Pursuing Their Passion
Right when the world was on the verge of seeing more South Asians in diverse occupations, Parminder Nagra had to trade in her Bend it Like Beckham soccer jersey for those staid scrubs she dons as a physician on ER. I can just see the collective nod of approval emanating from desi households everywhere.
Joking aside, it’s no surprise that desis in America have an almost fetishistic obsession with safe careers like medicine, law, and engineering. Some desis, however, are heading away from the surgery table and towards the wine cellars, art studios, negotiating tables, and opera houses of America. They’re straying from the safer professions of their parents’ generation and attempting to flourish on their own terms.
Desis have always had a diverse range of jobs. The first South Asians who immigrated to America had what we would consider “non-traditional” careers. They were laborers and farmers. In fact, several desis today have very eclectic jobs; they drive cabs and own motels in the heartland of America. So what gives?
The second wave of immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s set the tradition, so to speak. With relaxed immigration standards and a demand for professional labor, America beckoned the doctors, programmers, accountants, and engineers from South Asia.
South Asian doctors, engineers, and programmers are the immigrants conservatives (and often desis themselves) laud as inheritors of the American dream, exemplars of how hard work leads to success in this land of milk and honey.
And here is where our story begins: what happens when these “confused desis” want to stray from the gilded path? We interviewed four young South Asian-Americans who hold a range of eclectic positions—a sommelier, labor organizer, opera singer, and a group of comic strip writers. We asked them why and how they chose their respective fields, and how they posited their personal happiness against the pressures of family and community. Some had to face their families, others had nothing but support. Some are struggling to pay the bills, while others possess degrees from prestigious universities and come from well-off families. And some are still dealing with the guilt and pain borne of their parents’ suburban dreams.
(A caveat: although the term “non-traditional” connotes something bohemian, most of our subjects are middle-class or upwardly-mobile. In other words, they’re not mechanics.)
Alpana Singh is a darling of the media in Chicago, where she lives and works as a sommelier, someone who manages an extensive wine list, usually at restaurants, and helps diners select wines to complement their meals. As the first South Asian woman to be inducted into the Court of Master Sommeliers—which requires a tripartite test with a pass rate of 3 percent—she has reached almost diva-like status. But she is quick to counter that image.
“I wouldn’t consider myself flashy by any means,” says Singh, who works at Everest, a high-end restaurant in Chicago’s financial district. Her parents immigrated to America from the Fiji Islands, and reside near a military base in Monterey, Calif., where she was born. Her parents also work in the restaurant industry, but at the lower end of it, where the sheen isn’t so lustrous.
“I saw my parents work to the bone to make ends meet,” she says, aware of the well-earned irony of her recent fame. “You really understand you’re not supposed to be there. It’s like the scene in Titanic when Leo DiCaprio is drinking the champagne. He probably enjoyed it more than anyone else did.”
Singh also enjoyed a healthy dose of luck. While waiting tables at a restaurant in Monterey, trying to earn money for college, she met a man who was studying to become a master sommelier. This led to various jobs in the retail end of the business, and in February of 2000 she met her current employer and moved to Chicago. Three years later she passed the master sommelier exam after two failed attempts.
Her parents’ reaction to her success was somewhere between movie-like shock and the more realistic confusion about what exactly she was doing. “They were very hesitant at first because they didn’t understand it, the magnitude of what it meant,” she says. “Once they realized it was a very well-respected profession, almost glamorous … with Indian parents, as long as everyone else thinks you’re okay, they’re okay. Every Indian child grows up with the question, ‘What will other people think?’” Or in Singh’s case, “Will people think my daughter is a drunk?”
Her parents weren’t the only ones surprised that a working-class Indian girl from California would enter this “James Bond”-like profession. “I would not have gotten the attention I have if I wasn’t Indian,” she says, adding that “it would’ve been different” if she had blonde hair and blue eyes.
In fact, her gastronomic background, combined with the novelty of her identity, helped her land a job as the moderator of the restaurant review show Check Please on the PBS syndicate in Chicago. Singh replaced Wolfgang Puck’s ex-sister-in-law, a perky blonde, because the show’s producer wanted to avoid a situation where “if you changed the channel you didn’t know you were watching a different host. Asian was something he had in mind,” she says.
Still, being South Asian isn’t the only factor that complicates going into a field with a dearth of desis, or people of color for that matter. Singh is one of only 12 women out of the 115 master sommeliers worldwide. “More situations arise with guests because I’m a woman rather than because I’m Indian,” she says.
You may see a lot more of her soon as she is developing a pilot for the Food Network, as well as a radio show on wine for a classical music station in Chicago. “I want to become the Indian Martha Stewart of wine,” she says. Are you sure, Alpana? “Or maybe the next Indian Oprah,” she declares, laughing.
Rahul Varshney was destined to become the Bill Gates of computer programming—or so he thought. “In high school, during the dot-com phase, the idea was that in four years we will all be programmers, start our own businesses, and be millionaires by 30,” says Varshney, a San Jose native who now works in Los Angeles as a labor organizer. “At that time, I didn’t explore anything else.”
Varshney lived a somewhat charmed suburban existence, growing up with kids who knew what they were going to do in life and didn’t have to struggle much to get there. “I had a lot of desi friends in high school,” he says. “We were just a bunch of dorks who could joke with each other.”
The pressures to succeed, however, were exacerbated when high school was ending and it was time to make a legitimate decision about the future. Varshney’s father, an importer-exporter who has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and sold a patent to Samsung, put a premium value on his son attending a top-notch college.
“‘If you don’t get into a top-25 school, you might as well not go,’” he remembers his father saying. “I laughed it off. My acceptance to UCLA was a sign of relief, that this is good enough.”
Varshney entered UCLA as a computer science and engineering major, one of the hardest majors at the school. This wasn’t lost on him or his friends, who he admits had an “arrogant nature” about it because of its difficulty.
“Engineering? Everyone hated it,” he says. They even rolled their eyes at pre-med majors, because “that’s all flashcards,” he says, half-jokingly.
Still, Varshney is a sensitive soul, since he seemed to be affected by the world around him in ways that many of his peers weren’t. During one winter vacation, Varshney’s views of suburban stability fell apart; the center no longer held.
During a trip to India in December 1999, Varshney’s father fell sick with bronchitis and pneumonia. Disoriented and weak, he went back to California with his son to recover. Varshney had to return to Los Angeles for the next term, leaving his father on his own for two weeks.
“In two weeks, he had cabin fever and he began to feel a certain mortality about his life,” Varshney recalls. “My father took on more importance that I was going to be his legacy.”
“He was unhappy,” he continues. “It was a logical equation in high school—money was going to bring us happiness by the time we were 30 and millionaires. Well, my dad has a BMW, and he’s not happy. I pledged to myself that I was going to do whatever it took to be happy. Money was not the end goal anymore.”
This led to Varshney’s own depression between sophomore and junior years, the “summer of nothing,” which he feels resulted from a certain agitation about his future.
Varshney increasingly became attuned to social change. Always a liberal, his views on social progress flipped from a top-down perspective (make a million dollars and then help society) to a bottom up, grassroots view. In May 2002 he attended a three-day labor-organizing institute sponsored by the AFL-CIO, and for the first time, “everything felt real.” Things also began to change at home.
“During the organizing institute, my dad called and asked what I was doing. And because I cared, I laid it out,” he says. “Unexpectedly, my dad said, ‘You want to help the poor. We’re proud of you.’ I’d never heard that in high school or college. I slept so well that night.”
After a stint as an organizer in Toronto, where he was placed because he speaks some Hindi, Varshney landed his current position with the Service Employees International Union, local 399. He works 60 to 90 hours a week helping workers form unions. “We’re bringing democracy to workers, and empowering them to earn dignity and responsibility on the job,” he says.
Varshney is one of the most difficult people to get on the phone, considering how many hours he works. He says a 50-year-old South Asian labor activist he befriended in Toronto, Iqbal Sambal, influenced his work ethic. Sambal told him that it’s “easy to leave” the labor movement, much more difficult to “stay and fight back.”
Though Varshney is comfortable in his position day-to-day, he says there are few South Asian role models to look up to in the labor movement. He is the only South Asian working with the local 399.
“I could look up to Iqbal,” he says. “Here, retention would be higher if there was more diversity in positions of leadership. I can’t look to anyone and think, ‘That’s me.’”
Sharmila Daniel, a freelance singer in New York, sometimes feels the same way. “Why do I miss being around South Asians? Why do I miss being around South Asians?” she asks herself. “Because I am South Asian and I like seeing people who look like me. It’s hard to explain. We’re such a large part of the world. If you look at any hospital, every second doctor is Indian—that’s always comforting to me.”
Born in Malaysia to a Tamil Christian mother and Hindu father, Daniel now lives in Brooklyn, where she regularly sends out recordings of herself and auditions for opera and other singing roles. She teaches music to pay the bills.
Daniel is a lyric soprano, which is akin to a young woman’s voice. She also sings old-fashioned Broadway-style melodies like “Kiss Me Kate.” Daniel first dabbled in singing while attending church as an adolescent, and became more serious about it in college in Pennsylvania. Singing, she says, was never considered a career option because of her strict Christian upbringing.
“You are supposed to do something useful for God,” she says. “Singing is considered self-indulgent. And with being Asian, you’re coached to grow up to be professional—a medical degree, or at the very least, a teaching degree.”
Daniel broke with the fundamental Christian tradition in college, shocking her mother. Her mother, who Daniel says now supports her career, was consequently prepared for more surprises, like her decision to pursue a singing career in America.
“Growing up I got no support at all,” she says. “[My mother] doesn’t go out of her way to hear me sing, but if she’s around, she’ll attend. But opera really just lulls her into a really great sleep.”
For Daniel and others, growing up outside the mainstream Indian Hindu community prepared her for life on the fringes.
“I do feel alone, sometimes,” she says, “I never feel like I’m Indian enough, and if I’m Indian, I’ve been possessed by Western spirits.”
With long black hair and brown skin, Daniel says stage directors often don’t know what to do with her. Is she Latina? Maybe a gypsy? But she is noticing subtle shifts in the opera and Broadway communities in terms of typecasting. Baz Luhrman, for example, cast a Chinese-American woman who studies with Daniel as the lead role of Mimi in his production of La Boheme, exciting and raising hopes for Daniel’s Asian-American vocal students. As a South Asian in the field, she remains optimistic about future opportunities, but can’t really get a good idea of where she stands because of the community’s hushed nature.
“The opera community is like its own mafia; it’s hard to get information about what directors think of us,” she says. “No one wants to be held to something.” Daniel said one of her strategies for the upcoming season is to exercise her few South Asian contacts in the field.
“One of my projects is to become friends with Zubin Mehta,” she says, half-jokingly. The acclaimed conductor, she says, helped an Indian-American singer land a job by simply recommending him to a director. “It’s an interesting thing to hear somebody who’s from India who had some interest in promoting the careers of South Asians,” she says.
Daniel says this in an almost incredulous tone, as if the idea of South Asians helping each other out is unheard of. And to an extent, it is. Because there are few South Asians in many professions, it’s hard to get an “in” using identity. Daniel says she hardly sees any desis in the audience when she performs. “I invite people to things, and they often just don’t come,” she says. “Because, yeah, it’s opera. ‘Can’t you sing something more popular?’ is the usual desi response.”
Daniel, however, is not bitter. In fact, she often wishes she went to medical school because she thinks she would be good at it, and being a freelance singer is “the most financially irresponsible thing.” She carries both her parents’ views of happiness (financial security) and her own with ease, and doesn’t fashion herself as a contrarian for the sake of image.
With plans to get married next October, positive feedback from her coaches and directors, and hopes to one day headline at an A-level performance house, Daniel is giddy about the future, even sounding a bit guilty about forging her own happiness. “It’s supremely self-indulgent,” she says, “but I do it because it feels good, it’s a rush.”
There is a common belief that pursuing a non-traditional career necessitates turning away from the South Asian community a la Bend it Like Beckham. But Badmash (badmash.org), a weekly comic strip about South Asian-Americans, was “inspired mainly by our love for them brown folk,” says Sandeep Sood, one of the three masterminds behind the series.
Badmash is a mix of political and social satire, targeting everything from Bobby Jindal’s gubernatorial candidacy to idiosyncratic chai obsessions to modern-day Orientalists to, yes, non-traditional careers. It’s a world of sly grannies, competitive mothers, dads who wear IBM shirts to the beach, and politically-agitated 20-somethings. It’s a labor of love; Badmash clearly adores its characters.
Its modus operandi is irony, poured on thick. The series has a definite left-wing slant, although no one is spared from their smart-aleck nature (“Don’t be fooled, I’m definitely answering them tongue-in-cheek. That’s our interview style, I hope your editors don’t sweat it,” Sanjay Shah, another Badmash founder, informs me of the questions I pose to him.)
But the guys behind Badmash—Shah, Sood and Nimesh Patel—are serious about their image, evidenced by the one-liners they pile on during interviews, some of which—like the comic strips themselves—are funnier than others. (“How did you land in your current field of employment?” “Softly.”) They are attentive to how they market themselves, because they just may be onto something. In conjunction with Badmash, they are developing a multimedia marketing firm and production house called Mahoot Media (mahootmedia.com), which, among other things, focuses on niche marketing to South Asian-Americans.
Sood, Shah, and Patel attended prestigious universities and have held traditional, 9-to-5 positions in the past. Patel, for example, went to Wharton and was a strategy consultant for American Express. “Cool learning experience,” he says, but “don’t think I could go back.”
Shah, however, says there is nothing unconventional about comic-strip writing.
“I am involved with the tradition of political satire and comedy,” he says. “It don’t get much more traditional. And what the hell is steady, anyway? More of my IT and lawyer friends are out of work than my artist friends.”
Badmash works because it speaks to second-generation desis, and goes beyond the “who am I?” identity struggles recycled every week in your typical Indian-American newspaper youth section. It will affectionately jeer at things we grew up with and were embarrassed by, but are now somehow cool, like the typical Indian family party. “Uncles, aunties, drunk crazy uncles that want to hang with the kids … those are still the best parties, hands down,” Patel says.
Badmash originated in e-mails the guys would write each other at work in he said/she said format about their weekends. “We soon realized that, by starting a comic, we could help thousands of people procrastinate doing their work as well!” Sood says.
Creating Badmash meant taking a pay cut, and the team has had a challenge seeing short-term financial results. “Maybe if this world was based on a bartering system, everything would be cool,” Patel says. “We’d give them comics and they’d give us food, love and shelter.”
Still, he says that they have different criteria for happiness than their parents. Money is essential in his happiness equation, but its place is inverted. “We start on the happiness side hoping to push to find a way to make money.” A smaller paycheck is the price to pay for pursuing their passion, and their cause hasn’t gone unnoticed. Sood says they have been “overwhelmed” by the positive response to Badmash, and that sort of human feedback keeps them going.
Though the crew has received ample support from friends and family, Shah quips that Indians are “very supportive … once you succeed!” Others expressed similar sentiments—that it’s easier to pursue an “experimental” career if you’re rising to the top. If you fail, your chosen field is suddenly to blame, and you’re bound to receive a fair share of “I told you sos.”
So the Badmash crew persists, remaining busy, sleep-deprived, and stubbly. Future projects include a series of short films, which they are seeking funding for, and a symbolic “Amitabh Bachchan for President” campaign to “take America back from the gundas,” Sood says.
The Big B in the White House? Seems like a Bend it Like Badmash is in order.
Anand Shah is a recent graduate of UCLA.