Growing up in a South Asian household, the pursuit of academic excellence was ingrained in my identity from a young age. My parents highly prioritized education and raised me with a belief that success was synonymous with straight A’s and prestigious awards. This cultural backdrop shaped my worldview throughout my high school. Thinking back about it, I was in an academic race to excel in all my exams and get into a good university.
I had a few friends around my neighborhood. Really close ones — we kind of grew up as brothers. We would usually meet in the evenings and play sports, talk about school (we all went to different schools), or just ramble about the most purposeless ideas. I liked to play cricket, soccer and badminton, and my parents were always supportive of me socializing and focusing on my physical health rather than being a complete bookworm. That’s quite ironic though. I still wonder if they actually meant that, given they would get mad if I even brought up the topic of me wanting to join my school’s cricket team…
They probably wanted to raise a child, as I would today consider it, a perfect human. Intellectual, caring, conscious about personal health, and most importantly, can get into prestigious university(ies) and eventually jobs, and so on.
I eventually did get into McGill University, where I started my undergrad in the School of Computer Science. But that was the year when COVID-19 trolled the world, so I had to stay at home for my first year. It wasn’t much of a change from my usual daily life, and definitely not how I had expected my first year in college to be. I took a rather heavy course load for someone in their first year. I couldn’t go out to play or physically meet my friends, so I mostly spent my time studying all day. I would attend lectures at midnight (due to the time-zone difference), go to sleep, wake up, revise what I learned last night because my brain was obviously semi-functional, or work on my assignments.
I started to realize that my mental health was in a downward spiral at that point as I progressed through the fall semester, onto the winter semester. Life moved like a lazy river, and it felt like the onset of draught upon a barren land. It felt like I was stuck in this cage forever, and the only escape was hope. You can only spend so much time with the same people over and over again, even if they’re your parents. I started speaking less and less over time, turning more socially reserved (not that there was much to socialize anyway). This kept going until the following summer when international flights were finally operational again. I took a leap of faith and immediately booked mine. I spent the rest of my time at home mostly envisioning my ideal future — I’d finally land in a new country, be in university, meet new people, and find new interests.
I am about to graduate this semester. My experiences from university so far have shaped me into who I am right now, a totally different person who even me from two years ago would probably be surprised to meet.
Being on my own made me realize that the world is like a treasure map, inviting me to embark on a journey into the unknown, offering a glimpse of independence and personal growth. Everything that I had dreamt of a couple years ago was possible in this new world. I made several new friends, people with their own unique selves. Spending time hanging out with them, joining different student societies, exploring new places in Montreal, drinking for the first time, gossiping about the secret lovebirds among us, making spontaneous plans — all of this was so much better than sitting on my desk for hours converting coffee into a symphony of Greek symbols (a.k.a. Math).
With each passing day, I learned more about myself beyond just my academic interests. I would’ve never thought I’d enjoy go-karting so much as to think of becoming a professional racer at a point or rejoice in nature’s serenity gasping for a breath while on a hike. Neither would I have considered trying creative writing for one, nor ponder about quirky philosophical questions into the abyss of existentialism. Perhaps that’s a result of exposing myself to the world of literature. How I wish, in hindsight, that Dostoevsky and Camus had sprinkled a dash of absurdist intrigue into my life a bit sooner, for it would’ve made me certainly more whimsical. I also just started learning how to cook, something that I would always resist when my mom asked me to try. Little did I know it would be more satisfying to sprinkle spices in the right proportion into the recipe than tasting her culinary delights.
However, this newfound sense of freedom and individuality did come with its own set of challenges. Balancing a heavy course load while keeping your mental health sane is its own delicate art. I annihilate my friends in paintball winning the game for my team, but the paintballs only taint my transcript. I try to paint, but the colors are bleak. My life finally moves like a gentle river and flowers bloom on the once barren desert. However, not long after, I wake up to a fiasco — there are a couple of B’s on my transcript. B-for-bleak!
At first, it didn’t concern me much and I was quite satisfied with how I was doing. I still am. I have a peace of mind, an academic-social balance I had always wished for, professional work experience, and prospects of a promising post-graduate career. But it is like playing tug-of-war with my parents, and their steadfast footing is seemingly stronger than my balance. I would pull the rope by telling them it’s alright to pursue a good social life while balancing academics, but they would retaliate strong with the brainchild of their idealistic thinking. How am I not getting straight A’s anymore? I have failed them. Have I forgotten all the sacrifices they made for me? I should aim to create my own unique persona that differentiates me from the regular university chap. Their concern is palpable, their expectations unwavering. I was almost disowned when I told them that I would most probably start working once I graduate, until I’m financially independent and can sustain myself well in life. It seems like a well thought out plan to me, but they seem to have a preconceived notion that I am getting cast adrift in my youthful currents.
We have such clashes every once a while, and while I do try to pacify them that I still am striving for what they expected out of me, I gradually leaning more towards finding my true self. I am more confident in my own identity than ever before, although I still have a lot to figure out. Having such disagreements with my parents makes me feel that I am at odds with them. That I am slowly creating a buffer between our lives. But then they would say the nicest of things and be supportive when we talk next. It feels like a river meandering, its course filled with bends and turns, almost as if it’s dancing. I am but a tiny rock, trying to be resilient in the now turbulent currents. To be honest though, such disagreements do remind me of where I come from and how I was raised. They force me to rethink the decisions I make for the best. I don’t have to satisfy anyone’s idealistic expectations out of me, but at the same time I don’t want to distance myself away from those who are the closest to me. I will continue to do what I believe is the best for me. I will continue to swim with the river stream, perhaps I’ll dance with it one day.