Indian Daughter Complex

Back in May, I had an interesting exchange with my preceptors for an Introduction to Clinical Medicine course I was taking. The year was winding down and so naturally we were doing performance reviews to assess the skills we had spent time learning over the past several months. The conversation that occurred, however, led me to think about some things that had entirely nothing to do with doctoring.

“So how would you rate your performance over the course of this year?”
I smiled uncomfortably as Dr. C and Dr. M looked at me expectantly.
“Well, it was okay I guess. I think I did fine talking with patients even though I was pretty nervous. I enjoyed the group discussions.” I paused as I tried to give a balanced review of my performance. “But I think my write-ups weren’t that great and I didn’t speak up enough in discussion. “
Dr. C ‘hmmed’ and looked over at Dr. M before turning her gaze back to me.
“I thought the last write up you sent me was perfectly fine,” she said. “You got my notes back on it didn’t you?”
I nodded. Dr. M picked up where Dr. C left off, “And I thought your patient interaction was good. If you were nervous, it didn’t show at all.”
I smiled, this time less uncomfortably.
“You know,” Dr. C began, “you’re pretty hyper critical of yourself.”
I was a little caught off guard. I guess this is what med school performance reviews were like.
“You know what you have?” she asked, mostly rhetorically but I shook my head anyway.
“Indian Daughter Complex,” she said matter-of-factly. “You’re hard on yourself, you’re a perfectionist, you’re quiet and reserved.”

If I was offended by her broad generalization, I didn’t say anything.

The rest of the performance review went by smoothly but I couldn’t stop thinking about what Dr. C had mentioned.

Indian Daughter Complex.

She had said it so nonchalantly, as if from the moment we had exchanged introductions back in the beginning of the year, she had already pigeonholed me into this role. Dr. C herself was half South Asian which, in my mind, lent some credibility to her assessment. I thought about the sheer cliche of being an Indian-American medical student and cringed. I wonder if that’s all Dr. C saw. Another Indian student in her class, perhaps forced there by her parents.

My parents immigrated to the U.S. in 1997. I was five years old at the time, and despite my early education in India, I embraced America. And my parents did too, to an extent. Growing up, they were always somewhere in the middle. Not as restrictive as other Asian parents but definitely nowhere as liberal as some of the white parents I encountered. Still, I was content. I got to go to sleepovers, wear shorts, live in the dorms during college, stay out late at night, travel abroad, drink, and generally do things that I know more traditional Indian parents would hesitate to let their kids do.

They were both professionals who had come to the U.S. to better their fortunes. They encouraged my brother and I to be creative, to be inquisitive, to be outgoing and outspoken . Perhaps they wanted us to reclaim some of what they felt they had lost in their own upbringing in India. Though they adhered to some traditional Indian values (no dating!), they tried their best to assimilate into American culture. They never bought into the Ivy League craze or the tiger parenting ideology. In fact, my mom once consoled me about my less than stellar SAT math score by telling me that I’ll never be good at math. At least I escaped extra tutoring.

So why then, had Dr. C assigned me this bizarre complex? Hadn’t I escaped the hellish, cliche Asian American upbringing of some of my peers? I thought I no longer had to struggle with the same problems that Amy Tan protagonists had in reconciling their Asian and American identities. Wasn’t my generation-or at least- wasn’t I past all of that Joy Luck Club baggage?

Apparently not.

What struck me about Dr. C’s comment wasn’t just the Indian part. I was used to those stereotypes. Indian kids are good at math, at winning geography bees, at being doctors, at being engineers. Indian kids are awkward and shy. They’re “good girls” and “good boys.” And the innocuous traits that Dr. C had pinned on me: quiet, reserved, industrious. These weren’t necessarily bad stereotypes. I even embraced some of them as inborn personality traits. But they were insidious in their own ways. They perpetuated the model minority myth that many Asian Americans try so hard to distance themselves from. Even more so, they reflected what many people thought Asians should be.

What really bothered me however, was her use of the word daughter.

Why hadn’t she said “Indian girl complex” or even “Indian American complex”? But that wouldn’t have conveyed the exact sentiment she wanted to express. No, the weight of that phrase was all in the word daughter. She was half South Asian herself. She knew the weight those words carried: son and daughter.

Most people are familiar with the idea of Asian filial piety. It runs deeply in Asian culture and permeates the fabric of many family interactions. In Indian culture, it’s especially prominent with parents deciding many aspects of their children’s lives, from what they study to who they marry. Although that strict family culture is being diluted with more Western ideas about family and relationships, the expectations placed on children by their parents still loom large.

With the traditional parents of some of my friends, I saw this demand for filial piety in the most extreme ways. They often demanded that their children study specific fields (most often the holy trinity of medicine, law, or engineering). They picked out what extra-curriculurs their kids would do. With my Indian friends, this was usually Indian classical dance or music. For my East Asian friends, it was always piano or violin. These parents demanded near-perfect obedience in most matters.

And the children? Some rebelled. Others internalized the filial piety dialogue as good children ought to. Even the more rebellious of us understood the cultural script we were born into and expected to follow.

The emphasis on family relationships and deference to parents leaves little room for the beloved American ideal of independence. Even in my relatively relaxed childhood, I felt that the majority of my identity was subsumed by the role of daughter. Although my parents and I fought in my teenage years (as all teenagers and their parents do), I could never bring myself to completely reject my upbringing. This struggle was complicated by my parents’ immigrant history. As a child of immigrants, I had a front row seat to the their hardships as they tried to make it in America.

Perhaps all children of immigrants understand this. The guilt and shame in wanting to be independent, to want something for ourselves when our parents struggled so much to establish themselves and provide for us. We want to desperately please our parents, as all children do on some fundamental level. But maybe what children of immigrants want more is to show that ‘Hey, it wasn’t all a waste! You left your country, your family, your friends, your culture and it was all worth it. Look, I’m exactly how you hoped I would be.’

On the subreddit r/AsianParentStories, Asian-American children come together to vent about their frustrations with their parents in the sweet anonymity of the Internet. Many of the posts are rants but there’s also a good smattering of redditors seeking advice and solace. Here, people get it. There’s no need to explain the myriad of social and cultural circumstances that factor into the Asian child mindset. No one is fazed by posts that read, “My parents found out about my secret boyfriend of 5 years. Help!” or “How do I tell my parents I don’t want to go to law school??” The common thread among all these posts is the frustration in finally realizing that they can no longer keep up the facade of the perfect child.

Earlier, I said that I believed I was past all the ‘Amy Tan’ stuff. For the unacquainted, Tan’s iconic work The Joy Luck Club follows Chinese immigrant mothers and daughters as they struggle to navigate American society as well as strained family relationships. More importantly, it delves into what it means to be a good Asian daughter and how each of the American daughters tries to establish an identity apart from that. Now, reflecting on my experiences with a little more maturity, I fear that I’m bound by the same expectations. I fear that even moving past the hard work of reconciling my parents’ heritage with my American upbringing, there will always be a part of my identity that is in the shadow of my parents’ desires.

What I fear more than that is that in a society that values individuality and independence, Asian Americans are sometimes held back because of this. I’ve heard comments about Asian Americans being robotic or lacking personality. I can’t help but wonder if this is because we grow up cocooned in our parents’ expectations without the chance to really come into our own. By the time most of us make it through those obedient schooling years, we’ve lost sight of who we are and what we want.

Thinking back on Dr. C’s comment, I can see what she meant by Indian Daughter Complex. She didn’t really mean quiet, industrious Indian girls. After all, those traits aren’t restrained by gender or ethnicity. Instead, I think what Dr. C used the term as some kind of an identity placeholder. Looking at me, black hair, brown eyes and skin, perhaps what she saw was a young woman unsure of how to embrace an identity separate from what was expected of her. Perhaps, that young woman was her at some point.

I know that the experience of disappointing your parents is not uniquely Asian territory. Neither is the anxiety of figuring out who you are. What is perhaps, Indian Daughter territory, is the sinking feeling that you can never escape the dyad of parental and cultural pressure that shapes parts of who you are. While there’s nothing wrong with fulfilling your parents’ wishes or being proud of your heritage, there is a danger in living life burdened with these pressures. Always being cautious and self-critical and risk averse. Always holding onto other peoples’ ideas of what your life should be. Always walking the line between who you are and who you want to be. It becomes a constant search for validation in your life because so much of your childhood decisions were based on your parents’ approval. This never ending cycle of approval is exhausting. Even more so, it’s alienating in a culture that is proudly individualistic.

Perhaps the real tragedy of being afflicted with Indian Daughter Complex is that we’re seldom aware of it. I was fiercely sure that none of the parental cultural hangups even applied to me. After all, part of the general pressure of being Asian American today is escaping so much of the ‘oppressed by my parents’ narrative that seems to accompany Asian American stories in the media. But perhaps in fighting this narrative, I’ve become blind to how my life has been shaped, in subconscious and conscious ways, by the intricate and often subtle forces of cultural expectations. From the Indian community, it’s the expectation to be the ‘successful’ but still traditionally rooted daughter. From broader American society, it’s the expectation to project the same success associated with my model minority status but to do it with a soul.

The difficulty of extracting yourself from labels like ‘Indian Daughter’ lies partly in actually being the ‘Indian Daughter’ and partly in being viewed through that lens no matter what you do. Carving out a separate identity that is untethered to any cultural traditions is obviously an impossible task. But for many Asian Americans, its exceedingly hard to be seen as individuals with their own personal failings and successes. In some ways, we have to try harder to define and announce who we are so we’re not unfairly pigeonholed. Maybe it isn’t time for me to put down my copy of The Namesake or The Joy Luck Club just yet.

I wanted to email Dr. C and ask her what she meant. I wasn’t sure she would even remember the trivial exchange. Maybe the words had just slipped out, and asking her to clarify, just for the sake of my own curiosity, felt oddly intimate. In the end, I never reached out because what did it matter? It would have been just another way to feel like I needed someone else to tell me who I am.