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Author Rupinder Gill photographed during an interview about her new book Outside Looking Indian (Fernando MoralesFernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Author Rupinder Gill photographed during an interview about her new book Outside Looking Indian (Fernando MoralesFernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Rupinder Gill grew up 'on the outside looking Indian' Add to ...

If nothing else, Rupinder Gill's childhood Who's the Boss? and Full House marathons taught her what kids in North America do. What were normal activities for her classmates - swimming lessons, sleepovers, going to Disney World - were remote fantasies for Ms. Gill, who was raised by strict Indian parents in the middle of predominantly white Kitchener, Ont.

When she turned 30, she vowed to make up for lost time. She went camping, learned to swim and made a better-late-than-never pilgrimage to the Magic Kingdom. However, as she recounts in On the Outside Looking Indian: How My Second Childhood Changed my Life, when she took a second swing at childhood she also made adjustments to her adult life - including quitting a comfortable but unfulfilling job as a publicist.

She discussed her reclaimed childhood and new-found perspective with The Globe and Mail.

What were the biggest things you felt you were missing out on as a child?

I think the social interaction was a big thing. Especially in high school, it becomes very obvious who does not go out. On the Monday they'd all talk about what they were doing and I'd have so many excuses - the main one was a cousin's birthday. Once, one of my friends said that they were going to get a calendar and write all my cousins' birthdays in and see if they'd match up the next year. And they wouldn't. That was the worst. I thought I was covering it and people weren't noticing it. I'd just sit silently when they talked about what they'd done.

You talk a lot about how you didn't have any Indian friends growing up. Do you think that would've made a difference to the sense that you were being deprived?

Absolutely. I really do wish I'd had that. I feel like they're the only other people who can understand. Had I had another Indian friend, I'd have been allowed to go to her house and I would've been allowed to then have the sleepover. We would've done stuff. I would've had a more rounded social life. And the other people were just white. They were going to "corrupt" me.

When you went to New York you ended up meeting your first Indian friend there. What did that change for you?

I'm realizing that I need more perspective as an adult on my culture because so much of my ideas are from kind of, I guess, trying to have nothing to do with it as a kid because it was the reason I couldn't go out. It was kind of embarrassing because my parents were different. As an adult, I want to have my own relationship with it. I plan to go by myself in the next year to India, which really does scare me a bit.

You had these bigger goals, like learning how to swim, but you also had a couple of things left over from childhood - things that are very kid-centric, like going to Disney World, having sleepovers. Tell me about that, trying to do these things at 30.

I'm really happy I learned how to swim. But some of the things, I had to realize you can't really relive those. Like when my sister and I went to Disney World we really did stand out. Every other kid was dressed either as Buzz Lightyear or one of the princesses, in these elaborate costumes, and going to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo salon to get their hair done. And we were just these women who were there squeezing onto a Dumbo trying to have this experience. It's a beautiful place and I'm happy I saw it, but I think that sometimes you have to get over things.

You know, as much as I felt somewhat deprived of my childhood, I'm a lot luckier than a lot of kids were. I'm sure a lot of kids have much bigger lists and had actually tough lives. I didn't have a tough life. I feel like Disney World really made me realize that. The sleepovers - same thing. I looked and there were these women who were 30-plus. You know, it's not junk food time any more when you're over 30, so we'd all ordered from Fresh (a Toronto vegetarian restaurant) these vegan meals. Enough's enough. I will leave that one as a "not done."

Were there any goals or dreams that you pursued where you thought, "Even if I'm not enjoying this as much as I want to, I need to stick to it," because you'd almost bigged it up so much?

Oh yeah. I wondered if as a kid I would've just been like, "Okay, thanks" after lesson one. In a way I do see why my parents didn't sign us up for everything. When they did sign my brother up for things, we were sweltering in the sun in August and he would be so bored at the soccer and not wanting to be there. I made myself stick out everything for at least the length of the lessons and whatnot to give it a go.

When it comes to things you didn't do as a kid, you had culture and parents to explain some of that. But what do you think was holding you back as an adult from the bigger goals related to your career?

I think you just paint a picture of your life as a kid that's so simplistic, and then you think: "By this age I'll have done this. I'll have a big house at 32." Then you move to Toronto, and those things aren't going to happen and so you sort of set a more realistic set of goals for yourself. I started asking myself, too, how important those things were instead of some of the bigger goals. For me, doing something that's actually fulfilling to me matters a lot more than a lot of other things. As much as I was adjusting those goals from the things I wanted to do when I was a kid - like realizing Disney World's not important - I was readjusting my goals as an adult too. I'm more go-with-the-flow instead of the general Indian way of pre-planning your life on a graph and then inputting it into the computer and living this life that's so strategically done.

You say that's a very anti-Indian way of thinking. You talk about how this idea of pursuing your dreams was very, in some ways, selfish. Did you feel guilt about how your parents would see all of this?

There's no excuse to quit your job if you're an Indian. When I was a kid I wondered, "Why couldn't I do these things?" And then I realized how hard it must have been for my parents with four kids and being new to the country themselves, struggling to make ends meet, and then five kids eventually. Never once in their lives would they be able to pause and say, "Is this the life I want? Is there anything more I want? Is there something I should be doing?" It is indulgent that I have the luxury of doing that when my parents never did.



This interview has been edited and condensed.

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