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Raising a Confident Youngster

By Baisakhi Roy Email By Baisakhi Roy
February 2012
Raising a Confident Youngster The pressures and pleasures of growing up tend to be similar across cultures—but for Indian-American youngsters, often there’s the added stress of being different from their mainstream peers. Why, despite such challenges, do so many from the second and third generations do so well? Khabar spoke to five achievers and the parents of one.

“We do not choose to be born. We do not choose our parents, ... our historical epoch, the country of our birth, or the immediate circumstances of our upbringing. ... But within all this realm of choicelessness, we do choose how we shall live.”
—Joseph Epstein

What we have in North America today is a melting pot of cultures and traditions. Be it Toronto or New York, the subways in both cities buzz with languages that are not English. The South Asian community here has grown from strength to strength over the years, evident from the burgeoning number of influential South Asians in a range of fields, be it Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, wealthy venture capitalists, political movers and shakers, or LGBT activists.

Recently Forbes magazine released its list of “30 under 30,” which profiles young “ultra impressive up-and-comers” that companies should either “hire today” or have working for them in the future as they are the young people of today “who matter.” Included in that list are 10 South Asians of all ages and talents—from 17-year-old Param Jaggi of Austin College, Texas, who created an algae-filled device that fits over a car’s tailpipe and turns carbon dioxide into oxygen, to 28-year-old Manvir Nijhar, co-head of European Equity Derivatives Sales at Citigroup, who has reportedly given “Citi’s derivatives business a jolt.”

But not all youngsters have it easy.

The U.S. and Canada have seen in recent months a spate of incidents that involved teenagers being bullied for being “different.” In some cases, it has even led to suicide—14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer of Buffalo was a victim of gay slurs. So it is critical to impart a sense of security to our youth and guide them in the right direction.

Teenagers are under pressure to do well, to get into a good school and land a job when they get out of college. For some children, there is that extra baggage of a different sexual orientation, perhaps an ethnicity that is part of a minority or sometimes just his/her gender that is a pressure point. “Sure, I felt different, especially in my teenage years, because I was conscious of the fact that my parents are immigrants,” says Sindya Bhanoo, whose parents live in Atlanta. Bhanoo, a correspondent for The New York Times, writes the weekly “Observatory” column in the paper’s Science Times section.

But Bhanoo and others that Khabar spoke with succeeded despite all odds and are today living their dream. They all attribute it to one fact: their parents knew how to raise a confident youngster in America.

When Contractor was
growing up in Atlanta,
making time for both
family and community was
important. The Washington
Leadership Program he
founded targets young
South Asians.

The power of community:
government firm consultant.

He grew up in a traditional family in Georgia. It was the ’80s and the Indian community in Atlanta stood out starkly because of their accents and skin color. Now a senior consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, Contractor looks back on those days thoughtfully. “It wasn’t easy for my parents. The ’80s and ’90s weren’t normal for South Asians. Being Indian might be cool now but back then it was awkward. The only ‘Indian’ that people knew of was the character Apu from The Simpsons,” he says. He remembers being too embarrassed to correct people when they mispronounced his name, having no friends at school and avoiding questions about the typical Indian food that he brought to school every day. But he also remembers the sense of warmth and security that he and his older sister had, thanks to a close-knit Gujarati family. “I think when you are in a place that is so far away from home, you rely on the familiar things in life. For us, it was my parents who instilled a strong sense of family and tradition in us kids.”

The Contractors not only had each other to lean on but actively immersed themselves in the community, again a close group of people with similar backgrounds and ideals. “My parents were very active in the Swadhyaya movement and took us to various sessions conducted by them,” he says. For those who don’t know, the Swadhyaya parivaar (family) is a group of people in a family setting who study the Vedic scriptures and carry out various activities of self-development (swadhyaya literally means study of self

for a spiritual quest) in a devotional way. “Family time was most important. We ate together, prayed together, my parents talked about their lives and travails in India and also kept the cultural appreciation of India alive in our hearts. We were taught to be disciplined and concentrate on all that was good about [growing up in this country]. The basic ethos of the country, that you will do well if you work hard, was hammered into us from a very tender age,” he says.

College is where Contractor entered a relatively level playing field, being among people who were there for one purpose only: to be educated and chart their paths in the real world. “There was less ignorance about race, color, and other such issues. I guess students at that age have a worldly view of things and learn to accept diverse cultures,” he says. He thrived in an atmosphere of acceptance where South Asians were more or less integrated with the “general” crowd. Even here, he found more comfort among fellow South Asians.

While he went on to graduate from the University of Georgia with a B.A. in political science and economics and obtain a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, his sister is a proud alumna of Yale University. It was at university, too, that he saw discrimination in its various avatars. “We planned to stage a play with homosexuality in the South Asian community as a theme for UGA’s ‘India Nite’ show. I was shocked to discover that not many people wanted to be part of the production when we were recruiting for the effort. We then did a play about the very same issue: how people, when approached for this play, refused to be a part of it! It was a huge eye-opener for me,” he says. The incident served to set Contractor thinking about an organization that would bring together bright South Asian minds who wanted to make a difference in the political makeup of the country. He recently founded the Washington Leadership Program (WLP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to building the next generation of leadership from within the South Asian American community through a summer program in Washington, D.C.

He believes that the current generation of South Asian children is very lucky. “There are so many reasons to be proud of being who you are now. The most prominent doctors, Silicon Valley inventors, wealthy entrepreneurs and leaders are South Asian. Even The Office had an episode where the staff celebrates Diwali. Did you hear President Obama’s Diwali address? That was unprecedented!” he says with unbridled enthusiasm. He cites Gautam Raghavan, the new White House liaison on LGBT issues, and Parag Mehta, Special Assistant to the Director at the Department of Labor in the Obama administration, as shining examples of how the young South Asian community has come into its own.

“This generation of South Asians is a confident, proud lot, mainly because of how their parents taught them to believe in themselves and be nothing short of the best. You must look up to your parents. They are the ultimate inspiration,” he says.

Bhanoo’s parents, who live
in Atlanta, strove to preserve
Indian traditions and customs
at home. Bhanoo writes the
weekly “Observatory” column
The New York Times.

Trust your children:
correspondent for The New York Times.

Consider this. You are in seventh grade in a school in Pullman, Washington—a small, rural town—and you have just been signed up for the annual talent show. Nothing absurd about this situation, unless…. “My mom suggested that I perform a Kerala lamp dance in the talent show,” laughs Sindya Bhanoo. “The show line-up had boys putting up rock bands and there I was being asked to do something so different. I flat out refused but my mother signed me up anyways.”

Though her performance earned her praise from her teachers and peers, she was still angry and embarrassed. “Now when I look back, it wasn’t really a big deal. My mom wanted me to share a part of our culture,” she says.

Bhanoo asserts that she did indeed have two identities growing up and it could get confusing at times. “Sleepovers, which were a very American thing, were restricted in our family. I usually had to come back home before all the other kids; late nights were basically not allowed,” she says. “That changed over time, though, and things were easier for my youngest sister and brother.”

Her parents, who came to the U.S. as Ph.D. students in the late ’70s, strove to preserve Indian traditions and customs at home.

Sindya and her sister Shuby were both encouraged to speak to their extended family in Tamil, their native language. They were expected to dress a little more conservatively (than her American friends) and encouraged to opt for typical professions that the South Asian community hold dear. But the siblings also had, in Bhanoo’s words, “the best parents one could wish for.”

“They opened up every single opportunity that was out there for us that they didn’t have. I took tap, jazz, ballet, and violin lessons, along with Bharatanatyam.”

There was also the pressure to do well academically. “But looking back, I think a bit of pressure is beneficial. It motivates children to do better.”

Bhanoo was studying computer engineering when she expressed her wish to take up writing as a career. Her father was very supportive. “But that’s how they have always been. They have always wanted us to do well irrespective of the decisions we take in life, be it professional or personal,” she says.

A computer science graduate from Carnegie Mellon and a journalism graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, Bhanoo writes the weekly “Observatory” on science for The New York Times. Her work has appeared in top publications, including the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the San Francisco
and the Oakland Tribune, among others. She says she couldn’t have done it without the guidance, doggedness and support of her parents.

Bhullar credits
his father for the
strong foundation
he received as a
budding wrestler,
allowing him to
win a gold medal
for Canada at the

Discipline your children:
freestyle wrestler

Bhullar, a shy amateur wrestler from British Columbia, Canada, is training hard for this year’s London Olympics. As a Sikh who grew up in the South Asian neighborhood of Richmond in British Columbia, Bhullar is firm in his allegiance to both Canada and Punjab, the land of his forefathers. “I was born in Canada and I owe a lot to Canada. But India will always be where my roots are. I’m very respectful to the home country and the people, but Canada is my country, that’s for sure.” His father, Avtar Bhullar, was a wrestling champ in Punjab before moving to Canada.

Family has always been a very important aspect of Bhullar’s life. He grew up on a cranberry farm, part of a large joint family, not very different from his cousins in the village of Bhullar in Punjab. “Every year we went back to our village and my dad would compete with the wrestlers there. I was so thrilled to see him being idolized like that,” he says. Arjan took his first steps in a makeshift gym of concrete and wood that his family built. It was here that he put in countless hours of work as his father coached him and laid the foundation on which numerous coaches would later build. “My parents worked hard on me. Some of the values instilled in me were actually lived by my parents. My father led a very disciplined life. He never drank alcohol and took great pains to keep himself mentally and physically fit. I have inherited those qualities from him and for that I am eternally grateful,” he says.

Bhullar began wrestling at a very early age, yet stayed competitive in several other sports. There wasn’t enough funding for a wrestling program in his school, so his family built a bigger, better-equipped gymnasium. Avtar Bhullar ensured that Arjan did not lose focus. “When he felt I was distracted, doing typical high-schooler things, he made me work in the fields alongside older members of the community who worked very hard in those fields,” he says. Bhullar takes great pride in the fact that he plays a sport that has a prevalent South Asian flavor to it. When he overpowered and pinned his Indian opponent Joginder Singh in the second round to win the gold medal for Canada in the 120-kg class at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010, his entire village (Bhullar, Punjab) was there to cheer him. It was a sight that a Canadian-flag-toting Bhullar would never forget. “I was just so overwhelmed,” recalls the champion.

Gymnast Bhavsar, an Olympic
gold medalist, had the full
support of his parents when
he joined Cirque Du Soleil,
although they were initially
surprised by his decision.

Be supportive:
RAJ BHAVSAR, Olympic gymnast
and Cirque Du Soleil performer

When Olympian Raj Bhavsar’s parents, Jyotindra and Surekha, heard that he was going to audition for the world-renowned Cirque du Soleil (self-described as a “dramatic mix of circus arts and street entertainment”), Bhavsar Sr. reacted with shock. After all his son had been a member of the U.S. team to the 2001 and 2003 world artistic gymnastics championships, winning a silver medal with the team in the 2003 championship, and a bronze medal as a member of the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, thus becoming the third Indian-American ever to win a medal at the Olympics. Was his son making an informed decision? “It was unexpected for them because every parent wants his child to be doing something that is tried and tested; anything unconventional is a bit unsettling. But my parents have always pushed my brother and me to do our best. There was definitely a phase when they wanted me to take up a related business, like physical therapy or a business selling sporting goods, a typical Gujarati entrepreneurial trait, but he trusted me,” says the former gymnast.

Bhavsar created “the Bhavsar,” a move on the still rings and on parallel bars, which he then performed in 2009 at the Moscow World Cup. Even after retiring from competitive gymnastics in 2009, Bhavsar realized that he was happiest when doing flips at the gym. He decided to send an audition tape to the show producers of the Cirque du Soleil show Iris in Los Angeles. And he was in! “It was an amazing experience. The amount of creativity and discipline that goes into performing a sequence takes a lot out of an athlete in terms of mental toughness, air sense, and physical sharpness. The whole experience was a humbling one,” he says.

Bhavsar’s love for gymnastics was honed at an early age when he was growing up in the suburbs of Houston, Texas. “My dad took my brother and me to the gym from age four, and we just loved it. Then my passion for it just grew,” he says. Raj trained at the Cypress Academy of Gymnastics under the famed coach Bill Foster. Jyotindra Bhavsar ensured that his son had the best trainers. The fact that his son did not opt for a more “mainstream sport that South Asians typically love,” like tennis, did not faze Raj’s father. “Initially he had a lot of questions. Then he met with my coaches, spoke to them regularly and really got involved in my training. He saw how good I was at it and how much I loved it. He was the one to recognize my potential and hone it,” says Bhavsar of his father.

Thanksgiving and Christmas were celebrated at the Bhavsar household with as much aplomb as Diwali and there was always a good mix of non-South Asian friends in Raj’s group. “My parents believed that staying confined to one’s community was hardly beneficial. We were always taught to venture outside our comfort zone and explore the rich traditions of this country,” he says. The only condition his parents had was that his grades in school remain top-notch. With a culture of self-discipline and acute time management being prevalent in his household, Raj managed to do well and so did his brother, who currently works for  Microsoft. Bhavsar currently has no time to breathe. He lights up the Cirque stage eight times a week with two shows each on Saturdays and Sundays. And cheering on are his parents, who are his “greatest strength and support.”

“They help me de-stress. They have infinite patience with me, and their love and trust is unconditional. What more could I ask for?” Bhavsar says.

Shree Bose received plenty of
inspiration and guidance from
her family, and after knocking
on many doors, she also found
an important mentor for her
prize-winning research.

Instill passion, not pressure:
SHREE BOSE, high school senior,
Google Science Fair champ.

When Shree was seven, she was determined to get kids to eat their greens. But well aware of how averse children were to the idea of green veggies, she attempted to create the next best thing: blue spinach. Shree Bose, winner of the grand prize at the Google Science Fair for her research in ovarian cancer, has come a long way since that day. In 2008, Shree’s paternal grandfather succumbed to liver cancer. His death had a profound effect on the 15-year-old, who decided to work in the area of cancer research. With no idea on how seriously she would be taken at that age, Shree decided to take the first step. “I began writing to professors at universities in the area to explore if any of them would allow me to work with them in their labs.” After a lot of rejections, Dr. Alakananda Basu of the University of North Texas Health Science Center asked her to  come by and work in her lab,” she says, reliving the excitement of those early days. The first year, she  worked in the area of breast cancer and received hands-on training with the state-of-the-art equipment the lab had to offer.

Then came the big moment when Shree came across an announcement from Google. For its inaugural Global Science Fair, children from across the world could upload their science fair projects on the internet. She  decided to submit her ovarian cancer project, which found a way to improve treatment for patients who developed a resistance to some chemotherapy drugs. Over 7500 projects were submitted from 91 countries. Fifteen finalists were chosen and then flown to the Google headquarters in California, where they were judged by a panel consisting of luminaries like the editors of Scientific American, the National Geographic magazine, officials from CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, and the inventor Dean Kamen. “It was gratifying being declared the winner in my age group as well as the grand prize winner,” she says.

Inspiration lived in the Bose household even before Shree was born. Her father, who had a background in metallurgy, had already sown the seeds of scientific curiosity in the mind of Shree’s older brother, Pinaki. At 10 years of age, Pinaki had already thought up revolutionary ideas like “Textbooks for Tomorrow” to convert books into CDs and DVDs so that kids wouldn’t have to break their back lugging their gargantuan books to school. This was long before e-books. Pinaki’s appearance on Fox TV to discuss this project as well as his winning of numerous science awards was just the kind of fillip that Shree needed. “My brother always encouraged me to ask questions and he always attempted to answer them. All my initial scientific education came from my brother who had such an engaging way of explaining things to me. I still remember how clearly he explained the concept of atoms to me,” she recalls, her tone agog with hero worship. Does being on the brink of doing something path-breaking unnerve her? After all, she is only 17! “My dad always says that there is no limit to what you can do if you love it. This is what I love and I want to learn all that there is in this area. There have been tremendous leaps in cancer research and it is my sincere hope that I can make a difference,” she says.

[Toronto-based Baisakhi Roy is the online editor of Suhaag.com, a weddings and lifestyle web magazine that caters to the South Asian community in North America.]

How to raise
an achiever

By Animesh and
Prarthana Bose

The Boses came to the U.S. in 1985, initially to Troy, a small town in New York. They now live with their two children in Fort Worth, Texas. Humbled by the achievements of their children, they insist that they are not qualified to give parenting tips. “All we can do is share our experience and point to things that we think have worked for us,” says Animesh Bose. Here’s his master list.
1) Raise them to be compassionate: Our hope always was that our children should grow up to be compassionate, truthful, and have a strong moral sense.
2) Boost their confidence: Instill in them the confidence that they can dream of what they want to be and then have the grit and determination to follow their dream.
3) Focus on the good: We were determined that we would try our best to impart our cultural and moral values in our children. We knew that they would automatically adapt to the traditions of this country.
4) Stand up to bullies: We taught our kids to try and stand their ground if they are right or if they think someone or a group is trying to bully them. We were always conscious of the fact that we were part of a minority group (even though Fort Worth has a fairly large Indian population). Our children knew that we had their back if needed.
5) Encourage questions: When Pinaki stretched the limits of my knowledge with his numerous questions, I would honestly tell him that I did not know the answer, but would then try and get it for him. This exercise proved invaluable as it kept their curiosity alive and they were not afraid to ask questions.
6) Have faith: Being of Indian origin we carry a deep-rooted belief in God. Being able to give the kids good moral and ethical values and providing a religious foundation will give them the confidence to do the right things and stand up against what is wrong.
7) Be a parent first: We are parents, and it is important to stress that we are in this world to guide our kids. Sometimes parents feel that they need to be buddies to their children. But we are strong believers in tough love, which we feel is extremely important in raising kids, as it makes what is right and what is wrong very clear to them. The trick is to be tough and yet have an open communication channel with the children.
8) Teach them to give back: We tell our kids that they are very lucky, and if they want to be good human beings, to try rising above self-interest and give back to others in any way they can. We think that this concept has slowly sunk in. Both my children are involved in volunteer work, which they enjoy.

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