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Retracing Our Roots: My Mother’s Journey

We hop on and off the bus every day and take the rest for granted. This story, though, suggests that perhaps we shouldn't

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Retracing Our Roots: My Mother’s Journey

One woman-- my mother's -- journey to achieve an education is more difficult than the usual path we usually think of

One woman-- my mother's -- journey to achieve an education is more difficult than the usual path we usually think of

Grace Gao

One woman-- my mother's -- journey to achieve an education is more difficult than the usual path we usually think of

Grace Gao

Grace Gao

One woman-- my mother's -- journey to achieve an education is more difficult than the usual path we usually think of

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Stunning silks, savory spices, and a rich history of deep-rooted culture and community. These are all India’s treasured allotropes, symbols for fascinating land and culture that date back hundreds of years. Despite this, only a few generations ago, certain aspects of their society were far behind. At the time, 27% of females were being forced into marriage under 18 and 40% were unable to complete school past fifth grade.

These are the conditions my mother and her family were brought up in, surrounded by extreme poverty and obsolete customs. At the time, for young girls such as my mother, it was difficult to see a way out. Girls her age were being married off or dropping out of school to help support their families, and it was unclear when their childhood days would inevitably come to an end.

However, from a very young age, my mother could see that her father firmly disagreed with this system. As a skilled engineer and parent to two bright daughters, my grandfather may have been one of the few forward thinkers of his time. He invariably saw the value of women in society and was determined to protect his daughters from falling victim to the system. Ignoring silent condemnations from friends and neighbors, my grandfather put his foot down and made it clear that there were no other alternatives — my mother and her sister would be attending school and completing their education, no matter what.

From primary to secondary school, my mother and her sister boarded the bus everyday at their local station and underwent an hour bus ride before arriving at school. It was not easy. They faced a great deal of taunting and reproach by those unable, or perhaps unwilling, to accept their effort in collapsing gender roles. On these bus rides, my mother was pinched and provoked, and was so much as catcalled by men following her on bikes. There was not even relief in reaching school, as her professors were ready to use their wooden rulers to blow the knuckles of anyone who made a slight misstep. This constant cycle was quite literally hell for my mother, and it did not go without protest. At one time, it got so bad that she attempted jumping off a moving motorcycle to avoid attending school that day. From elementary to high school, this is what my mother endured. It was difficult for her to see the benefits, as the strain she had been through outweighed any foreseeable benefits.

A few months before my mother was to begin high school, my grandfather informed the family that they would be moving from their home in Chennai, Tamil Nadu to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. A fifteen-year-old at the time, it was to be expected that my mother was very nervous. As it was, she did not get to see her father a lot, and moving to an entirely new country seemed to build an intimidating bridge between the life she knew and an entire world waiting to be discovered.

As it turned out, moving from India to the UAE had a momentous impact on my mother, and it entirely reversed her view of her own importance in society. Schooling was not easier in Abu Dhabi, and it was a struggle everyday for her to return to school. However, although her and her family soon moved back to Chennai, her adventures in a new city and efforts to make anywhere home were critical to her growth. Upon her return, my mother viewed her new and old home in an entirely different way, coming back not only trilingual, but with a new perspective on the world. When it was time for her to move on from secondary schooling, there was no discussion between her and her father as to whether or not she would be attending college. Her mind was made up; she would be going to university, and she was determined to get into one of the best business schools in India.

Getting into her dream university was a only a small feat compared to the incredible milestones she had reached throughout her life. Both my mother and her sister were one of the few girls in their school to advance past high school. Their father did not ask for a lot throughout his life, except to bring about equal opportunities for his daughters and help them to exceed past the potential he knew they had. When it came time for my mother to come to America to finish her education and start a new life, she had an entire set of skills and life experiences to help guide her through another new, uncharted territory.

One generation later, I am a student at North Allegheny, where it is easy to get caught up in the vicious cycle that will inevitably spit us out into college and beyond. Talks of student stress have ravaged my day-to-day life, and, at times, school can be unbearably overwhelming. It is during these times I think of my mother’s early schooling experiences, and how her incredible persistence helped her accomplish everything she wanted. Learning about the upbringing of my mother and her family prove to me that it takes internal substance, the innate desire to combat the opposing forces of the world, to truly come out triumphant.

Even in this generation, Indian stereotypes continue to exist — we are brainy and introverted, only focused on studies and our future. Regarding the stereotyping of Indian culture, not a lot has changed since my mother grew up. I am able to understand why so many people view those with Indian background this way, however it can be better interpreted by looking at people such as my mother and those who grew up in an environment similar to hers. For them, their only escape, the only way to rise up beyond what society had set for them, was through education. The benefits they reaped by achieving a full education and developing academic skills is the reason it is such a big part of our culture. For this reason, my family has taught me to place a high value on my education. I admire my family for countless reasons, but in particular, my grandfather’s forefront thinking in encouraging my mother to overcome societal standards, and my mother’s strength in doing so, has inspired me to do the same in my own life.

1 Comment

One Response to “Retracing Our Roots: My Mother’s Journey”

  1. Samantha Solenday on March 28th, 2019 12:13 am

    Love this article! It’s well thought out and something that everyone should be reminded of. Congrats on the best of SNO award!

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