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.
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.