Portrait of an overbearing Indian father (guest article)
Guest article written by R.P.
January 2010 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
In this guest article, the author shares his experiences growing up in the U.S. with an overbearing Indian immigrant father.
This is a guest article written by R.P., a freshman at Brown University who sent me some great insights via email after reading my Attention: Overbearing Asian Parents article. I have re-formatted his article into a webpage, but the writing remains unchanged. The views expressed are solely those of the author.
I am an Asian student just finishing my first semester at Brown University. When I first came across this website a few months ago, I found myself nodding many times at Mr. Guo's insights regarding Asian parents. My parents are divorced and I got to see both of them equally when I was in high school; thankfully my mother is not one of the single-minded, overbearing parents described on this website -- she encouraged my interests and allowed me to discover myself in high school. But my father is a more interesting case than the typical overbearing Asian parent - sometimes he can be perfectly rational, but most of the time he falls prey to the forces of social interaction and to his own unfulfilled dreams. I made it through high school despite his efforts to get me to conform to his warped picture of reality; I survived the college admissions process despite his efforts to control it; I am studying what I want to study at a college that is perfect for me; and I have finally learned to ignore my father when I need to, though I will never forgive him for his past and current actions.
I began high school with my mind set on attending Caltech and becoming an aeronautical engineer, and my father, an electrical engineer, only encouraged me to pursue these goals. I attended an IB high school and was on the IB track, but decided to quit the IB program with its stifling regimen of required classes. My parents definitely did not support my decision, but I was determined to show them that I would take the most advanced classes possible given the ability to make the choices for myself. In my sophomore year, I took more advanced science classes than the IB program's structure would have permitted me to take, and in my junior year, I expanded beyond technical subjects to AP US History and AP English, which I thoroughly enjoyed and pursued further in my senior year. By the end of my junior year, I was certain that I wanted a liberal arts education and not a purely technical one, and that I wanted to be a scientist or a mathematician (not an engineer). Specifically, I wanted to become a theoretical physicist.
My dad made it obvious that he did not support my decision to be a physicist, and used increasingly absurd tactics to convince me to be an engineer. One day he blatantly said that one of his friends wanted to study physics, but as soon as he got to college, he changed his mind and wanted to do engineering instead. But his disdain for mathematics was even more pronounced: he told me that he hated pure mathematics in college and considered it the most useless endeavor that he had to study. He later began to emphasize the importance of physics in electrical engineering, intent on convincing me that getting a job as an electrical engineer would be the only prospect for somebody with a physics degree. I distinctly remember reminding him of the other applications of physics, resulting in him raising his voice and reacting strongly to my "absurd" claims. Of course, his domain of useful knowledge about the subject is severely limited by his own very narrow set of experiences, so I surrounded myself with theoretical physics books to keep my own interests alive.
Applying to colleges became a 'game' to him, and his delusions about the entire application process made it much more stressful than it should have been. He told me to attend more clubs just so I would have more to write on my college applications. He took every opportunity to tell me how much time I was wasting playing video games -- in my junior year he told me to play for no more than an hour a day, but he was blind to the fact that I didn't even have time to play at all during the weekdays. He must have been able to completely ignore the work I did on a daily basis in order to both keep my grades up and to actually learn what I wanted to learn. I had finished my homework one afternoon, and started to play literally 30 seconds before he came home. When he walked into my room, he told me to stop playing because "I had obviously been playing since I got home from school." When I told him that I had literally just started seconds before, he completely ignored my words. I am actually grateful for that incident because it showed me just how delusional my father is; this and other similar incidents forever ruined his credibility and my respect for him.
His sole criterion for a college's credibility was its U.S. News ranking, and we all know how dangerous that line of thinking is. When I began to make lists of the colleges to which I wanted to apply, he added his own and tried to convince me to apply to his choices (apparently he didn't understand how the pronoun "I" works, or he forgot who was going to college). He told me to write what the colleges want to hear, a classic mistake that students and parents still continue to make. But I became determined to provide a candid picture of myself, my goals, and my interests, completely independent of whatever he or anybody else may have wanted to hear. On my Brown application, I wrote about how I left the IB program in search of academic freedom, how earning a C on an English essay inspired me to write a play that my teacher loved, and how Youth and Government debate dramatically improved my speaking abilities and my self-confidence. Of course, I also made sure to demonstrate my love of mathematics, but making mistakes and learning from them was the central theme of my applications.
Interestingly, over a year since I sent in my last college application, he still persists in talking about colleges and acceptance rates, as well as constantly (and annoyingly) asking me about the SAT scores and other qualifications of my peers, as if only constant comparison between me and other students can satisfy him.
Another interesting incident that occurred before I went to college involved a phone conversation he had with a family friend in Texas. He told this person (who had an master's degree in electrical engineering) that I got a full scholarship to Rice (certainly not the case, as he knew that we received zero financial aid from Rice) and that I would be studying electrical engineering as a graduate student (again, he knew from me repeatedly telling him my plans for graduate study that this was entirely untrue). I assumed that maybe he simply hadn't been paying attention to me at all the entire last few months, but I was alarmed to find out that indeed he knew what I wanted to study, yet refused to acknowledge it. I overheard another phone conversation during which he told another person that I would be studying electrical engineering. I walked into the room just to see how his behavior would change, but I was shocked at how obvious he made it to me that he was lying. He said in Gujarati "my son just entered the room" and then loudly started saying (back in English again) that I would be studying Applied Mathematics. A few days before I would hear back from the colleges to which I applied, I heard him telling yet another person that he didn't think I would get into Brown. I might have been emotionally affected by his lack of confidence in me if I still had any respect for him at that point.
But after closely observing his interactions with other people, I've come to realize that he can only function socially by pleasing other people. He constantly makes sure that he only says what other people want to hear, by matching his statements with their beliefs and expectations, and always calibrating his opinions to be in constant agreement with everybody he converses with. I realized that the issue was not necessarily about me becoming an electrical engineer -- when talking to somebody with a computer science degree, my dad happily announced that I would be getting a computer science degree (and more specifically, studying the exact same topic -- VLSI design -- that this person studied, though I had never made any mention of the subject). When I began to have a conversation with this person, my dad blatantly interrupted and I instantly walked away. The nonsense that he spreads also involves changing the facts or inventing outright lies and passing them off as facts. And he takes the credit for every good decision that I made, such as the decision to drop out of the IB program, despite his initial strong opposition to my decision. The vast majority of his conversations with people are mere charades, and I think that everybody he has ever talked to would be deeply disappointed in him if they ever found out that he lied to them just to gain their approval. I believe that respect is more important than approval and that constantly trying to agree with somebody will not earn respect, but it is far too late for him to learn this.
One of his grandest delusions is his unwavering belief that he possesses a high "emotional IQ." He thinks he was born with such a gift, and that he is always aware of people's emotional states and their hidden intentions because of it. Occasionally (and to me, completely randomly), he would decide that something must be "wrong" with me and he asked me if everything was OK. When I said that everything was indeed all right (because everything was all right), he persisted and demanded that I tell him what was wrong. Because I began to get angry with him at about this point, he concluded that something must have been wrong with me all along. If not for his intense narcissism, he might have realized long ago that he is the source of his own problems, but his narrow-minded arrogance prevents him from understanding that other people have feelings.
When I tried to confront him (first indirectly, and later more directly) about my observations regarding his behavior, he began to invent a spectacular array of excuses, blaming his childhood, his upbringing, his parents, my mother, my sister and I, and all of the "racists" (read: almost every non-Indian person he has ever encountered in his life) that led him astray and negatively affected his future. His failure to admit that he is the problem, and not anybody else, led to his alienation by my mother, my sister, many of his own friends, and me.
I will admit that as soon as I left for college, my relationship with him improved, almost entirely because I only talked to him about once a week and because he was no longer a major presence in my life. He finally acknowledges my intention to graduate with a degree in applied mathematics, and not electrical engineering. He told me that he finally understood the value of a liberal arts education after watching a TV program featuring an Indian business leader admitting that if he could go back in time, he would get a liberal arts degree. It eased the tension between us, but being so heavily influenced by the words of one person certainly did not speak for his intelligence or his ability to think for himself. One of his friends once spoke of the coming importance of alternative energy, and he told me (directly, right in front of his friend) that I should focus on alternative energy in college. And when watching a TV program featuring a medical doctor, he told me to not give up the idea of becoming a doctor (he was well aware of my own goals and plans at this point, but he continued to refuse to acknowledge them). It also took him a very long time to finally realize that in his current job, he does not use any of what he studied in college, and that what one decides to major in is, in many cases, unimportant just a few years after graduating from college, especially as knowledge becomes obsolete very quickly these days. Still, for a long time he denounced the liberal arts and emphasized obtaining a "totally practical education, especially in this economy" whenever the social circumstances suited him.
I have also finally realized that he always tried to push his own agenda onto me during almost every time we talked in the last five or so years. Because I listened to his outright lies, I almost permanently damaged the relationship I had with my mother a few years ago, but by the beginning of my junior year in high school, I began to realize that I had been lied to by a father who was only interested in living his unfulfilled dreams through his children and who was (and forever will be) capable of loving only himself. Though he likes to talk about how "modern" he is compared to other Asian parents, he has only become increasingly intolerable in the last couple of years. Consequently, our already strained relationship will continue to suffer as I progress through college and beyond, until it ceases to exist entirely. After much emotionally-charged deliberation, I have sorted out my chaotic labyrinth of feelings and memories, and have decided that I will never acknowledge him both as a father and as a human being because of his selfish belief that he is without fault and that he can always get what he wants.
My case is undoubtedly quite a bit less severe than many other Asian students', because I am still planning on majoring in a technical field, am attending a college which my father "approves" of, and surpassed all of the expectations that he had for me. But I hope that some more generally applicable insights can be gained from my story. I am also very hesitant to advise other Asian students on how to deal with their overbearing parents, because my own personal experiences have taught me that reacting only exacerbated the problem, and that passive tolerance is the best solution to surviving high school; yet in many circumstances standing up to one's parents is the best course of action. I cannot offer advice in all of these different scenarios; I can only tell my own story.
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Last modified: 2010-01-10