Discover more from A Lady on Fire
Sometimes I think that I’ve been given one little bit of luck in life and that will have to do.
Everything else, I’ve had to fight so hard for.
Honestly I think my dad sent me to the US for undergrad because I was dating a politician’s son when I was 18 and in India we don’t like politicians. My aunt thinks it was because he wanted the prestige associated with educating his daughter in the US since it would signal that he could afford to do so.
Either way, I don’t think he thought it through. I don’t think he knew what it would mean to send a fierce young mind to a different country at an impressionable age. I think he thought it wouldn’t change me.
Before I left he made me promise that I would pay him back when the time came for my little brother to go to college; an event which would take place seven years later.
Let’s think about that for a second. You’re sending a teenager halfway across the world by herself, when she’s never left her home country before. In her 18 years she has only ever travelled to 2 cities other than the one she was born in. She wants to be a writer but you tell her she can’t, because that’s not an economical choice of profession. You don’t like the boy she’s involved with, because he’s the son of a sleazy politician, even though he’s never been anything but nice to you. It doesn’t matter that he’s the first man she’s ever loved or that she feels much safer with him than she ever did around you.
So you decide to send her 8000 miles away to a land she’s never known, to become a software engineer, so that she can pay you back half her college tuition 7 years later when it’s time for your son to go to college.
To her credit, she accepts this responsibility that she didn’t ask for, because you’ve trained her to believe that her self worth lies entirely in your hands.
She goes to the US alone. Her mother comes with her, but stays only for 4 days and then leaves. She figures out how banks work, how credit works, how phone companies work, how college works, how classes work, how people work, how the accent works, how health insurance works, how this new country works, all by herself.
At the beginning of every year, you ask her how much money she needs to fund her life that year. You ask her to give you one number that would cover everything. She makes elaborate financial charts to figure out how much her life would cost that year and gives you a number. Often, upon hearing the amount, you remark on how high it is and how difficult it is for you to put together so much money.
She takes that to heart. She loves you and does not want to be the source of your troubles so she gets a job. She has to give up being on a dance team that she enjoys because she can’t keep up with a part time job, dance team, school and a boyfriend all at the same time.
Eventually she breaks up with the boyfriend, it’s a stressful time, she calls you crying. She lost her period because she’s been so stressed but she doesn’t tell you that because she doesn’t want to add to your stress. You prop her up with platitudes about how life is hard and how there are lessons we must learn in order to grow up.
She listens in silence, knowing that she can’t tell you what she’s really going through because before she left for the US you said that she must remember her ‘Indian values’ and not engage in relationships of a romantic or sexual nature.
But still, she was able to call you and talk for a while and she draws from that what comfort she can. She keeps going. There aren’t many people who understand her so she doesn’t have too many friends. She purposely doesn’t want to make friends with other kids from India because to her one of the perks of going to school in a different country was that she could meet people from different cultures. If she wanted all her friends to be Indian she could have just stayed in India. And she doesn’t feel like she can talk to other college kids about her life because their lives seem so uncomplicated by comparison. Nobody else is worried about how they’re going to pay their parents back half of what it costs to be here, at the same time as they’re doing 2 software engineering degrees and working a part time job.
Yes, in case I forgot to mention before, she decided to do her master’s in software engineering at the same time as she was getting her bachelor’s, because the university said that if you could take all the classes you wouldn’t have to pay anything extra. And that’s what she was optimizing for, getting the highest level of education she could for the least amount of money possible so that her parents wouldn’t feel any more stress than they already did.
And her school was unique in that for years 2, 3 and 4 of college, students studied full-time for 6 months, and worked full-time for 6 months. Which meant that they got work experience before they graduated, but it also meant that they never had any time off.
So let’s review, here’s a young girl who went straight from high school into a country she’d never visited before, simultaneously working on 2 software engineering degrees, while holding down a part time job, trying to live as cheaply as possible, moving every 6 months - sometimes to different countries, to accommodate the full-time job and full-time school situation, managing all her financial affairs on her own, and making herself available to her mother whenever she wants to talk because she’s depressed and going through menopause, all because that’s what good daughters do.
As you can probably imagine, it wasn’t easy.
But our heroine made it through.
She graduated with a bachelor’s and master’s in software engineering, into a job that paid her a 6 figure salary, having worked on 2 continents and having already contributed half of her college tuition using the money she made from all the jobs she did during those 5 years.
She now had a boyfriend whom she adored, and who adored her right back, and she was excited for her parents to meet him when they flew over for her graduation.
The day she graduated, her parents spoke to the boy’s family because they wanted to get the question of her marriage settled. Never mind that she didn’t think she was ready to get married yet, she was a girl and that’s what girls did so why should she be any different.
The boy’s family was courteous and obliging, and happy to agree that yes their children would get married whenever they found it comfortable. It seemed like it was a happy day.
Both families went back to their respective apartments that evening, and our heroine’s parents wanted to call their siblings and tell them the good news of their daughter’s impending nuptials. Her father got on the phone with his brother and said, “You know, I’m not sure I would’ve paid for our family to fly over to the US for her graduation had it not been for the fact that we were meeting the boy’s family.”
That was the first time she saw a crack in what she thought was a perfect world.
It only got worse from there.
She moved to Silicon Valley with her boyfriend, to be a software engineer and live the life Paul Graham’s described in his essays. But her parents continued to push her to get married. Why wait, they said. What will you get out of living with him for another year that you haven’t gotten already. Just do a little legal ceremony, it won’t make any difference.
She tried to push back, to tell them that she was only 23 and she didn’t feel ready to make a lifelong commitment. Especially because now she’d started to feel confused. Even though she loved her boyfriend and would’ve married him in a trice, she didn’t know whether she wanted to do it of her own free will or whether she wanted it because her parents told her that that’s what she should want.
Also nobody in California cared that she was living with a boy and they weren’t married. And nobody from her parents’ social circle was likely to show up to her house to check up on whether that’s what she was doing. So why did they keep pushing her?
6 months later, she got married.
By this point she were certain that she was going get married to her boyfriend anyway so it didn’t seem like such a big deal, and it would also mean that her parents would finally be satisfied.
She’d always wanted to start a startup and this new job wasn’t working out too well so she thought why not. She had enough money saved, was only 24, and could afford to spend a year chasing her real dreams. Even if nothing came of this exercise at least she would’ve given it a real shot, learned something valuable, and she could always go back to being a high-paid software engineer in big tech. Since she wasn’t a US citizen she couldn’t quit her job without jeopardizing her visa, so she figured she would kill two birds with one stone and get married. Getting married would mean that she could get a greencard and be able to start a company, and it would also make her parents happy.
“This is the last thing,” she thought to herself, “this is the last time they’ll ever ask anything of me because of course now I’m an adult, I’m about to get married, I’m financially independent and I no longer need them anymore. After this I will be free.”
Now there are no points for guessing that that wasn’t the end of the story.
She got married, and then she started saving right away because a little girl had promised her parents 6 years ago that she would pay for her brother’s college tuition.
One day during casual conversation her husband asked, “What was the financial deal exactly? Didn’t you already pay for half your college tuition? And now you’re trying to save to pay for half of your brother’s tuition as well? Isn’t that *not* your responsibility? Shouldn’t he be responsible for his half, just like you were for yours?”
Huh, she thought, that does sound reasonable. Why am I gearing up to pay for half of my brother’s tuition when I worked so hard and already paid half of mine. What were the exact terms of the deal with my parents anyway .. let me get them on the phone and at least get try to get some clarity on this.
And boy did she get the clarity she was seeking.
It turns out that her parents wanted her to give them more money because they wanted to throw a big Indian society wedding and they couldn’t afford to do that and send her brother to school in the US. And besides, they said, her brother wants to be a chef, which means he would never make as much money as she does, so he wouldn’t be able to afford to pay them back after he graduated.
So depending on which way you looked at it, they were either asking her to pay for a wedding she didn’t want or to pay for the college tuition of a child that was not hers, because they wanted to show off their wealth and status to their community and because they wanted to let her brother follow his dreams of becoming a chef when they wouldn’t let her become a writer.
This did not sit well with our heroine.
Still, she thought, they’re my family. And you’re supposed to help your family if you can. So alright, if they were going to ask her to contribute this enormous sum of money, she would apply all her creative and organizational prowess to make it as easy for herself as possible.
The first task, she decided, was to get her brother into a good school that provides good scholarships for international students so that she wouldn’t have to foot the entire bill herself. So she tried to get him on the phone every weekend, she said she would tutor him for his SAT and help out with college applications and essays.
Well it turns out that 17 year old entitled Indian boys are real brats who don’t give a single thought to their future and are happy to let their sisters pay exorbitant amounts of money without so much as lifting a finger to help.
After many failed attempts at getting him to practice for his SAT and after months of trying to get him to work on his essays for college, it became clear to our heroine that she was fighting a losing battle. Perhaps she should have given up on him sooner, but as you’re probably able to tell by now, she’s a gritty, determined, fearless young woman who pushes herself really hard and believes that she can make her way through anything.
So she decided to approach the problem from a different angle. He likes to bake, and she’s a programmer, so what if she made him a website that he could use to sell baked goods to his local community. That way he would have something entrepreneurial to put on his college apps which would mean that he would get into a good school with a good scholarship program which would ultimately result in her having to give up less of her hard earned money.
So that’s what she did. She made him a website and he loved it. He told everyone it was his idea which stung her a little but she let it go. It didn’t matter as long as she got to the final goal which was to pay as little out of pocket as possible. Since he wasn’t her child and after all, this wasn’t really supposed to be her responsibility but she had taken it on in the spirit of helping out.
A few months passed, and it turned out that her brother loved the website so much, he would spend all his time taking orders and baking cakes for his friends. He completely forgot about working on his college applications and the deadlines were fast approaching.
She tried to push him to put in the work she knew would be required, and when that didn’t work she called her mom and asked for her help to try to get her son to assume some of the responsibility.
Her mom said, “I thought you were taking care of it, and so I didn’t worry about it.”
She didn’t like that her family had just sort of assumed that she would *take care of it*. It was a significant time investment on her part. At this point it had been over a year trying to get her brother to study for SAT and work on his applications and lately she had begun to feel stressed. She had given up all of her free time for the past year and there was going to be nothing to show for it because he wasn’t doing any of the work. And she didn’t want to literally write the applications for him so she said look, I’m going to step back because this is too stressful for me. I’m going to make you a todo list and leave it up to you to work through it and complete your college applications. Just make sure that you let me know before you submit them so that I can look over them one final time and make sure everything is in order.
Well he didn’t tell her before he submitted the applications.
Which means he didn’t apply to most of the schools that provide international student scholarships, and he didn’t apply to the full-tuition scholarship at her alma mater. This meant that whatever school he would get into, she would have to pay the entire amount anyway.
A few months later he got his acceptance letters from a few schools, her alma mater among them. As it turned out, he didn’t get the full-tuition scholarship since he never applied for it. Soon after this our heroine was chatting with her mother who said, “well it’s your fault that your brother didn’t get the scholarship because you didn’t tell us about it .. you could’ve just told us about it.”
You know honestly at this point no one reading this story would be surprised. It’s pretty clear what kind of family this is, and what kind of parents she has.
I’ll tell you one thing though, it feels very different when you’re in it. When it’s the only family you’ve ever known, the only reality you’ve ever known, it’s really difficult to see it for what it truly is.
She went to India a few months after that, with her husband, back to the home she grew up in, the only home she had ever known.
A few days after she arrived she tried to have an open discussion with her parents about how it was unfair of them to ask her for all the money when they weren’t asking anything of her brother. She said that if they really wanted to have a wedding maybe they could sit down with her to discuss their plans and give rough estimates for how much they think it will cost. And based on this discussion they could decide together whether it was reasonable to throw a lavish party when they were struggling to pay for their child’s education.
Let’s be generous and call the ensuing situation a *conversation*, during which she learned that both her parents had recently been promoted. And that after the death of her grandfather, her dad had inherited half of his house in Delhi. Besides which, they owned more land and had more assets than she had ever known about. All of which meant that they were in fact capable of funding her brother’s education on their own. They would need him to contribute a little of course, but he could easily do that by getting a part time job like she did. He even had her network and connections to rely on so it wouldn’t be hard for him to find a good place.
The issue was that her parents wanted her brother to be able to become a chef, which meant that he wouldn’t be able to get a high-paying software internship or part-time role, and so he wouldn’t be able to contribute to the family money pool. Besides which, they said, they *needed* to throw a big wedding for their daughter and they couldn’t afford to do both - send her brother to school in the US to become a chef and have a big wedding.
Well, said she, that’s not my problem. If I *had* to be a software engineer to be able to afford an education in the US, then the rules have to be the same for him. I’m not going to give you my life savings while you sit here refusing to discuss the actual costs of a wedding that you insist on throwing so that your son can go live his dreams at the expense of your daughter.
It took everything she had to say no to these people whom she had worshipped all her life. It broke her heart to know that even after everything she’d done for them, they saw her refusal as a betrayal. But this time, they had asked for too much. And when they did, it finally dawned on her that nothing she ever did would be enough for them. *She* would never be enough for them.
For years, the only measure of her happiness had been fulfilling the ceaseless expectations of her parents. She would’ve readily given up her life, if only it had meant that that sacrifice would finally make them happy. And believe me, she tried.
But after years of succumbing to the cycle of trying to please her parents only to see that no matter what she did, no matter how high she flew or how hard she worked or how many times her body literally stopped functioning properly because of all the stress she was putting herself through, she realized that her worth, as reflected in their eyes, would never change. They would continue to ask for more and bigger things without ever being satisfied and the only way to break the cycle was for her to stand up and say enough is enough.
And so it took everything our heroine had to refuse her parents this last sacrifice of her dignity, and in the depths of the choppy seas that she had to weather next, she found her true self.
What is true is already so.
Owning up to it will not make it worse.
Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away.
And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived.
People can stand what is true,
for they are already enduring it.
- Eugene Gendlin