Any success story will tell you that the supporting cast is as important as the leads. Be it film production (the most literal analogy) where hundreds of supporting cast and crew function in the background to make cine-magic happen or corporations where the leadership is held aloft by an ably trained and managed work force. In the case of individuals, several popular sayings exist, such as “Behind any successful man/woman, there is a successful man/woman.” In today’s times, when a large part of the young Indian workforce emigrates to the western world in search of career opportunities and wealth, the supporting cast comes clearly into view. I am referring to obviously – parents and spouse. Each having their own roles to play, let me shine light upon the parental crew first.
This was the generation of Indian parents who sacrificed their comforts and faced restrictions of a semi-socialist, closed economy to uplift their economic standards to form the largest middle/upper-middle class in history. Indian middle-class, comprised largely of such hard working folks forms the foundations of a society that is deeply entrenched in a conflict of tradition, culture and modernity and placed the burden of its progress solely on education. Education proved to be its salvation and millions of youngsters flew out to seek greener pastures, higher education, improved standard of living and wealth. Owing to our rigorous education system (debatable and is a lot more nuanced than this simple description) and various other societal pressures, a large number of Indians found their education and skills desirable and functional in the western world. With fear in their heart, hopes and dreams in their eyes, hundreds of parents hid their tears as they waved goodbyes to their wards from airports all over the country.
Fast-forward a few years and now their children have settled into their new lives, owning homes, driving fast cars, working for big companies and earning comfortably enough to be well within the upper echelons of the western world as well. They now invite parents to spend time with them in their new surroundings and experience the life they have built. Parents fly in willingly, to experience the joys and fruits of their hard word and persistence. Vistas or places heard about in books, news reports and mentioned once by the very rich, are now within reach. The parents also get to partake in a version of the ‘American Dream’.
Once the initial joys of visiting and experiencing the USA dies down (maybe in 2-3 trips spread across many years), the finer nuances of living in the US come to the fore. American culture is a far-cry from the very-involved, familial and interwoven communities existing in all societies that have evolved from ancient civilizations – Oriental, Arab, Persian, Greek and of course Indian. Loneliness raises its ugly head as parents, left alone after their children,children-in-law are off to work and grand kids are away at school, face an excruciating 6-8 hours of being alone, in an alien land, far away from their stomping grounds. Faced with responsibilities of mundane tasks such as cooking, cleaning or babysitting, without the freedom of their own place, the mind begins to rot. Now before you go all nuclear on me by quoting exceptions of how parents are now very well adapted to this life – driving, shopping, heading to temples and trying to form their own mini-circles, I speak for a large part of the population that still hesitates to call this place their own. Children rely on their parents restarting their life in a way to help them out with babysitting, childcare, cooking and raising grand children while they are away slaving away in cubicles night and day. Now, Indian culture is very accustomed to having grandparents be very involved in these activities, but bringing them across the seven seas to do it seems a tad exploitative to me .
Even though most Indians who make it here are proficient in English, their parents might not be. They often struggle to deal with the heavy accent (having watched none of the sitcoms or heard the music that their kids did), battle nerves as they go behind the wheel and deal with fast-moving traffic as they never have back home or when they live in suburbia in the states, feel trapped by the lack of accessible shops or things to do. They have to ask the children to drive them everywhere and depend on the weekend for a chance to break out of the routine and do something fun. It feels like entrapment for someone used to his/her own freedom in the comforts of their own people and land – bouts of anger, frustration and irritation begin to appear among both the parents and their wards. They feel disconnected with friends and family back home due to the time-difference and general lack of internet awareness. Did I mention that this is the generation where millions struggle with the tech revolution and fumble with buttons trying to see faces of their children/family/loved-ones once a week? Yupp/Sling TV and the occasional ride to the mall to watch that Indian movie becomes their sole connection to a life on hold. Purchasing power, where your hard earned money is downgraded in terms of value and your children buy things for you might also feel wrong for someone who has led a life of self-sufficiency and has saved enough to live the life of their dreams back home. Forming a social circle of parents has a huge initiation barrier and feels forced upon for want of other alternatives. Imagine, if you work your whole life expecting to retire comfortably, meet long-lost relatives and friends who have been left behind in the hustle-bustle of life and enjoy the joys of being with your grand children and being able to pamper them with goodies and treats on your own terms but suddenly being denied all of it. Most parents I know, contemplate never returning for the aforementioned reasons.
My point here is that, we, the first generation immigrants here are an entitled bunch. We rode on the sacrifices of our parents in India. They willingly led carefully planned lives, skimping on extravagant vacations and material comforts for themselves but built their lives around educational (best schools, coaching, sports lessons), cultural opportunities for us (dance classes, music lessons) and opened doors for our careers and encouraged us to live our dreams. With heavy hearts, they accepted our decision to live thousands of miles away and were content with annual or bi-annual short vacations to meet us in person. Sadly, that wasn’t enough for us. They continue to sacrifice their retired dreams and lock the lives they have painstakingly built for months on end, for us to continue living ours. They transform themselves into cooks, baby sitters, drivers so our lives can go uninterrupted and we enjoy the best of both worlds. Next time, spare a thought for their sacrifices, for this supporting cast will never dare complain.