My white friend Jeffrey walked into the class, scowling as he spoke into the phone.
“What the hell! You’re the one who kept calling me every thirty minutes when I was trying to sleep! Oh, suck a d*ick!”
He cut the call and threw his bag onto the table.
“Who was that?” I asked, wondering which friend he was mad at.
“That was my mom,” he said, too annoyed to notice my jaw-dropping.
I readily confess that with the above anecdote I was hoping to shock, rather than enlighten you. As a Malayali, it took me a while to digest what I’d just witnessed, and it felt like a shame to not share it with my comrades. Next time your mother claims you don’t respect her, feel free to forward this article.
Having said that, there’s a larger issue to explore. I’m not concerned about whether Jeffrey is rude to his parents or not (He most definitely is). I don’t want to discuss if youngsters in the West are generally rude to their parents (they’re not, or rather, it depends on what is considered rude, or to be precise, that’s not the issue here!)
Instead, I wanted to try and figure out what allowed Jeffrey to speak that way to his mother?
He lived on his own, sharing an apartment with me and four other college kids. More importantly, he paid for his own things. It’s easier to swear at your mother if you don’t have to call back later to remind her about sending money, right?
“Oh, that bike is awesome!” someone recently remarked to Jeffrey. “I wanted to get the same model last year, but my dad wouldn’t let me.”
You could see the pride gleaming on his face as he replied, “I bought this bike on my own after saving up during the summer.”
Jeffrey began working when he was 16. Meaning, unlike many of our comrades, he bought and rolled weed joints with his hard-earned money. The only drug more potent than cannabis for Jeffrey was independence. It let him order stuff off Amazon, stay out on weekends, defy his mother’s conservative weekly meal plans.
“What were you like when you were 16?” I asked Santosh as we sat on the bench, watching a steady stream of students heading for the bus loop.
“What do you mean?” He replied, shrugging his shoulders. “I was normal, I guess. The usual man, nothing different.”
I nodded, having already guessed it. At the age of 16, Santosh didn’t have a dime to his name. He didn’t have a bank account, debit card or even a wallet that stayed thick all-year long. Sure, he handled money, but only like a drunk sailor on payday. A few notes at the popcorn stand, a few at the fast-food counter, one or two for a pack of smokes. And by the end of the night, all that’s left are a few loose coins he’d pull out of his jeans pockets before chucking it into the laundry basket.
Santosh would be pulling out wads of cash instead of coins from his pocket before dumping his jeans in the laundry basket. If only it was him ultimately washing the jeans.
Why was every Malayali (and basically every Indian) I knew at the age of 16, heavily dependent on their parents? Why are so many of the westerners I meet now not dependent on theirs?
Is it just a matter of expectations? Indian parents expect their children not to work, while western ones encourage it?
As an Indian, why didn’t you work part-time when you were 16 years old? There can be multiple reasons, but what’s the order in terms of importance? For example, if you were from a middle-class family, you could say you didn’t work because you didn’t need the extra money. But that’s not the main reason, right? After all, if you ask any middle-class kid if he’d like more disposable income, the answer almost always would be: Hell yeah!
Your parents probably would have discouraged you. Why? Because you don’t need the money, and it’s better if you spend that time focusing on your studies.
And even if you wanted to defy them and bunk tuition classes to work somewhere, where would you work? India doesn’t have an economic system that offers work opportunities to youngsters, right?
What if it did?
“How would your life have turned out if you’d started earning money at 16?” I asked.
Santosh chuckled, thinking I was simply lamenting the past. When he realized I was waiting for an answer, he frowned. “Oh, man, I can’t even imagine. I’d have definitely bought stuff they wouldn’t get for me. Order pizzas and burgers instead of having to eat whatever was leftover in the fridge! And, you know….just enjoy life a lot more.”
He couldn’t give me a comprehensive answer, because he’d never even considered the possibility of independence at such a young age. So I couldn’t ask him if he’d grow less attached to his parents, whether he’d defy them more quickly, get into arguments without hesitation and be ready to walk away at the slightest provocation.
I didn’t want to question his sense of family by asking him: Are you close to your parents now because you love them? Or do you love them now because you couldn’t walk away earlier due to financial dependency?
I remember all the times I’d heard Indian uncles and aunts talk about Indian family values. And about how in the West kids talk back to their parents and treat them rudely. Now I wonder how much of the family bond between Indian children and Indian parents is because of Indian values, and how much is because of money. Isn’t it really hard to tell someone to fuck off if it means you’ll be homeless and hungry?
I don’t believe Indian children love their parents solely because they’ve been deprived of financial independence. But don’t you know of at least one friend who’d have left home if he or she could? Aren’t they then just the Indian counterparts of Jeffrey? Except they couldn’t leave, which means Indian parents can look at youngsters like Jeffrey and shake their heads with the vigour only an inflated sense of moral superiority provides.
“Do you really wish you could trade places with Jeffrey?” I asked Santosh.
“Obviously, man! I mean, there’d be so much less pressure on my life!” Santosh cried in frustration.
“But what about all the things you’d have to sacrifice?”
“Do you know that Jeffrey was fired from his job when he was 21. He spent five days in his car after the landlord kicked him out for not paying the rent.”
“Ah, that sucks,” Santosh muttered. But it didn’t strike him yet.
“It was the middle of February,” I added. “Have you ever slept in your car when it’s minus 15 outside?”
“Oh damn!” He cried, beginning to understand how intense the situation was. “Wait, so why couldn’t he -”
He stopped, catching the expression on my face.
“Go to his parents’ place?” I asked. Neither of us said it, but we were both thinking of the time Santosh had lost his job and taken the first train back home. He stayed with his parents for six months before venturing out again.
We were interrupted by a few friends who were passing by, but I knew Santosh was distracted. I knew he’d begin to reexamine his beliefs about parents and children. For years, he’d reaped all the benefits of having parents who were willing to bear the financial and emotional costs of supporting him. If you asked them why they bore it all, they might have told it’s simply because they love him unconditionally. Or they might have said that’s what good parents should do. Maybe, they might ponder about it and realize that they expect him to take care of them when they are older. I think it’s possible to believe in the former while subconsciously harbouring the latter.
But Santosh, like millions of other middle-class Indian kids, was drawn towards the western concept of individuality and absolute freedom. He wanted to be like Jeffrey, without realizing he went through none of the hardships Jeffrey had endured.
I personally admire a lot of features of the so-called “western model”. I wish I’d learnt to become more independent at a young age. I wish I’d accrued greater real-world experience. But I also realize I treasure the safety net my family has always provided me. I’ve gained immensely from it. I believe it’s possible to emulate aspects of one model without relinquishing parts of another.