Shortly after turning 29, I began working at a fast-food outlet in Canada part-time. For the first time in my life, I was behind the counter preparing fried chicken, instead of ordering it.
A month later, I was training an 18-year-old guy from India who’d just landed as an international student. Halfway through the shift, I couldn’t stop thinking: why didn’t I ever have a part-time job when I was his age?
Like many Malayalis my age, I finished school in the Middle East and promptly arrived in India to pursue a degree. Obviously, my father would have to pay for my first semester of college, since until then I’d only been expected to complete my high school with the best possible grades.
But in hindsight, I wonder why no one assumed I should pay my way through college. I was living on my own in Chennai. I was perfectly healthy and fairly intelligent. Yet the thought of earning money never crossed my mind. Nor that of any of my family members.
The easy answer to why middle-class Malayali college students aren’t expected to work is because they need to focus on their studies. Their parents support them with the implicit (or sometimes explicit) understanding that once they graduate and begin working, they can stand on their own feet and eventually return the favour.
This is in clear contrast to the “Western approach”, where turning 18 means you are an adult and therefore completely responsible for your own education and standard of living. Yes, not everyone in the West does that, just like not every Malayali parent supports their child’s post-secondary education.
For about a decade, I had no reason to question these two approaches.
While in college I was obviously not about to stop my father from depositing an allowance into my account every month, even when I was using it to thoroughly enjoy my time with friends.
But seeing that 18-year-old kid spend 6 straight hours sweating as he repeated the cycle of dipping chicken in batter, tossing it in flour and dropping it into fryers and dumping them onto trays made me wonder.
What did I lose by not doing back then what he’s doing now?
What did I gain?
As a journalist, I’m trained to use stats to back up my opinion, but even though there aren’t any for this, I truly believe it. At least 70% of Malayali college students didn’t spend the bulk of their time studying.
I don’t mean they didn’t study at all. Just that they didn’t spend 20 hours a week, every week for the entire 3 or 4 years in college, sitting in the library, poring over books.
Most of us spent the last few days or weeks before an exam, cramming just enough to pass with whatever grade we deemed acceptable to us.
So what did we do with the rest of our time? Depending on who you were and where in India you studied, you were either falling in love, fighting for a political cause, discovering new ways to get high, forming enduring friendships or some specific combination of the above.
I’m not implying any of it was a waste of time, and if your experiences in college enriched you that’s great. But just because we had a great time doesn’t mean we couldn’t have had a better one, if we’d acted differently.
I wonder who I would have become if I’d had to wake up at 7 AM on a Saturday for a 12-hour part-time shift. I wonder how my thinking would have changed if I’d toiled for money before spending it at a mall, instead of just waiting for a confirmation message from my dad. I wonder, most of all, how much further along in my personal growth I would have been if I’d learned back then what I’ve learned over the past few months.
Also Read: The (Strange) Circle of (Malayali) Life
Looking back, I feel shortchanged by how my college life turned out. It’s like we collectively deceived ourselves with this notion that college was meant for studying and nothing else. It was a farce because very few truly spent time studying.
We didn’t graduate with superior knowledge. We didn’t graduate with savings or a strong work ethic or a diverse range of skills either.
Basically, we didn’t study…and we didn’t work part-time. We mostly just enjoyed our time and focused on getting past the finish line.
It could be argued that this discussion is pointless, from a purely economic standpoint (which would be ironic because I was supposed to study Economics in college and basically know less now than what I did going in). Why talk about how college students in India should have worked part-time if the economy isn’t structured to support that?
True, compared to the United States, U.K. or Canada, India perhaps does not have a thriving jobs program for college students. But that can only change if the culture allows it to.
Kids in the United States are not hired to pick fruits at farms, not because there isn’t a shortage of labour, but because American society has deemed it abhorrent to have its children do so. They’d much rather the kids hold iPhones made by their counterparts in Southeast Asia.
Similarly, if college kids in India were expected to do part-time work, the economy would provide them with suitable jobs. But that would require parents to understand that just because their son is driving Uber or working as a mailroom clerk at an office for 15 hours a week, doesn’t mean he won’t be able to excel at his studies. Odds are he will because he won’t be getting high or hungover as often.
This is not to idealise the situation in the West. Youngsters here aren’t all hard-working, financially competent, multi-skilled individuals. Like with societies all over the world, there is a spectrum when it comes to how successful they are.
But from what I’ve observed, and just by logically examining the lifestyle choices available, I’d say a 22-year-old middle-class Canadian youngster is more independent, more knowledge and more adept at navigating life, than his Indian counterpart.
When one has to live on their own, work at least 20 hours a week doing part-time jobs, own a car, pay its insurance, have a bank account, save up for social activities and travel while the other doesn’t…how could it not be that way?