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The South Asian Conundrum

June 7, 2012

Lately, I have been thinking about something that I came across while perusing through an issue of the Scientific American Magazine at of all places my doctor’s office.  The article, I started to read dealt with American inventions over the past millennium and alluded to the common phrase American ingenuity. The concept has even become an adage and a rallying call for Americans up and down the social spectrum.  I have even discussed it with a few friends and colleagues about this phenomenon.  Interestingly, enough most of my native born American friends decline to gloat over it for the reasons of modesty or perhaps even political correctness. 

However, I wanted to know why is it that the Americans have been the predominant culture/nation in ingenuity? Without belaboring the issue (topic for another post) too much suffice it to say that the conclusion I arrived at lead me to two factors that are somewhat not entirely mutually exclusive.  I am referring to freedom of thought and decision making.  In plain words creativity is a derivative of freedom of thought.  It is an accepted fact that the American society followed I might add by the Western Europeans is a society of independent thinkers and accepted freedom of thought and expression.  Creativity in turn is an ability to think in new ways; to have the freedom of thought, boundless and without constraints.  Creativity then leads to new ideas and possibilities beyond the immediate scope breaking barriers of conventional thinking.  Raw creativity in and of itself is like a rogue satellite in space It needs direction that comes from maturity of thought and decision making skills.  Knowing what we do about creativity and decision making skills I wonder if children who grow up in a controlled environment as that of Asia in general but South Asia in specific are deprived of these very essential human faculties at an early age.  

So then here is my take on this and I will explain it in a scenario.  For the sake of this scenario let us imagine two kids being born about the same time. One kid is, born, in India and the other in the US both regular healthy kids with average intelligence.  We will call the Indian kid Kumar and the American kid Laura (I wanted to be gender impartial). 

Both Kumar and Laura are reared like typical kids with proper nutrition and upbringing by the parents.  In addition, as they grow the respective parents begin to teach them basic things like language,  mannerisms, good habits and the general do’s and don’ts of life.  They both enter Elementary school and thus begin their educational life.  This is where life takes a slight divergence for Kumar and his parents.  While, they are both little kids yet, Kumar begins to receive from his parents admonitions, hints and expectations required of him both in character development, career development and parents expectations. Laura, like wise is beginning her educational life and receives from her parents the general do’s and don’ts of life and a sense of responsibility and ownership.  However, the modus operandi adopted by individual parent is distinctly different.  Kumar all through Elementary entering into Middle school gets almost daily doses of instructions, admonitions and motivational talks more on the basis of “do as I say not as I may have done”. Laura respectively is progressing through elementary into middle school yet her instructional methods are different from that of Kumar.  Laura’s parents begin with a combination of instructions and admonitions coupled with an encouragement to think for and be accountable for her actions. Laura, at an early age begins her introduction to the art of decision making and independent reasoning.

While, still in the middle School Kumar is reminded still daily of his parents desire to pursue and excel in the hard sciences.  His performance is constantly measured and Kumar is now hot and heavy into science studies.  Kumar also receives extra tutorial help outside the normal school hours by not his parents but professional tutors.  Parent’s job is to monitor and admonish; I assume.  In the process they will go to great lengths while sacrificing pleasure even necessities to meet little Kumar’s academic needs.

Laura meanwhile is a regular happy kid growing along several others like her. She has time set for all sorts of activities including plenty of play and social time.   She, we will assume is average to good in school and takes genuine interest in school activities.  There has been no discussion between Laura and her parents about serious career choices except for Laura’s typical child like wishes based on the theme of the month from astronaut to a firefighter. However, towards, the end of Middle School Laura expresses her desire to pursue a career as a nurse.  Laura’s parents remain neutral knowing full well she may change her mind again through high School and even after entering College.

Enter high school and Kumar’s parents have made up their mind that their son will grow up to be a Physicist. Kumar has been duly notified of this development and has expressed no genuine acceptance or rejection of his parents wish. He remains in pursuit of the goal his parents have defined for him.  All the help from and the extra tutorial help has paid off and Kumar is doing quite well in school. His grades remain at the near top of the class.

Laura is excited to enter High School and looking forward to meeting new friends and some freedom to exercise choice. Her parent’s role by now is turning entirely to an advisor, facilitator and is more participative in practice. They needless to say are willing to help Laura for reasonable requests.   While , still a sophomore Laura decides she wants to join the Army right out of High School.  Her parents while do not admonish do express some anxiety not so much at the choice of career but for not pursuing college. Somewhere, towards the end of high School Laura miraculously changes her mind again and now wants to pursue college and become a science teacher.  Her parents breathe a sigh of relief unbeknownst to Laura.

College time and both Laura and Kumar are accepted into good schools.  Their career choices now made they both enter college knowing full well of their individual goals.  Laura is exuberant at finally achieving her new found freedom. She is moving out of her parent’s house.   Her parents on their part are just as excited for Laura and equally for themselves to be finally pushing the chick out of the nest as it were. They have plans for their new found freedom.   At the end of the freshman year Laura’s parents get a phone call. Nothing out of the ordinary except we come to find out Laura may yet have more surprises in store for her parents.  It seems she had a change of hearts and a freshman Physics project and the teachers influence has sparked in Laura an interest to pursue Physics.  She tells her parents she just loves the subject and that she wants to be a physicist and at some point she still wants to pursue her goal of teaching.  It seems Laura, is at this rather early stage beginning to hone the decision making skills her parents instilled in her at the early age.  She is learning to work her way through the twists and turns life throws her way and tests her ability as a decision maker. Kumar would have nothing to do with such trivialities as he bounces all such matters off to his parents.  Kumar is focused like a light beam on his chosen field of study.  His parents take care of all other details including tuition.  Kumar, enjoys the comforts of home throughout high School into college.

Laura and Kumar Finish College in good stead except Laura is a year behind Kumar paying for the change of minds and career choice.  Kumar immediately goes on to pursue a Masters program in Physics and has plans for a PhD.  Laura catches up a year later but instead of jumping straight into a master’s program she takes a year off for research work at a laboratory. 

Fast forward and Both Laura and Kumar are now physicists.  Here is the difference in the approach each took and the resulting effect. While, Laura loves her career and is on a quest to make a difference by contributing to the field of physics. Kumar, reports to his job every day without fail. This means a lot to Kumar and his parents who are by now in the twilight of their own lives and look to their son for security in retirement.  Kumar has fulfilled his parents dream and earning a steady paycheck.  Laura has fulfilled her dream and continues to dream of doing something significant while enjoying her life and career to the fullest.  Kumar is a follower looking towards Laura for leadership, initiative and ideas.

The fact is this tale is not too uncommon. It remains a South Asian conundrum!




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