Navigating Familial Expectations as a Young South Asian

By Anisha Hassan ’21

As soon as I graduated, my inboxes started flooding with congratulatory messages showering me with love, asking me what my GPA was, and what my future plans were. As a South Asian, I am familiar with these messages, but it never gets easier to feel a pang of guilt that you have not done enough, that your GPA is not high enough, or that you should already know what you want to do with your life.

Our family’s expectations and approval heavily influence our choice of major and career path and, more importantly, our mental health. The pressure is often amplified in different cultural communities such as immigrant households. We may feel trapped when our career ambitions do not align with our family’s expectations. A classic example is the pre-med freshman who realizes they dislike medicine but is hesitant to pursue their real interest (I only told my parents I was not going to pursue medical school three months before graduating). This intense pressure coupled with our own desires of wanting to be perfect can detrimentally affect our mental health. There is no easy way to navigate our families’ expectations and constant questioning, but we can try to prepare ourselves for these conversations. 

This is easier said than done, but I always remind myself that in the end, it is me who has to do a job or must study in graduate school. If I force myself into a career or path that is soul draining, neither I nor my family will be happy. Sometimes, our career ambition of living up to our families’ dreams is so ingrained in our identity that we can experience identity dissonance when diverging from this path. When family members are constantly asking difficult questions, it is okay to politely tell them that you would rather not be asked or, in my case, I just tell them I am still exploring my options.

On the other side of this is trying to explain to my western friends why I give my family’s opinion so much importance and how my culture plays such as big role in my self-expectations and my life choices. For many South Asians, they study what their family wants them to study and they do the jobs their parents or family members have done.

For me, navigating both of sides of myself, one side wanting independence but the other wanting to please my parents, has been difficult. Bridging the cultural divide, and having conversations surrounding career, money, and my own desires has not been easy or even a daily thing. I had to be both confident in my own resolve and patient with my parents who come from a different generation and culture with very different parameters of success. For them, success is having a stable 9 to 5 job and being able to save for the future. As for me, I am still defining what success looks like. I am still trying to find a middle ground to this. I can both explore my own career path and identity while giving my parents a sense of stability that they and many immigrant parents did not have raising us.

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