The other day, I wrote a post on how valuing intentions can be a radically compassionate act. I’ve written too in a previous post about how Christmastime has been generally a very beautiful and meaningful time for me, and how reclaiming the joy of the Christmas season has been important for me. This Christmas was a time for me to really reflect on the meaning of intention in my personal life, particularly with my family.
We’re very different people in my family. If we all met on a playground as schoolchildren, or in the office as adults, I doubt very much that we would instinctively develop any kind of friendship. Like many 1.75 generation* children (not quite first generation-immigrant, but also not quite second generation due to not having been born in the West), there is a cultural and generational gap that influences my relationship with family. Our views on the world and on ethics have been shaped by completely different experiences, and there is also the question of extremely different personal temperaments.
The current rhetoric of social justice movements leaves little room for navigating the meaning of intent in our families. My family generally finds my experiences totally alienating and hard to relate to; this means that while they feel compelled to offer some well-intentioned advice as parents or as grandparents, generally, I find a lot of it doesn’t apply in a literal sense to my world. Instead, these days, I’ve started to read for intent: I don’t actually care what they say anymore in terms of practical relevance to my life, but I am forcing myself to care about their care for me, and the ways they show it. About six years ago, I complained to a good friend of mine, also a second generation immigrant, that all my parents ever asked me about was “Did I eat? Did I sleep? Are my grades ok?” And that the lack of any questions regarding my personal interests, hobbies, ideas about the world left me feeling disconnected from them.
And my friend responded: “But you know, those are good questions. Can you imagine if you didn’t have enough food or weren’t able to sleep?”
Those lines stayed with me a long time. My parents, and my grandmother, care about me a lot, even if they have no idea who I am – or rather, even if they have no idea about most-of-who-I-am. Partly, I know my perspective, and feeling of loss of connection, has been strongly influenced through a Western preoccupation with individual identities: presenting yourself as “the same” wherever you are conveys truth, authenticity, and individuality. In more collectivist cultures, like the one my grandmother, mother, and father grew up in, what you say, how you share, and how you show love are shaped slightly differently, and more often through the roles you occupy in a person’s life. As a parent, my parents show care and love by parenting, providing me with resources and opportunities to the best of their abilities- not necessarily by connecting with me about things that matter through to me. The problem is: I never really knew what it means to be a daughter in the way my mom grew up knowing.
There weren’t a lot of cultural markers for me to pick up on in terms of understanding how my parents wanted me to relate to them. Instead, I feasted on a pretty steady diet of books and TV shows where brown people barely were represented – and my notion of what it meant to relate to others was through a predominantly white circle of friends where “being yourself” was considered important. My parents also, very confusingly for me, picked up some Western philosophy on how “they were my best friends” and that “I could talk to them about anything”. I hope my Desi friends reading this are laughing because it’s hilarious to me now: my parents had no idea what they were getting into or what they were offering by saying “Talk to us about anything”. So as a child, I tried to confide in them about crushes, only to get stoic responses like “Focus on your grades”. Or I tried to tell them I wanted to see friends, and got “Well, you see them all day at school, why do you need to ‘hang out’?” The one time I was really head over heels for someone when I was sixteen, all my dad had to tell me was: “If you’re old enough to have those feelings, you’re old enough to manage them on your own.” I think this was his way of saying “Stop having those feelings! You’re not old enough! And I don’t know how to help you!” but all I heard at the time was “I don’t care enough to help you through this time in your life.” And the reason I heard that was because of how the notion of parental care had been shaped in my mind in a super Western way, combined with my parents’ insistence on “open conversations” that were utterly pointless.
I think my parents’ attempt at “we’re your best friends/share everything” was their response to having completely closed off conversations with their parents where they didn’t feel able to speak about anything on their minds. From their perspective, they were doing me a favour by opening up that room. “At least she can talk to us”, was, I think their intention. But the truth is, their responses were often very hurtful, and completely incongruous with my reality – and I’m learning that’s not their fault either. Later in life, I also stopped sharing so much with them to just make life easier for everyone; unlike my Desi friends who were much smarter about this whole thing and had figured this out much quicker, I realised much later that my parents have no clue about what growing up here is like. None. Not even a little bit. So what was the point about sharing details of my life when they had nothing useful or kind to say about it?
So these days, all I read for with my parents is intent because intent is all there is. Currently, they’re keen on my education, and mom is a bit antsy about marriage because I’ve hit twenty-five and my interest in boys honestly probably peaked when I was sixteeen and has been steadily dropping since, so this is definitely not how my mother planned this. And yes, the topic of “looking for a boy” has been brought up in the house, but I no longer find it alarming: They just want to see me settled and happy, and their definition of that happens to be a house, an income, a family of my own which includes a husband. It’s not like they counted on me being a queer brown desi witch with a whiplash tongue and a razor smile – they have no idea what to do with any of that. My mom would probably roll her eyes at that line going “oh my god, grow up, why are you writing this?!” And honestly, a lot of social justice rhetoric would tell me she’s “invalidating my experience”, or something. And in a way she is! But who cares if she is? At this point, I have tons of other people in my life who do validate my experiences in the way I need. I have a support network outside my parents, an income of my own, and a life outside of them.
And recognizing my independence now has led me to appreciate the fact that my parents have supported me in other ways to an unimaginable extent: financially, and ensuring that so many opportunities were open to me. No family is perfect, and emotional resonance isn’t my family’s strong point. That doesn’t make them evil or abusive. The fact is, they have about as much frame of reference for my identity as I do for their definition of happiness, success, and stability. They want to see me settled and happy. This is their intention, and their intention gives me much more room to move than their practical ideas about what I need or when I need it: I just need to show them that my version of being settled is providing me with happiness.
My ex boyfriend’s Dad would tell him often: “I just want to see you happy”. And this is a refrain I often heard too in my house, from my parents. I’ve decided to actually focus on that now, and channeling ways into my own life to make me happy – these ways do not have to be (on) their terms. But even if I do eventually become happy, (and, as someone dealing with depression, this is not an easy task), I don’t expect the pointless advice to cease; let them say what they want because it’s just the only way they know to show care. This doesn’t mean that I always want to hear what they say, or that what they say isn’t crazy-making. It completely is, and usually has little to no practical relevance to my life. But I’m coming to accept that my parents have trouble hearing me, and I have trouble hearing them. It still hurts sometimes that we can’t really connect in the way that I would like, but that’s life. No connection is perfect. There is some strange beauty in learning to accept those imperfections. And one of the ways in which these quirky imperfections come about is with gift-giving:
“I got you a present!” My father told me excitedly over the phone. It was December 23rd and I was due to come to their house during my winter break on Christmas Eve. Dad and mom were planning on going to California for a bit, and my grandmother was staying behind; my cousin and I would be offering support around the house and generally spending some quality family time together.
“Oh? Me too! For you!” I said. “I got you a book!”
“I got you a book too!”
“What’d you get me?” I was actually thrilled. It had been a long time since my Dad and I were able to connect over books, though that had connected us in my youth. I was a voracious reader and so was he, but as I grew older, my tastes had changed, become much more feminist, political, and literary, and my Dad still mocked Jane Austen and preferred John Grisham.
“I got you The Greatest Show on Earth!” Dad said, excitedly.
“That sounds… familiar,” I said, trying to remember where I’d heard it.
“It’s Dawkins! You love biology and evolution so I thought I’d get this for you” Dad said, proudly. It’s a good thing this conversation was over the phone, otherwise he’d have seen my face fall at getting a book by the Islamophobic, paternalistic, sexist, misogynist Richard Dawkins. But even in this moment, I valued his intention behind it. Books had always connected us. Christmas had always been meaningful. He was right that I loved biology and anatomy and evolution and was an atheist, and he respected that enough to get me a book related to themes I do generally enjoy. Is it his fault that he chosen an author I’d never choose to read in my entire life? it was such a strange moment where I almost teared up on the phone. He was trying so damn hard.
“Aww Dad, thanks…” I said, trying to sound as happy as I could about the book.
“Hmm, you’re ok with the present, right?” He asked. He no longer sounded super excited.
“No I love that you got it for me! Thank you for getting it for me; I think he writes well about biology but has some funny views on some other things,” I said, trying to explain why I didn’t sound super enthused but that I still appreciated the gift.
“Yeah, I think you’re right about that!” Dad said, sounding relieved. “What’d you get me?”
“I got you Londonstani, by Gautam Malkani” I said, feeling a bit silly. There was no way my Dad was going to enjoy this book, filled with texting slang, “misspellings”, and lower-class British dialects, not to mention the explicit sexuality and graphic violence in parts of the novel.
“Oh, *London*stani… what’s it about?” Dad asked. He was curious but I knew instantly that a John Grisham or a le Carre “novel” would have suited him better.
“Oh just, like four brown dudes growing up in London, young guys and their lives and experiences…” I couldn’t even sell this book to my dad in a way that made sense to myself as to why I chose it as a gift. At least Dad had logical reasons for picking out his gift, no matter how off the mark it was. So this was my first lesson this Christmas on intention: my dad gave a shit, and I could too, even if the results weren’t perfect.
*naani means mom’s mom in Hindi
*patti means grandmother in Tamil
As a south indian who was born in Delhi, and got into the habit of referring to my naani as “my naani” in public and in front of friends, because Hindi was a more common language. At home, we call her patti. In this post, I use both interchangeably.
By the time I arrived on Christmas Eve, my parents had already left for California, and my cousin was upstairs, sleeping. Seeing naani finally that evening was great, though she was stressed and anxious that I’d taken so long to get there. (I’d been dealing with some work-related matter that had taken up some time during the day, and though I’d let her know I’d be delayed, I knew it would stress her out anyway.)
Patti (my grandmother) showed me a few marks on her arm – red patches that had started that day. She hadn’t shown my parents as they were about to leave for California, and had decided to show me instead. I felt so bad that I hadn’t come by earlier, but I also knew I couldn’t bother my parents with this until I knew more about what had happened and could show them some prognosis with medication, a diagnosis, or something of that nature.
“It hurts,” she said. Pain? for red patches?
“Are they itchy at all?” I asked.
“No, not so much… I did brush against the Christmas tree,” she gestured to the corner, “So maybe it is some allergy?”
“Doctor’s offices will be closed tomorrow…let’s go tomorrow to the pharmacist,” I said. I hoped it was an allergy and not an infection of some kind. Those two red patches looked quite angry, and I pointed out there was some swelling as well.
Gran scoffed at first saying “No no, I just have fat arms!” I giggled but then very seriously pointed out that the difference between her arms was noticeable.
The next day, Christmas Day, the Indian pharmacist agreed as well, and with a consult in Hindi, patti was able to explain her symptoms herself. We got some topical corticosteroid for what appeared to be “just a rash”. I was still worried, however, and within a day it became apparent that the ointment had done nothing to slow the rash down – more tiny patches had appeared on her arm, with incredible swelling, and at this point, I knew we had to see a doctor – and my naani, who never complained of pain told me that it was hurting her badly. I knew this was something far more serious than a rash, and I was anxious about what kind of infection this was.
Luckily, we were seen by an Indian doctor who she could easily converse with in Hindi. “Shingles,” he said, “but a very atypical case.”
“Shingles na enna?” Patti asked me later. What is Shingles?
Shingles occurs in people who have had chickenpox; the VZV virus that causes chickenpox “escapes” into people’s nerves (usually the spinal cord). Years later, the virus can travel back down a sensory nerve route to the skin, where it can develop as a painful rash known as shingles. Most people develop the rash around their sides and abdomen; naani got it in in her arm, and along two nerve paths. It tends to be super painful and feels like fire. Clothing touching the affected area generally feels unbearable.
Once the meds were prescribed, I remembered to check for contraindications with her other medications. I guess my anatomy/pharmacology background was good for something – it’s hard to apply for med school when you’re struggling with anxiety, but at least I could confidently navigate health care systems with ease and explain what a condition was to my lovely patti. Since I don’t drive, the fact that my cousin was around to help out with that was of immeasurable support as the doctor’s office was a good 10km away.
When I told my parents a day later about what had happened, they were touched by how well we had handled the situation on our own. My mother’s anxiety was mitigated by knowing that we had done all we could do, and now there was nothing to do but for patti to take the medications and wait.
And of course, Mom tried to ask about gas money and the cost of the prescription drugs, but we waved her off and told her to enjoy her vacation in California.
This was a true family effort, and it taught me that this was the best way to deal with problems in my own life: solve them first, and then tell family about it, but don’t go to them for help and increase their anxiety, which in turn would only serve to increase my own.
A Penknife/Pickled Mango-Ginger
When my parents returned from California on New Year’s Day, they brought with them a few gifts for the family. My dad, to my surprise, got me a penknife – made from the tallest trees on earth, the redwoods. “I know you don’t like super girly things so we picked up this” he said. I was already happy, but turning it over, a surprised laugh escaped my lips. Whatever, was the word inscribed on the side, something I commonly said around the house in anger or frustration.
“I couldn’t find any blank ones,” he said, laughing, “So I picked this one.”
“This is perfect. And extremely girly, – and very me – you have no idea – look it even has a nail file. And knives! So many knives. I feel safer! Thank you, Dad!”
“Please don’t stick anyone with any of the knives” my mother called from somewhere outside the room.
My parents don’t know what terms like hard femme mean, but they know me well enough to get me a penknife that has a letter opener, a corkscrew, knives, and a nail file. I’ve never bought anything for myself that defines me as well as that penknife. I’m reminded sometimes I don’t give enough credit to my parents for knowing me: they do, in their own surprising ways.
“I got you something you’ll really really like too,” I said, remembering a purchase I’d made but forgotten to bring with me to their house.
“Priya’s Mango-Ginger, pickled in oil, without garlic.” In South Asia, we have a tradition of pickling certain vegetables in oil with spices as a side dish. There are different pickling traditions in the north and the south, and it was easier to find South Indian style oorgai where I am living in Toronto. I’d picked up two bottles for them.
Dad was absolutely thrilled. In North-Indian-saturated Toronto suburbs, it was becoming increasingly harder to find good South Indian pickle – but I worked in Toronto right near a Sri Lankan area with lots of South Indian/Sri Lankan styles of pickling.
When we say “it’s the thought that counts” it doesn’t mean the action doesn’t matter at all. But it does mean that these days, especially with family, I look to see the intention in which their actions are anchored. Intent may not be everything, but it isn’t nothing.
I’m going to meet them where they are at, with where I am at. That may mean grinning and bearing certain presents, while realizing they’re doing the same for me, or it might be genuinely thinking hard about what they’d appreciate. And, as a family? We’re learning. Slowly we’re learning that it really is the little things that matter, and it’s the little things that keep us going.