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Model Minority No More: Why Indians In The US Need To Break Out Of The ‘Doctor Complex’

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By Nikhil Umesh:

Standing in front of national television, filming for the junior quiz bowl in Kingston, Jamaica, I was prompted to introduce myself to the audience.

I am Nikhil Umesh, your future cardiologist,” I blurted.

Image source: scholarshipsdiary.com
Image source: scholarshipsdiary.com

At home we always joked that my sister and I would carry on our father’s legacy by pursuing careers in medicine. But these jokes had a certain weight behind them, which we wouldn’t come to fully grapple with, until pursuing undergraduate studies in the United States of America. My friend Sagar Shukla calls this weight the “doctor complex.”

We moved to the United States in 2006, and for the majority of our stay, there hasn’t been much of a question of whether I’m going to become a doctor, but only questions of when and how.

It took me until the start of my senior year in college to admit to my parents that medicine was not the path for me. I hadn’t been preparing for MCAT at all; a clear indication, that applying for medical schools was not on my horizon. My parents argued with me for months and to this day chide me about deciding my “goal in life”.

Familial and cultural expectations, coupled with my own self-defined menu of career choices, meant that I went ahead and completed my education in biomedical sciences. After graduating from college this May, there was a pang of regret that swelled inside me. Not only was I pressured into the medical field, but my passions and interests were always met with disinterest. I knew full well that if I repeated college, I wouldn’t go down the route of class schedules laden with biology, chemistry, and physics.

In the U.S., doctors find themselves with hefty six-figure salaries, thrusting them into America’s wealthy one percent. But the “doctor complex” within immigrant Indian families is not just about finances and prestige, but also about assimilating into a culture where Asians are deemed apolitical and docile. As immigrants, questioning the status quo is seen as “rowdy” and not representative of the diligent, hardworking people that we supposedly are.

But when I joined college, I wasn’t keen on just minding my own business with my head down. Prior to my third year, I saw my home state of North Carolina attacked by conservative forces that were passing racist, classist, and sexist policies. And around the same time I was introduced to organising campaigns around issues of social justice by working on my friend Emilio Vicente’s campaign for Student Body President. The New York Times was paying attention to the campaign, because he would be the first undocumented person leading a student body.

The question that arose in front of me was: What is my role in ensuring a society free from systems of power and oppression?

The word “doctor” was not the answer. I still don’t know the answer to that question. It’s an evolving one.

Indians are imagined as “model minorities” by the average white American, and the self-imposition of this label means our families often don’t want to take risks. We are not political, we stand by the margins of justice. My sister started college this year and is majoring in Women & Gender Studies. Unfortunately, studying a field created out of a struggle against patriarchy and misogyny is perceived as a failure of sorts. The moment her career choices began to “waver” outside of streamlined medical school trajectory, the alarms went off. She had to go to great lengths to justify concentrating in a field borne out of her experiences as someone oppressed along the axis of gender. Yet there was no questioning of her initial decision to pursue a Biology degree.

It’s taken numerous arguments and tears, but my parents are finally coming across to the reality that their children won’t be walking around a medical facility in a white coat any time soon.

My wish for the many Indians living in the United States reading this, is to understand that we did not leave our homelands to merely uphold the status quo in our new one. Also, my wish is not to criticize the reality that many of us do want to pursue medicine. But what are the external pressures and forces creating that decision? And most importantly, are we going to use whatever career we find ourselves in, to address questions of justice in a manner that is institutional and systemic?

Being postured as “model minorities,” much of our community has taken on the mission of anti-Black racism. However, let’s not forget that we are still settlers in a country where racial slavery and its afterlife created a fissure of deep inequality. From our hospitals to prisons to schools, there are innumerable institutions where injustice along the axes of race, gender, and class are being perpetuated.

Our parents’ wishes for us to excel by any means necessary does not mean throwing away our values, integrity, and intuition for justice.

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  1. Tarang

    Very well said. I have seen most Indians pursue medicine as it is a way to posh lifestyle. Its true they have to work hard and long to earn the degree but very few come out and work on the social issues. I still hear sometimes “why you did not go into medicine ?” even though i am an engineer (Yes, another typical field).

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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