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There is a phenomenon in Amish culture called Rumspringa, in which Amish adolescents are permitted to break free from their modest traditional lifestyles and indulge in normally taboo activities. They dress however they want, go out if and when they please, smoke, drink, and party like it’s 1899. At the end of their Springa Break they decide whether they will maintain their new lifestyles or return and join the Amish church.
In Indian adolescence you never break free of the rules. You cook, clean, babysit, clean, get good grades, clean, be silent, clean, and don’t challenge your parents in any way – especially while cleaning. This was my life. I grew up in a town whiter than snow, about an hour outside of Toronto. Like most children of immigrants, I was raised by the rules of one culture and looked longingly at those living a distinctly different way. I didn’t have time for a continent-wide census, but from what I know, this is how typical North American kids spend their summer vacations growing up:
July – summer camp, family trip, or cottage. Activities include swimming, canoeing, travelling, laughter, horseplay, tomfoolery, and general merriment. Mother makes glazed ham while father reads Russian classics and smokes a pipe. Kids dance around maypoles.
August – return home and play with friends, have sleepovers, take weekend trips, and shop for fabulous new back-to-school clothes while dreading the inevitable return to academia.
Here is how I spent my summer vacations growing up: July – tv room. Activities include hanging out with my sisters and watching anything and everything on television, including Welcome Back, Kotter, Who’s the Boss?, 227, and various other programs offering canned laughter and some much needed escapism. Brief breaks for housecleaning and being nagged for not cleaning enough.
August – basement tv room (much cooler). Count down the return to school. Find blank vhs tapes on which to tape Days of Our Lives (dying to know if Patch and Kayla will get together!). Fight with parents about their annual two shirts, two pants back-to-school shopping policy. Pray that sideburns spontaneously fall off by Labour Day.
If an Indian version of Rumspringa existed – a Ram-Singha of sorts – I would bet my last rupee that at the end of it, only one out of every hundred kids would return to their traditional Indian upbringing. The rest of us would be hanging out at the mall in acid-washed jeans, schooling the younger members of the group in how to undo their parental shackles and integrate into Western society. Sessions would be set up for courses such as You Are Not Your Cousin Ravi: How to Function in a Culture That Doesn’t Compare You Against Everybody Else’s Kids and Less is More: A Workshop in Applying Men’s Musk Oil Cologne.
Unfortunately no such program existed during my adolescence, so my parents raised us by the standard rules of northern Punjab nunneries. I don’t wholly blame my parents for my lacklustre childhood. Having been to India, I am aware that the majority of kids there don’t spend their summers singing around campfires or learning to play the flute. From a young age you are expected to make a contribution to the house, not simply to hang up your favourite cartoon posters in it.
Whenever we complained, my parents liked to remind us that they hadn’t grown up like Richie and Joanie Cunningham either. “When I was a kid, we made toys out of mud,” my dad once said. This was the Indian equivalent of the walking-twomiles- to-school tale that white parents used as their trump card. According to my dad, they would fashion mud cars, mud guns, or mud animals and pray it didn’t rain before they finished their game of cops and robbers.
Since their own childhoods were so limited, I understood why they didn’t see value in the things we were missing out on. But what they seemed to miss was that they weren’t living in India anymore. They tried desperately to hold on to their culture. For years the only friends they had were fellow Indians. I took the opposite approach.
Growing up, I had friends, but I didn’t have a single Indian friend. This was due partly to the fact that there were only two other Indians in our primary school, but also because I was not interested in all things Indian. I grew bored of Bollywood films, didn’t listen to Indian music, and ate cereal for dinner so I didn’t have to eat saag. I viewed the fact that I was Indian as the reason I was living my life hanging out in my basement. It was the reason I couldn’t go to dances, go to movies past five p.m., take singing lessons, or be friends with boys, so I wasn’t really interested in embracing any more of the culture than was required.
In high school there were a few other Indian kids at my school. They all hung out together, but I never made it into the fellowship. I didn’t know the first thing about the latest and greatest bhangra tracks and couldn’t roll out samosa dough to save my life.
That left my white friends as my only source of comparison, and it seemed fairly clear that we had very different lives. For starters, they had two distinct eyebrows, while above my eyes I had one hibernating slug. Their parents knew the names of their kids’ friends and welcomed them into their homes. But more important, they had freedom – my version of freedom at least. They had the luxury of indulging their interests. They went to “lessons” and “hung out” on weekends. They went on family trips and actually had stories to tell in September when the teacher asked us what we did on our summer vacations. I wanted that, and didn’t understand why I couldn’t have it.
Suffice it to say, my parents were strict. I was rarely allowed to go out. I wasn’t allowed to take lessons or to talk on the phone with boys, or for extended periods with girls. I was discouraged from being too involved in extracurricular activities. I was expected to get good grades, although cleaning and taking care of the needs of houseguests trumped homework. I was not allowed to attend sleepovers, nor were my friends ever invited into our home.
I was, however, permitted to watch hours upon hours of television, because television kept us quiet and indoors. Unfortunately for my parents, it just exposed us further to the lives that other kids were leading. Those tv kids had even cooler clothes and adventures than the real kids I knew, pushing my sense of injustice into feelings of anger. I wanted to punch the tv every time those smug Cosby kids were on it.
One sunny August weekend not too long ago, my high school friends and I went up to our friend Jessie’s cottage. We were celebrating her and our friend Johanna’s upcoming weddings. As I sat on the dock and watched them swimming in the crystal lclear lake, I felt envious – not for their marriages, but for their ability to swim. I couldn’t swim. I had spent my whole life sitting on the pool deck, standing in the shallow end, or simply avoiding the situation altogether. If we’d been at an ice-skating rink instead of a lake, I wouldn’t have been able to participate there either. Ditto for skiing, tennis, gymnastics, camping, swapping stories about family vacations, and reminiscing about teenage love. I didn’t have any camp friends or photos of me dressed as a bumblebee in a dance recital. Never having been on a team, I didn’t have a shiny Little League trophy.
I had always joked about my boring and uneventful childhood. That day, the reality of it truly hit me. I had lost hundreds of hours of my childhood and missed countless experiences as I sat in front of that television. It may have been that I had just turned thirty, an age that makes you evaluate your life whether you want to or not. It may also have been that I was surrounded by the very friends I had watched have the childhood experiences I wanted.
For years I believed that childhood experiences (or the lack thereof ) were strictly once-in-a-lifetime. I always thought, When I have my own kids, they will do all the things I never did. But that day, as I contemplated risking death for a few minutes of feeling the water lap around me, I didn’t care about those hypothetical future kids. Those jerks weren’t going to put me through eighteen hours of labour and be rewarded for it with clarinet lessons. From a childhood lived in a fun-proof cave had grown an adult who didn’t take chances, who didn’t boldly go anywhere, and who was, well, quite bored with my routinefilled life. I needed to experience for myself what I had missed, or I would forever live a life of sitting on the sidelines.
When I got back to the city, I vowed I would finally learn to swim. As I researched lessons in my neighbourhood, I started to get excited at the thought of diving into a pool on a hot day, the way they do in diet soda commercials. I also started thinking about all the other lost experiences of youth. There were so many other things I wished I had done as a kid, so whenever I thought of a new one, I would write it down.
Soon I became overly ambitious. As summer gave way to the cool of fall and the fall gave way to the bitter cold of winter, my list grew. I culled some items because I really didn’t think it was that important to learn to tie-dye my own scrunchies or backpack through Europe like Mike Seaver in Growing Pains, and soon I had created a workable list of goals.
It wasn’t until January that I started to take action on the list. It was a new year and I was thirty – it felt like the perfect time for a new start. The items on the list were some of the missing links between the life I had and the one I wanted. A few were life skills, some were just desires, but all of them were important enough that I felt they warranted pursuing. I could have added a million more items, but I started by setting five concrete goals to tackle. The list read as follows, in no particular order:
1. LEARN TO SWIM. Indians don’t swim. They don’t have cottages, they don’t go on cruises, and they are rarely seen basking in the sun at the beach. Indian girls especially don’t swim, because only a fool would think that learning a lifesaving skill is more important than keeping your body hidden forever. No doubt the Indian women’s swimming team practises in full snowsuits with matching glittery bracelets. This was a life skill I had just assumed I would never have; it was time to change that thinking.
2. TAKE LESSONS. Oh, how I wanted to take lessons when I was a kid. How I wanted to hate my piano teacher and do dance routines in the junior high talent show like all the other girls. What I would have given to say “I can’t – I have karate” or “No, thanks, I have to get to gymnastics,” instead of “I have to go. It is my night to clean the stove!”
3. VISIT DISNEY WORLD. Yes, I know not every kid visited Disney World, but I always dreamed of it. Like many children with boring home lives, my fantasy life was incredibly vivid, and it involved many imaginary characters from the Disney catalogue, children’s stories, and various nonsensical cartoons. We would record Disney specials from tv onto vhs tapes and watch them over and over, fast-forwarding through the commercials for Hypercolor shirts and Mini Pop Kids albums. We never did family trips longer than two days, and even those overnighters would be simply to see family. I didn’t want to see another uncle I had never met – I wanted to see Goofy.
4. GO TO CAMP. I longed to sleep on a fleainfested mattress set on wooden planks, swim amongst leeches, and sing “Kumbaya” while roasting s’mores to perfection. In my seventh grade the junior school offered an end-of-theyear camp trip. Two weeks before the deposit was due, I took the permission slip to my dad and offered him a sales pitch straight out of Glengarry Glen Ross. “Forget it,” he told me. I was always advised to forget whatever I wanted. If only he could have forgotten to say no, just once. As a desperate measure I went to my mom, who simply asked what my father had said. Two days before the application was due, I grew frantic. All my classmates had already committed, and the only people outstanding were ethnic girls and suspected bedwetters. Knowing that both my parents would have left for their jobs by six thirty a.m., I woke up at six and went downstairs for one last effort. At least they were considerate enough to yell “No!” in less than a minute, allowing me to go back to bed and get another hour of sleep before school.
5. OWN A PET. I have wanted a dog my whole life. All my sisters have too. We would take out library books on dog breeds, buy dog magazines, cut pictures of cute pups out of them, and dream of the day that our parents’ tundra hearts would melt. My mom always had the same response: “I have enough animals in this house already!” It was a killer joke in the Indian mothers’ circle. But I was out of her house now, and what could make my house a home more than a furry foot-warmer to sit with me while I watched Seinfeld reruns?
I typed out my list the same way I had typed out hundreds of lists before it. And, as with every list I had ever made, I wondered how in hell I was going to really achieve any of it.
“Set one new New Year’s resolution for each year until you are done,” my friend Madeleine suggested.
“You know how that goes,” I said. Madeleine and I met in college. We had created a deep friendship based on a mutual love of eating, complaining about our weight, and each year swapping lists of New Year’s resolutions that we had abandoned like clockwork by January 15. I don’t think I had ever achieved one of my New Year’s resolutions. I never learned to do the worm (1988), alphabetized my vhs movie tapes (1994), read every book on the New York Times fiction list (1998), or lost ten pounds (2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006). If I tried to do only one item on the list each year, I would have one foot in a ballet shoe and the other in the grave by the time I got around to them all. There was only one logical solution I could think of – I would have to do them all at once.
This was a bit of a goal-setting stretch for someone who had not achieved the vast majority of goals she set for herself, but if I pulled it off, perhaps I could finally stop looking at the past and move gracefully into the future. Thirty seemed as good an age as any to finish off my youth. And if I had time left at the end, maybe I would learn to do the worm.