Harpreet Kaur Natt graduated from Ryerson in the spring, and starts law school later this fall.
It’s been two months since I completed my master’s degree in English. Toward the end of the program, my fellow graduates and I were asking ourselves and one another the big question: What next? Many of my colleagues had decided to take a well-deserved break from studying. Some of them were looking forward to starting their careers. But me? I decided to sign up for law school.
One student’s response to my decision highlighted the incredulity some people felt at my choice. “Seriously? But don’t you need a break? I would never be able to study for three more years. I’m just going to get a job after this masters and I’ll be good.”
See, the problem is that I don’t just want a job. I want something more.
Both of my parents were born and raised in Punjab, India. In their late teens, they left their homes to try and create better lives for themselves. They got married in Los Angeles and eventually moved to Toronto in the early nineties. And they made it. Somehow and some way, they figured out how to succeed. I can’t remember the exact struggles they faced before their success – the apartments without air conditioning, the night-shifts at Pizza Pizza and the driving around in a car that was falling apart – but I’ve heard about them ever since I started asking questions.
But what did their struggle mean for me exactly? Never once did my parents put any direct pressure on me to be a perfect child, but I felt like I needed to be – I felt like I owed them this. I wanted to make their struggle worth it. All throughout my school years, I focused on the things that I lacked and my “imperfections.” A 95% final grade was not good enough. Coming in second place on the honour roll was unacceptable.
Now, I know you think you know this storyline. The child of immigrants sacrifices his or her dreams to follow those of their parents. But, even though some elements may be similar, that’s not my story. It’s more complicated than people make it out to be. Even though my parents will be delighted if and when I finally have a professional title, something they were never in a position to earn, they never pressured me into taking a certain career path.
Maybe in another world, under a different set of circumstances, where my parents hadn’t been forced to give up their professional dreams, other interests of mine would come before law school, but for now, a professional title is the one thing I can give my parents that they didn’t have for themselves.
Some people might see this as me putting their happiness above mine, but I don’t think it’s that clear-cut. Making them happy will make me happy, too, at least to some degree.
But there will always be people who doubt the choice I’ve made. How could I follow through with something unless it was 100-per-cent my decision? I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Sometimes happiness comes from less obvious sources.
In about a month’s time, I’ll be walking down the stage to receive my master’s degree. I’ll be the first person from my family, including my extended family, to have this credential.
But I don’t feel like it’s enough. A master's degree is not equivalent to the struggles of my parents. But what is? I don't think I know. My struggle doesn't need to be equal to theirs, I guess, but I feel like it needs to be.
Whenever I’ve complained about school or about being stressed I usually hear the same story from my father. "When I was younger I wanted to study, but I couldn’t,” he’ll say. “I didn’t get the chance to. Someone had to take care of the family. Someone had to go out and work.” My father was the second child and eldest son of five siblings. His daily responsibilities included running the small family-owned farm and taking care of the family. Though he attended the community college that was near his house, the goal was never to get a diploma or a degree, but to find a way to settle in a country that was safe to raise a family and where it would be possible to thrive financially. “You don’t have to make that choice,” he’ll continue. “All you have to do is study. It’s so much easier for you guys. Just focus on school. You don’t even have to worry about anything else.”
I wish it was that simple, though. It's not just worrying about school, although that is a lot. I’m worried about vindicating my dad’s sacrifices. I’m worried about justifying my parents’ move to a new land. These thoughts weigh me down sometimes; it often seems as though I will never be able to do enough to repay my parents.
At some point during the period when my acceptances and rejections were rolling in, my mother and I were sitting in the living room together. I looked up at her from my laptop and told her that I had just gotten accepted to another university. She smiled and said that was great. I told her that I couldn’t believe this was happening – that even though I had said multiple times in the past that I would probably go to law school, somehow I never imagined I would actually end up going. “Aren’t you happy?” I asked. She looked up from the pamphlet she was reading. “Yes, why wouldn’t I be?”
“I don’t know – you know I’m doing this for you,” I replied, probably looking for some sort of confirmation that I was choosing the right career path. I’ve always been kind of indecisive.
She really didn’t like the sound of that though. “No, you’re not doing this for me. You’re doing it for you. I’m not going to benefit from this. You are.”
In a sense, she is right. Obviously, I would benefit financially, since I’d be making my own money. I’d also benefit through the experiences I’d gain; law school will definitely teach me things that will allow me to expand my worldview.
“If you don’t want to go to law school, you shouldn’t go. Do whatever it is that you want. We really shouldn’t be spending all of this money, and time, if you’re doing something you don’t want – so decide for yourself,” she continued.
I’m glad that my mom said this to me. I’m glad that she made me really question the feeling that I had that I was doing all of this extra schooling for them. I have been affected by their stories of struggle, but before I clicked accept on one of the offers, I sat there and really thought about it.
I’ve had multiple people, from friends to teachers, tell me that I should not pursue anything unless it is 100-per-cent my decision. But that seems like an oversimplification. Is any choice ever 100-per-cent ours? Can we ever totally separate our own wishes from those of our parents?
As I consider this question, I ask my best friend, who is in medical school in Ireland, if on some level, she’s there because of her parents. They were the ones who encouraged her to apply. When she was about to leave for her first semester of medical school, her dad was so excited that he went around and handed out boxes of ladoos – Indian sweets – to his family and friends, including my dad. I couldn’t help but wonder if on some level, she was going to medical school because of her dad. So I asked her. “I really do want to be a doctor,” she answered. “How else would I be able to get through the studying and exams? But it does help to know that my parents want me to do this and are happy that I’m doing it.”
She said she was happy that they were happy, but she was also worried that she might end up wasting their money if she wasn’t successful.
“I’m sure you won't waste their money,” I said.
“You know,” she said, “my dad said that I won’t be wasting his money as long as I try. He said that he made the money for me to use in the first place, so it’s kind of impossible for me to waste it. It just makes me want to try that much harder though, since he said that. And I really hope I can get the grades I need. I’m buying my white coat tomorrow.” She laughed.
So to all those people who ask, “How could you ever think about going through with something unless it was solely what you wanted to do?” Well, if my parents, and other immigrant parents, can not only leave their homes and work their entire lives in a new country, but also unconditionally give their children the earnings of that work, I don’t see why I can’t give them something that they’ve never had or something that they wished they had, or even just something that I know would make them happy.
A couple of years ago, my parents took me to a motivational speaking event that highlighted a famous speaker from India. At the end of his talk, the speaker walked through the audience with a microphone to ask us questions. Just as I was hoping he would not stop in front of me, he pointed the microphone at me and asked, “When will you be happy?” I thought about it for a minute and said what I honestly thought was my most authentic answer, “I will be happy when my parents are happy.” The motivational speaker’s reply has sat with me until this day. He replied, “Then you will never be happy.”
I don’t know if this motivational speaker is right or not, but in my experience, happiness doesn’t work that way. Sometimes, I think, happiness does come from making others happy. Sometimes it comes from finding a sense of justice, like the one I hope to find in balancing out my parents’ struggle with my own. The fact that my law degree will make them happy also brings me joy. It’s a complicated equation that has made me realize that my journey may be different from that of my parents, but it’s significant nonetheless.