Kamala Devi Harris is the first Indian American, Black American, woman to serve as the vice president of the United States. Who else cried when she was sworn in? Who else felt stronger and empowered in that moment?
In over 20 years of living in America, I don’t think I ever once thought I would see a woman of color, let alone a woman with Indian roots, hold the second-highest office in the United States of America.
The Biden-Harris team seems to be the dose of healing, decency, and respect the country needs right now. Look at the diverse team they are putting together, and the messages they are sending. As an Indian immigrant, as a woman of color, as an outspoken woman, can I tell you how reassuring and safe it feels to see someone who looks like me in the White House?
In one of her interviews, Kamala Harris said, “I eat NO for breakfast.” But who made Kamala Harris who she is today? Where does she find her strength and unapologetic voice?
Kamala Harris has credited much of her success to her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris. “Even as she taught us to keep our family at the center of our world, she also pushed us to see a world beyond ourselves,” Harris said of her mother in one of her interviews.
Indian parents of both first- and second-generation immigrants and parents back in the motherland often get criticized for being “limited” in their support/understanding. For almost every desi stand-up comedian you watch, or any in-person events that you attend, parent jokes are a given. Watch Russell Peters, and you will know what I am talking about. His famous line, “Somebody is gonna get hurt, and it won’t be me,” cracks me up even as I write this piece.
A majority of Indian moms might not have taught their kids about resilience the way Shyamala taught Kamala. They might have been more preoccupied with recipes and keeping the in-laws happy. But it is the same Indian parents who give up their lives and who help out their children when they need them. Most of my Indian friends in America had their parents stay with them for 2-6 months when their kids were born.
When I decided to attend graduate school at Columbia University, both my father and father-in-law offered to pitch in financially. I was both amused and moved by their generosity, because neither of them could afford to pay my tuition. And I am not the type to ask my parents or in-laws to move around their savings to help me with my dream. But just hearing them make the offer made me feel supported.
“My father spent the equivalent of a year’s salary on my plane ticket to the U.S. so I could attend Stanford,” said Sundar Pichai, the chief executive officer of Alphabet Inc. and its subsidiary Google when he addressed students worldwide from his “backyard” during YouTube’s Dear Class of 2020 virtual ceremony. “It was my first time ever on a plane… America was expensive. A phone call back home was more than $2 a minute, and a backpack cost the same as my dad’s monthly salary in India.”
Towards the end of 2020, I found myself immersed in conversations across different races and ethnicities around career, financial abilities, empowerment, food, wellness, and education. In one e-room with fellow wellness practitioners, I found out that I was the only woman in a virtual room of 20 people who grew up eating three hot meals daily. Most others were brought up on a steady diet of meat and potatoes, fast food, or frozen TV dinners. The imbalanced eating habits eventually led to food allergies and then a decline in their overall health and thus began their journey with wellness.
My mother was a homemaker and a really good one too. My love of green veggies and fruits is all credit to her. We ate out one meal a week but everything else was cooked at home. My buas (dad’s sisters) are all PhDs and head of their departments yet they kept fresh meals ready for their families. I just assumed women across the globe, irrespective of whether or not they had a job, made hot meals available to their families daily, multiple times a day. Maybe I didn’t think at all: freshly prepared meals a given in Indian homes. That food is medicine was indoctrinated in so many of us. I had a few friends who were latchkey kids since both their parents worked. But their mothers woke up early and, before leaving for work, cooked breakfast, lunch, and dinner for their families and packed them in containers to keep the food warm.
Do I think it’s a woman’s job to go to work and take care of her family all by herself? God, no! Is it their responsibility to provide for three hot meals and bring in a paycheck? Nope!
What I want to acknowledge is that the Indian woman from my mother’s generation nourished our families without us realizing it. Those who had careers quietly enhanced their family’s financial standing without compromising on what people ate daily or having the children’s PT uniforms not match the school requirements. I would like to honor their labor of love and sacrifice.
When I spoke with one Latina girlfriend, she said many in her community cannot move the poverty needle because they lack family support. Single moms working several jobs don’t always have the time to cook hot meals, pay for best schools, or attend every extracurricular activity. Many kids cannot go to college because of debt or a lack of role models to inspire them to make a better life for themselves. Even in her own family, every kid started to work in their teenage years and was hugely responsible for their individual selves. They grew up too fast.
Not all Indians are or were in happy marriages. Misogyny and patriarchy are deeply embedded in the culture, so I cannot imagine empowerment is the driving force in all relationships. Abuse and gender stereotypes are also just as real. But the majority of families stayed together so that their kids could have a “stable” childhood and can focus on their future. I am not condoning or condemning people’s decision to stick around despite being unhappy—to each their own. All I am saying is that children and their growth has often been the focus for a majority of Indian families – the unsung strength for desi kids. We took it for granted. While our parents made sacrifices to ensure our success, we believed all they wanted to do was control our every movement.
Did you know that Indian Americans are one of the wealthiest minorities in America? Asian Americans in general have the highest educational attainment of any group.
I realize that so much of what we Indian kids took for granted growing up is both a privilege and a gift to have in our lives. Sure, a large majority of desi kids from my generation were told by their parents what to eat, what to wear, whom to date, what career to pursue… Well, you get my drift. They did take care of everything so maybe the entitlement stems from that. But can we overlook the blanket of security most Indian parents provide for their kids without batting an eyelid? Emotional stability. Two-parent homes. Extended family. Financial solidity. Education. Food security. All that, so we could focus on our dreams, lives, and families.
“It’s all in the mind.” ~ George Harrison