The garden of forking paths

Published: April 29, 2013
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I watched as the clock hands lazily moved, or were they even moving? I shifted uneasily in my seat, trying to focus on the black demand curve in front of me, contrasting starkly with the white of the board. My eyes were subconsciously drawn to the swaying trees and the blue sky that I could barely catch a glimpse of and for a second I was tempted to grab my paints and a blank canvas and make a run for the hills… for an island… even for nowhere, assuming that the horrible ‘D’ curve in front of me did not follow suit.

Ever since childhood, I had longed to be an artist, a painter, a creator. But my mother had insisted I study medicine instead. She wanted her daughter to be a ‘doctor’ and from thereon started an endless journey, with me compromising on my dreams and my mother not compromising on hers, to put it simply.

This is not an uncommon scenario, and seems to be ingrained in Asian cultures, with children always being expected to give in to their parents’ wishes about a career that they may well have to live with for their entire lives. This is somehow more binding for daughters than sons. Women are more than often, encouraged or rather expected to enter professions related to fashion or home design, with the underlying assumption that business or anything related to business or math or even machines is for boys. Moreover, in our society, the concept of marriage ultimately being the purpose of a girl’s existence often makes following certain career choices ‘meaningless.’  Yusra, a brilliant girl who ended up becoming a financial analyst at a big multinational, commented, “I wanted to be a doctor but my mother was quite against me entering that profession.” Having had the chance to speak to her mother, I asked her why she stopped her daughter from pursuing such a noble profession. She answered, “Medicine involves way too many years of studying and I wanted Yusra married off at a decent age. If she had been in the field, it would have been unreasonable to ask her to drop out then.”

Yusra is, however, not alone in this dilemma. Anum, a business graduate, also nurtured the dream of becoming a doctor but eventually had to forgo the idea. When asked about her change of plans, she responded, “There were two reasons: first it’s a never-ending degree and causes problems while looking for proposals. The risk is high because by the time the girl does become a doctor, the so-called “marriageable age” has passed. Secondly, my brother needed some sort of guidance with a business degree so my mother insisted I enter this profession.”

Despite having liberal and educated parents, most children who want to pursue non-conventional professional fields face numerous hurdles and eventually resign to their fate. The traditional mindset of ‘my child is a doctor, engineer or a lawyer’ has smothered any enthusiasm to think beyond these conventional professions. Why is being an artist so strange? Why can’t your daughter be a pilot or your son be a fashion designer if that is what they are passionate about?

Rehan, a Pakistani-American, says, “As I was growing up, my mother stressed how much she would like to see me pursue a career in medicine. In her mind, doctors had the best of all professions because of the respect they had in society and the comfortable lifestyles they were able to afford.” He further adds, “Every time I showed interest in other fields of study, my mother would strongly discourage me and make me feel guilty for not wanting to live up to her wishes. She would constantly remind me of how her mother (my nani) pushed her brother (my mamu) to become a doctor even though my mamu ended up hating his mother for many years — but after all was said and done, and my mamu was an established physician, he learned to love his job and praise his mother for pushing him into it. This example may hold true for my mamu, but I swear it doesn’t always end this way.”

Also, our society seems to have carved a fine line between what professions are suitable for which gender. A boy wanting to be artistic is looked down upon and a girl who says she wants to be a professional car-racer would probably attract more than just a few odd looks. Scientifically, are men and women made to be better at different things? Maybe. But despite that, we see hundreds of examples the world over, of people doing things that others haven’t done before, of men being the best chefs and women being great at math. The wave of change has risen, so why are we still fighting it? The concept of a liberal arts education was unheard of a decade ago in Pakistan but it is now slowly creeping its way through. The traditional mindset looks upon liberal arts as a field that does not have the potential to provide a concrete career or a good job, but what’s a society without journalists, anthropologists and historians?

There’s a similar misconception about tech professions like computer science being only for geeks. Another misperception being that the programming industry is male-dominated and should remain as such. This field requires good logic and analytical skills along with a passion to solve problems, break codes and be good at math. Noor-ul-Ain, an android developer for a software house said, “I switched my field because I realized programming was what I really wanted to do. I love solving problems and seeing a code materialise in front of me feels great.” Asna Khan, another software programmer commented, “My dad wanted me to be a doctor but I knew I wanted to be a programmer. I’ve always loved math and problem-solving; I don’t regret the decision I made and I love going to work every single day.”

A student of IBA, Institute of Business Administration, Karachi, who wishes to remain anonymous, was pushed into going to a business school despite her desire to enter the field of performing arts and music. Result? She couldn’t wait to get done with school so she could finally become independent and do what she wanted to. “My message to parents all over, especially those in Pakistan, is that they should not rush their kids into growing up; and that is what it’s all about,” she says. “Parents push their children from a very young age, be it something along the lines of ‘I got my daughter/son admitted into school at the age of 2.5 years (I win!!)!’ or ‘My son goes to LUMS’ or ‘My daughter is already done with her MBA and she is only 24!’ If your child does not know what to do after O/A Levels, Matriculation/Intermediate etc, encourage them to take a year off, work (on anything, be it for a newspaper, or as an artist’s assistant, or as a teacher for junior students, or try and set up their own small business, so they may develop meaningful skills), save some money for their next step in the journey called life. Encourage your children. Love them for who they are. Do not push them beyond only what you can comprehend of them and do not make their decisions for them.”

The Asian culture somehow makes it a duty of the children to allow their parents to decide for them. This mind-set has ruined many lives and will continue doing so unless parents learn to understand that they should love their children for who they are and what they want. All taboos regarding fresh professions should be broken; children should be allowed to explore and do what they like to do, not what they have to do just to please society. Parents also tend to push their children towards professions that they believe are lucrative without understanding that market dynamics keep changing and being in a certain profession does not guarantee an ‘x’ amount of annual income. A number of other factors come into play such as the university, the individual’s aptitude and unique skill set, the market at the time and of course, luck. Parents should not expect their child to excel in a profession that they did not want to be in, in the first place. Instead of pushing your children to be in careers that don’t appeal to them and have them be mediocre at it, it is better to let them utilize their talent and aptitude in a field that they think they belong in. This way, they will be the best in their respective field and both respect and money will eventually follow.

So let your children do what they love, support them and watch them shine!  Like Confucius said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” 

Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, April 28th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (1)

  • Parvez
    May 1, 2013 - 2:15PM

    Nicely written and very true……………there should be a way to accomodate both sides but only a few manage to do that.

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