I remember receiving my first report from the teachers at secondary school. It came in a thick, green booklet with the school’s logo embossed on the front. My instinct was to turn straight to the maths and science sections because those subjects mattered to my family the most. For South Asian parents like mine, these are often considered the most important subjects and excelling in them is prized above all else.
The importance of doing well was instilled in me from a young age. As I flicked through the pages my heart sank. I read despairing comments – my teachers had “deep concerns” and some of my grades were “low” and “very worrying”.
I read on while my form tutor gave me a pitiful look and sighed. It was a humiliating enough experience for an 11-year-old but, more than anything, I dreaded the reaction I would receive at home when I handed it over.
My parents were pushy about high grades. Maths and science were given special status in my household because they were seen as a clear path to becoming a doctor, banker or engineer (the most coveted careers available in the eyes of South Asian parents like mine because they are deemed prestigious and to offer long-term stability).
There’s another factor too. Such career paths strike envy into distant relatives. In my community, openly talking about your children’s high grades and high-powered job is a way of showing off your success as a parent.
This is well known. There’s a memorable (and in my opinion very funny) moment that captures such British South Asian ideals in the 1999 comedy-drama East is East, which is about a British Pakistani family. Saleem, the middle son, tells his family that he is studying engineering, when in fact he draws nude women for a living.
Young British South Asian women can create our own paths and redefine what success means on our own terms.
At just 11 years old I knew I was expected to pursue one of these traditional, ‘successful’ jobs. Expectations were high and my miserable school reports felt like a reflection of who I was, leaving me constantly ashamed that I couldn’t excel and make my parents proud in the process. I desperately wanted to grasp maths and science but in lessons my mind flitted back and forth. Numbers and equations never made sense to me. All that was on my mind was writing and telling stories. I wanted to do a creative job – to write and make people laugh.
In my community, arts and humanities were considered to be for the white, stuffy middle classes. To study such subjects was seen as indulgent because they had little practical use in the real world. What’s the point in being able to recognise a Botticelli painting or write about feminist literature when you could save lives in a hospital or broker a multimillion-pound merger? Growing up, I saw few British South Asian women represented in the arts. I didn’t feel like I belonged there.
The academic pressure placed on young South Asian people seems, on the surface, to be working if the goal is to get children into these jobs. According to the 2011 census report (the latest large-scale report on demographics in England and Wales), British South Asians predominantly work in fields such as medicine (23%), dentistry (19%), law (14%) and pharmacy (3.2%). According to data from the Office for National Statistics, in 2019 33.2% of British Indians were in ‘professional’ jobs, the highest percentage out of all ethnic groups. For British Pakistanis and British Bangladeshis, that figure was 18.8%.
The need to fulfil these cultural expectations on top of the experience of being from a minority group can take a heavy toll on your mental health. A 2021 survey by YouGov on behalf of the City Mental Health Alliance found that minority ethnic groups such as South Asians are more likely to suffer poor mental health as a result of pressures outside of work.
The children of immigrants may feel the need to honour parents who came to this country with nothing. That pressure cannot be underestimated. My mother and father came to the UK from Sylhet, Bangladesh in the late 1970s in response to the country’s labour shortage at the time. They took a big risk and had to leave everything behind, including their educational achievements and qualifications in their homeland, to start a new life in the UK.
Dr Tina Mistry is a clinical psychologist who draws on her own experiences to support South Asian women with their mental health. She explains that my parents’ experience – like that of so many families who came to Britain – accounts for the pressure I feel to succeed.
“Many people who migrated to the UK came from what may have been socially secure careers but in the UK all of that got stripped away,” she explains. “As a result, they may have had to do menial jobs. Our parents would have wanted us to work really hard at school, go to university and get financially secure jobs that would offer long-term stability that they themselves would not have had.”
I am now 27 years old. I know that as a second generation immigrant there is a constant sense of obligation and duty to your parents as well as an immense pressure to succeed. This is particularly challenging when the definition of success is so rigid.
Experiences like mine are common among South Asian women in the UK. It takes great confidence to go against cultural norms.
Maya is a model and influencer from London in her late 20s. “If I got an A on an assignment my dad would ask why I didn’t get an A*,” she remembers. “I knew they often had high expectations of me and sometimes that felt unreachable.”
Twenty-one-year-old Ramya, a French and marketing student from Neasden in west London, tells me about her experience of applying to university. “When it came to choosing what subject I wanted to study at university, relatives would ask why I wasn’t studying medicine or trying to become a doctor,” she remembers, adding that this intensified when visiting her wider family in India. “I felt a little bit of judgement there when I’d tell people I was studying marketing and French,” she says. “I just eventually told everyone I was studying an MBA, which sounded impressive in the Indian community.”
These pressures can have an impact on young South Asian women’s mental health. Loughton-based realtor Ameena is 26 years old. Her first job out of university was at a leading investment bank. She had worked hard, graduated with a first-class degree and, after several competitive application and interview stages, secured the job.
How do you want to be remembered? In the answer to that question, we see our ultimate ‘whys’ and the rationale behind our motivations in life.
Dr Tina Mistry
“Initially it felt really exciting to be in such a busy and high-powered job,” she says. “Everyone around me was so proud of me and it felt so validating.” However, the long hours were tough. “It was a lot to cope with and I couldn’t handle the constant stress,” she says. “I soon realised I didn’t enjoy my job, and eventually quit.”
Dr Mistry says that such pressure can come at a great cost. She works with a lot of young British South Asian women who are experiencing burnout. “They eventually get exhausted and struggle in the workplace, losing all sense of joy,” she explains. “It’s when they start to unpick all these issues that they see the burning desire to be ‘good enough’ is for others and not for themselves. Something major happens in their life, like a breakup or loss of a job, causing them to ask questions like: ‘Who am I doing this for and why?'”
What does Dr Mistry advise for young British South Asian women who are struggling with these issues? “Firstly, acknowledge the conflict and tension you are feeling within yourself and constantly check in with yourself about how you are feeling,” she says. “Secondly, try to unpack what brings you true happiness. What do you yearn for and find joy in?”
More young women like Maya, Ramya and Ameena are veering away from cultural expectations, taking time out to reassess their careers and finding their true passions in life. It’s always difficult taking that first step but it’s important to understand that outdated cultural ideals shouldn’t determine your choices in life. Your grades and your career do not define you.
“At the beginning of my career there were a lot of comparisons made to my cousins and other relatives who were excelling in ‘traditional’ industries,” Maya adds. “I did initially try out other careers to please my family but I was unhappy and ultimately that gravitated me to what I genuinely wanted.”
These young British South Asian women show us that we can create our own paths to success and redefine what success means on our own terms.
“How do you want to be remembered?” asks Dr Mistry finally, giving me pause for thought. “As the person who has 10 houses and a high-flying job or for something else, and why? In that answer we see our ultimate ‘whys’ and the rationale behind our motivations in life.”
I always knew that my parents’ love for me extended beyond my grades or career choices but I felt like I owed it to them to succeed. Feeling like I had ‘failed’ led to feelings of unworthiness. As a brown Asian girl, it felt wrong to want to do something creative. But taking the time to sit back and reflect on my passions has helped me to land on the career I want and to realise that we are all so much more than what we do for a living.
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