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Defining Age : Teens Years
by Vijay Mehta Bookmark and Share

As Desi teen grows up, an ambivalent feeling towards Desi rules starts raising its ugly head. The "do what feels good" culture is prevalent in American schools. One of my friends taught the 80:20 rule to his children. "You have a choice either to have fun in the first 20 years of your life and pay for it the next 80 years, or you can work hard, suffer for the first 20 years to have fun the rest of your 80 years!" This message sounded was logical. With the proper support at home, most Desi teens lived by that tenet.

The parents, however, ran into trouble when they tried to fight the tide of hormones. The environment in which we live is over loaded with sex, Sex is everywhere. Even by the liberal American standards, most would agree that sexual exploitation by the media has gotten out of control. The starting age of puberty is decreasing. Teens of today have much more sexual knowledge and experience than the teens of yesterday.

At home, parents shelter their children from whatever they consider negative influences. They restrict them from R rated movies and parties, lest their teens may be exposed to nudity, vulgarity or start behaving like - American teenagers. However, they have no control over the school environment. The main stream American teens are used to living in an R or X rated world. The majority of their peers at school are sexually active and our Desi kids have been brought up with the belief that even dating is inappropriate.

Kurukshetra of the epic Mahabharat was beginning to take shape in Desi kids' minds. Two opposing, and equally powerful forces start shaping their lives and behavior. On one side was the hormonal tide along with the observation that most of their peers enjoying romance, intimacy, and sex without guilt and without much opposition from their parents. On the opposite side was the Desi culture.

The Desi culture preaches that romance at an early age would be totally destructive to a teen�s education and future. Being a good Desi means one has to renounce dating and romance. Moreover, if someone does break these rules, it would also reflect upon the entire family's reputation. What would people say? What would people think? Controlling sexual desires for the sake of the teenager's future and family therefore became important.

Desi kids basically dealt with these issues in four different ways:

  1. A small numbers of them did not have a lot of sexual urges at an early age, as they had other priorities in life education or other extracurricular activity. For them, not dating or indulging in such activities came naturally. They enjoyed the social status of being a role model. Other parents told their children to follow his/her example. Even though they were respected by Desi parents, their popularity amongst their peers was not so high. Their siblings, especially, resented them. (These are my role models.)

  2. A very few were brave enough to express their views to their parents. Heated debate followed, but atleast their parents knew what was going on with them. (These are my heroes!)

  3. A very small minority just went ahead and enjoy life as mainstream Americans to the dismay of their family, and received the reputation of being the black sheep in their community. Other Desi parents make sure of keeping their teens away from them. (These I call rebels!)

  4. For a large number of them, the desire was stronger than discipline, but they were either too scared of their parents ("What if they kill me or disown me?"), or they loved their parents too much ("I don't want to hurt my parents, I love them too much!"). The easiest thing to do is to "go underground!"

They learned to satisfy their desires secretly. At the same time they made eloquent statements in front of others about the virtues of Desi culture, thus guaranteeing that the parents would have no suspicion. If there was some way to find out how many of our teens actually have a boyfriend or girlfriend at the age of 16, this number would send many parents to the emergency room with a heart attack! Apparently Desi kids have done a good job of fooling their parents. Desi kids have become the greatest actors in the whole wide world. (These I call mainstream Desi teens!)

Besides keeping them focused on education and dealing with the hormonal tide, parents have to confront alcohol, cigarettes and drugs. Most Desi parents could not fathom this being a problem with their teens, but they are far from being right. Desi kids do drink, smoke and some of them even have a drug addiction. The extent to which this problem exists is grossly underestimated because of Desi denial. The problem of teen drug addiction can affect anyone, because it knows no race or social standing.

Where did the parents go wrong?

In a small town in Texas, 20 year old Ameet committed suicide with a gun shot wound to the head. The entire Indian community was shocked and saddened by the news. He was valedictorian of his class and a role model. After graduation, he went on to an Ivy league school, but in his first year his grades started dropping he suffered from depression. This was worsening, so parents called him back home. While under treatment, depression finally took its toll. At the funeral it finally came out that Ameet had been addicted to drugs since sophomore year of high school, and most of the teenagers in town had known about it. This addiction of his went completely undetected by the close-knit Indian community (typical example of how much teens keep to themselves).

  1. They grossly underestimated the fact that their children were spending very little time at home compared to their time spent living and dreaming the American dream. Their inability to understand that fact created a wall.

  2. Very few of the parents had any idea as to what their children saw and felt during this exposure at school. The kids' experiences at school were more R rated or sometimes even X rated. In the evening, back at home, the environment was mostly G rated. So even though we come from land of Kamasutra fame the discussion about sex and romance was non existent. Mr. and Mrs. Sharma had a unique solution for their daughter entering high school. They made sure that they were the ones to drop her off and pick her up. She was not allowed to participate in any after-school activities. She did not need a car. As soon as she graduated from high school, they went to India and arranged her marriage. They were so proud of this that they actually bragged about it. Only within 2 years of the marriage, the daughter divorced her husband and suffered through very painful times to become self-sufficient. This may be an extreme example, but most parents have tried to put more effort into sheltering their teen from the world rather than making them strong enough to deal with it. This approach was sure to fail because no parent is ever capable of so much protection, short of home schooling. Even then, one day the teen would have to deal with the real world.

  3. They failed to realize that the hormonal surge during puberty is a very strong physiological force. This force has been strong for centuries, but more so now that they live among the freest teenagers in the world. The state of denial kept them from discussing the ideas of responsible dating and safe sex.

  4. They held onto the false belief that somehow their ability to impart Desi values would undoubtedly prevail. This belief kept them from even considering any compromise. Their goal was to recreate the India of the 1970s. The time has come for parents to examine which of the Desi values are core values and which ones can be modified. 

  5. The parents failed to appreciate what a teenager's life is all about. One's teenage years in life, regardless of culture, are the times to break rules. Defiance is respected. One who dares to be different is somehow a winner and one who follows all the rules is somehow a loser, a nerd, or an outcast. So unless absolutely necessary, parents should avoid absolute dictums when dealing with teens, and be prepared to face the fact that some rules will be broken.

  6. Parents should have emphasized honesty over good conduct. Teens went underground because of mortal fear. Their parents' unyielding position in the matter of courtship and sex gave them no choice but to lie.

Faced with the unrealistic expectation from the parents and the desire to live like peers, the good Desi teen saw nothing wrong in living a double life. Why not act as expected when surrounded by Desi adults and live the way they wanted to rest of the time. After all it was a victimless crime. And many of astute teens had observed their parents doing the same thing while dealing with their family and friends.

But living a double life was not easy. Other teens were enjoying the freedom and independence while Desi teens had to lie and cheat to do much less. Fear of being caught was always there in the back of their mind. Smitha had skipped few classes when she was a freshman in high school along with many others. Unfortunately, parents found out. There was a big discussion about the loss of trust and even three years later poor Smitha was reminded about breaking the trust. The parents used guilt very effectively.

So with each passing year the frustration level of Desi teens was increasing. The only good thing was that they hoped to escape this misery once they graduate from high school. I think 25% of Desi teens would be severely depressed if high school was one year longer! Graduation was a blessing. Finally the Desi teen could hope to move out and enjoy his/her freedom.

Graduation Party: This was not just a great day for the graduate, but also for the parents. Time to celebrate and show off. This would be the time to host an even bigger party than all the previous ones they had attended in the community. At these parties, a large number of friends and relatives of the parents would be on hand to bless the occasion. The senior was honored with speeches and advice to stay focused and give back to their family and the community in which they were raised.

Incidentally, I must confess that when I first attended graduation extravaganzas in this country, I could not help but compare it to my own graduation back in 1963. It consisted solely of going to the railway station at midnight, picking up the early edition of the local newspaper and seeing one's number listed in there! One kilogram of sweets was enough to entertain all the well wishers who visited my house the next day. Why should it be such a big deal to graduate from high school in this country?

But my envy was soon gone as I realized that in the sixties graduating from high school was what every middle class Indian child did. The teens here have a lot of distractions, ranging from alcohol to drugs, broken relationships to sex, and from strict parents to forcefully imposed Desi values. In spite of this, Desi teens stay focused and graduate. Now, I think every graduating teen deserves the honor.

But in their zeal for celebration, Desi parents often forget the honoree while planning the event. Sheila, a 19 year old, was very bitter about her graduation party. As a matter of fact this was the biggest argument between her and her mom within the past year. Sheila had had enough of Desi uncles and aunties. The last thing she wanted was to be hospitable to them on this special day for her. Her mother, on the other hand, could not conceive of a party where she would not invite all the Desi friends in the community. Whether she liked them or not was a separate issue. Of course mother won (mother always win!), but it left a bad taste in Sheila's mouth. While the parents thought they were doing it for Sheila, she felt she was putting up with this for the sake of parents!

But the Desi teens put up with all of this because there is the light at the end of the tunnel. I never ask the teenager where they are going for college, but generally venture a guess as to where they are likely to go. All of them basically want to go as far away from home as possible! The name of the institution is not as important as to how far it is from home!

Finally, comes the day of departure. The movie American Born Confused Desi depicts this scene rather accurately. The mother cannot stop crying. The father is trying to act strong but he is very saddened by the thought of his son leaving home. The younger sister is smiling in anticipation because now she gets a better room and computer access without fighting for it. The poor graduate tries to act as sad as possible. After the usual hugs and kisses, the car drives off. As soon as it reaches the corner, there is a loud cheer. The teen is excited to finally getting out of that house!!! You can almost hear a big sound in the background, "Free at last, free at last. Thank you Mataji (goddess). I am free at last!"

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