Gossip Girls: How I Navigated the Asian Aunty Syndrome – Priya Nandhra

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Gossip Girls: How I Navigated the Asian Aunty Syndrome – Priya Nandhra

‘You’re so thin! Why don’t you eat more?’

‘Stay away from boys.’

‘Don’t stay in the sun for too long- you’ll get dark!’

‘So, do you have a boyfriend? Is he Indian? When are you going to get married?’

‘Why don’t you do a law degree instead? English will get you nowhere.’

These are just a select few of some of the comments that I’m sure we’ve all heard variations of growing up- I know I have. Being scrutinised for every uncontrollable aspect of your life- whether it’s someone you’re romantically involved with or a subject you naturally enjoy- it’s hard to understand what privacy and independence truly means. As a Western, Gen-Z, third-generation immigrant and product of the Indian diaspora, it can be overwhelming navigating identity, and more importantly balance, between these culture clashes. We are constantly conflicted between serving ourselves and serving others. We (secretly) live under the watchful eyes of our extended family. We place so much importance on our image and worry over what other people will say. But at what point does this come to an end? When can we live, truly, freely, and independently of our aunties? Is it possible?!

It’s often an unwritten rule amongst British Asians that we have ‘two’ identities- the one we share with our families and the one we don’t. The latter may consist of a number of activities, which Caucasians may class as “normal”: partying, drinking, relationships, staying out after it got dark. And dare we mix the two, because if we did, we would likely risk the dignity of the entire family name. Somehow our actions would find our way into the mouths of our relatives, someone somewhere would see us and report back to their mum, who would tell her sister, then her sister would tell a distant cousin, and thus the chain reaction of shaming begins. I remember being frustrated as a teenager, as to why I couldn’t do the things that all my friends could, why I had to live in fear of these unknown aunties whose eyes seemed to pierce my every move, even if I was alone. The inability to understand, and even get my non-ethnic friends to understand, why we seemed to live shackled to our homes and suppressed by our parents’ rule. ‘Why can’t you just tell them you’re 18 now, they can’t control you forever!’ My whole life, as far as I was concerned at that point, became an endless question of why. To which I was given no choice but to learn myself.

Initially, I blamed it on my colour and my culture: ‘it’s because I’m brown,’ and scoffing ‘Asian parents!’ There, sadly, grew a hatred for my first identity. I didn’t want to be brown anymore. I was finding any and every reason to criticise Indian culture. I was disinterested, because being brown wasn’t letting me be me. Not being able to see friends more than once a week, not being able to go to too many parties, not being able to go to a sleepover- apparently simple things my white friends did with complete and utter ease, I had to rehearse for a week on how to ask permission for (and even the asking had to be done a week in advance, just to give them enough notice on my whereabouts). It became a case of grappling between these two identities. How could I balance being selfish and selfless? Who was I truly living for at the end of the day- myself or everyone else’s expectations? The fact that I got into the habit of lying only pushes the narrative further. In lying, I was pursuing my selfish ends through immoral means, only to uphold the image my parents wanted me to uphold. In lying, I was living my second identity and it worked for a while, escapism in its fullest sense. This inevitably wracked up feelings of immense guilt, but somehow I still didn’t understand why I was made to feel guilty for simply doing things for fun.

Privacy and independence, as a result, are two extremely important boundaries that more Asian parents need to be aware of and respect. We are part of such an open culture, with big families requiring mass communication, life updates, and the competitiveness as to whose children are more successful. So, it becomes even more important that the boundaries we were denied as teenagers are implemented within our future generation. As a generation that is becoming increasingly liberal, we are attuned to the values of mutual respect, personal independence and privacy a little more than our parents and grandparents were taught to be. Of course, it isn’t easy to subvert norms in your family, especially ones that you disagree with and the task becomes even more difficult when you’re the only one willing enough to speak up about it. But while the stereotypical gaze of the aunty seems like it will never stop, it begins to stop with you. Once we get past the mental block that is ‘we must cater for everyone’s needs at the expense of our own’, only then will the sly comments about how you choose to live your life be eradicated from your mind. In short, the less you begin to care, the less it will affect you. Prioritising yourself does not mean you have turned away from respecting or caring about your family, it just means that you equally value yourself as much as you value them.

Growing up British-Asian is messy, blurry and confusing. It consists of multiple identities, hidden and shared. Boundaries may be non-existent and it takes courage, strength and willpower to go against the grain. If you want something enough, you will fight for it- everyone’s journey to this stage is their own, but instead of fixating on the needs of others, it’s important that we remember to show ourselves love and compassion, bring ourselves happiness, all in as much abundance as we are expected to do for others. Completely evading those aunties won’t happen overnight; it starts with us and we have the power to raise future generations accordingly. We can make our own choices, if we are willing to take the risk, and you never know- you might thank yourself (and those gossiping aunties!) for it.

By Priya Nandhra

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