly satisfied with this explanation, although soon enough (after my friend got dumped), his strange ailment disappeared. Maybe he got a new cable or something.

The other thing is that our parents seem to think that we are incorruptible. They don't seem to believe that we could even think of doing many of the awful things that we do. (This can be convenient at times.) A frightening thing sometimes happens though. You can actually start becoming completely obedient and stuff (brainwashed, I call it), especially if you're a South Asian girl. Strangely enough, in this society, South Asian parents have, in certain cases, gained even more control then they would have had in South Asia! I have a friend who has actually consented to have an arranged marriage when she graduates from college. The match was arranged when she reached the age of twelve. At first she says that she didn't like the idea and wanted a love match where she could decide for herself. But now she says that after mature consideration she knows that she will be happy and she trusts her parents to make the right decisions for her. I don't know if this was said for her parent's benefit or not, but I find it scary. To me it seems that arranged marriages entail not taking responsibility for your own actions and I think that they are a bad idea, but maybe that's just me.

My friend always seemed to have the same ideals as me. Although there may be merit to the choice she has made, I think I will always wonder why she let her parents make the decision for her. One of the problems with being an Indian American is slightly more frivolous than the problem of having your life's decisions made for you. However, frivolous being that I am, it probably concerns me just as much (and maybe more). It is that although you have the ideals and values of an American, you look like an Indian. Don't get me wrong. There's nothing bad about looking Indian. It's just that even if you are beautiful in an Indian way, you're not in an American way. The standards of beauty radically differ. An Indian movie star once remarked that she would love to lose some weight but if she did, her fans in the South would dump her. I would bet a million bucks that no one has ever heard an American movie star say that. To an American, beautiful means long and thin. To an Indian beautiful is short and voluptuous. Can somebody tell me exactly how a person is supposed to fill both those requirements?

Most Indian girls I know, get guys on the basis of their scintillating wit and personality. To get the same number of guys as your average bleached blonde, the poor girl has to be three times as pretty, to make up for her "exotic" qualities. If one more person compliments me by calling me exotic, there's going to be bloodshed and mayhem. I also pity the Indian girl in high school who imagines that although she's not getting any attention from American guys, (which is the case with many of my South Asian friends, myself included), she'll at least look pretty (and not exotic) to the other Indians. Think again. An Indian boy will go after American girls, thinking that they're more fun. The poor Indian girl will have to wait till the Indian boys begin to think of marriage. Forget about getting a date in high school. This idea that American girls are more fun (in more ways than one) comes back to haunt Indian-American girls in much more disturbing ways. While talking to my friends, I found out something very distressing. About half of the girls I spoke to told me that when they went back to India during their adolescent years, they experienced various forms of sexual abuse from elder relations. Hearing this really upset me. I do know that sexual abuse occurs in a high degree in India but I didn't understand why it should specifically happen to such a large percentage of these girls. I think that maybe the reason is that there is a warped perception that these girls are American and therefore "loose." Also these "American" girls have become more free with their bodies than their Indian counterparts. These particular warped and perverted relations have taken this to mean that it's okay to molest them. It's horrible that these girls are being attacked during puberty when they have the least possible amount of self-confidence.

Unfortunately I see no solution to the problem. Changing people's thoughts and pre-conceived notions is one of the hardest things to do. Hopefully, though, someday girls will be able to speak up about these things instead of hiding because they think that they're dirty. Then maybe things will get better. Being bicultural has never been easy. Sometimes it seems to me that we South Asians (particularly myself) have it harder then anyone else in the world. But that's only normal teenage self pity and angst. However at three o'clock in the morning on a gloomy night, I sometimes sit and think that if my generation and the ones following manage to survive, I'll know the human race can do anything. The next morning, though, I'm usually sure that we'll make it through. I do know that human beings are pretty good at surviving. Or it just South Asians?


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