Growing up away from the asphyxiating fumes and the broad liberal arts base of the big city, back in the thickets of dry river beds and the bike paths littered with autumnal leaves or spring flowers, back where there were still wide open spaces and homely neighborhoods, I grew up in a different world.
It is not at once apparent how that world was different. It is on a closer look. And not just because it conforms to a very traditional ideas of a happy childhood; Alley sports, running half naked in the rain, console games. I never noticed that all my friends were middle class boys. I never noticed how girls of my age tended to flock together. Well, I did in a manner of ‘boys-will-be-boys’-esque mirth, fed by a culture of social segregation, but I never saw anything that was abnormal with the status quo.
I don’t remember when I had my first career dream. I remember saying out loud to a crowd of amused family friends that I wanted to be a model once. I remember my voice sounding croaky. I remember wondering how anybody could not want a career that involved wearing shades and pose in front of a camera all day.
Yes that was my world. A world where models always wore shades, and boys would wrestle each other in the mud, chase each other on the river bank, sneak out of home to huddle in front of old black and white TVs (pawned from dilapidated junk shops for pooled pocket money) to play Contra and be ‘eww’ about the girls.
We didn’t start the fire
My grandfather still calls white people ‘saheb’ (sire). A colonial legacy embedded in him by a long forgotten race ratio in classrooms. When classrooms are battlegrounds of racial oppression, it often gives rise to new forms of bigotry.
My earliest memories of him include him telling me how I was born to be a great engineer, over and over again, enforcing it like a fundamental truism, hacking into my brain. I don’t think he meant harm. He was just propagating what he knew to be right and honorable.
In hindsight, I don’t remember my cousin having to face that. As a woman, her socialization was different. The narrative she faced was about eventually having to marry and start a family.
That was his world. Where you venerate white people, speak English, venerate the law, where men provide for their family, and women start families, where men join government service, and become engineers.
My first understanding of my social expectations came when I started to understand economics. Social internalization has its own forms of persuasion. It is coercive in the most sinister ways. Mine came in multiple lectures of how engineers were the builders of modern society, and along with doctors and lawyers were the only profession worthy of an honest day’s work.
But most importantly, that’s what men did. Men, the providers; men, the inveterate suckers on the teat of macho professionalism; men, the sweaty divers into the waters of middle class respectability.
I was told, in a somewhat lackluster fashion, that I could in fact be whatever I wanted. But that wasn’t a green flag of intellectual freedom, it was a lawyer’s dodge. A testament to my parents’ impoverished liberalism, and their defense that acquitted them of the guilt of their newfound values, that demonized coercion. “Of course you should do what you want. You don’t HAVE to want glory.” “Of course you should study what you feel like, not EVERYONE has it in them.”
Throughout my childhood, I watched family friends lament that a 90% scoring child picked arts over science. I watched relatives and family dismiss journalism as a great career… for a girl. I watched a father in my neighborhood move their protesting child to another school because my school wouldn’t allow him to study engineering. At dinner tables, where my parents expressed their unending reverence of engineers, I felt like I was getting subliminal hints as to what the ‘right’ career choice would be, despite having the illusion of freedom.
My career choices were less rooted in my passions or the things I’m good at and more driven towards a ceaseless search for approval. My desire to be worthy of, what I understood, was an honest day’s work. There would be drawing complicated diagrams with complicated instrument. None of those historical analyses. None of those anthropology lectures. None of those feminine careers.
No, we were men. And we lived in the world, where blue fire rose to the sky from factory chimney tops and black smoke would rule the azure skies. Of course, that was a world for men to aspire to. Men still liked blue, and leering at stolen lingerie catalogues and models still wore shades.
In college, having moved away from home and staring at a worldview in the face that was very different from mine, revolving in an orbit, rapidly collapsing into an inevitable realization, resisting the demise of everything I knew to be God’s own sacred truth, I soon got depressed.
It would still be a while before I’d admit to myself that I was doing something that I didn’t particularly care about. It would be even more time before I’d admit to someone else that I wasn’t good at this, and that I probably wouldn’t be. “Give it time,” they said.
But I knew that this wasn’t something I was cut out for. How? Because I would sit in the back of the class, staring at the world outside, the people hurrying to work, the culture of patriarchy fighting back against an invisible culture shift it couldn’t fight. I would watch and write poetry.
And with all of this came this gradual shift in thinking, a lot of small and excruciating doses of individualism, propelled by conversations with beer and cigarettes. This was the first time I could choose to not be in the moment and examine my life from a bird’s eye view.
Making sense of it all
If I could do it all over, would I have done anything differently? Would I never have been an engineer? Would I perhaps have been a full-time poet? Or an artist? Or a social worker? Probably not. Because there are more ways society coerces career choices than gender. But I do know that I could be more flexible with my career choices.
Had I not had to answer to the invisible phantom of masculinity, I’d have been able to make career choices by asking the right questions. What makes me happy? What gets me excited? What can I do for eight hours a day and not tire?
I think that my childhood, though by all means a happy one in a traditional sense robbed me of that informed choice and caused me to waste a lot of time climbing mountains I didn’t want to conquer. But of course, my childhood was beautiful.
It was beautiful in a classical sense, like the jazz that emanated out of oppressed ghettos, like the clear blue sky is to the bird who has spent his entire life incarcerated. There were toys, and lots of running half naked in the rain, and models always wore shades.