Immigrants' daughter moves from apathy to ambition

THE BUDDHIST INSIGHT is this: Once you relinquish your desires, nothing can hurt you.

The childish adaptation of this insight, one that arrives as an epiphany or a gradual habit in the lives of children, is that "I don't care" makes everything easier.

You don't control your life; your parents and your teachers and the bullies do. If you honestly don't care what you're having for dinner, you'll never be disappointed.

If you can say "I don't care" enough, you'll believe it, so you won't mind when you change schools four times in three years and you lose all your friends four times over. It's a great coping mechanism!

"I don't care" helps until you graduate from high school, go to a job or college, and realize that caring is the engine that keeps you going when no one is forcing you to do what he or she wants.

Like, say, your parents.

My parents just want me to be happy. And, of course, they know what will make me happy: a job in engineering or medicine or law; a lifelong marriage with a good Indian boy from the Ivy Leagues or Stanford or Berkeley; 2.5 kids; a Toyota Corolla; and a house near a Hindu temple in Fremont or Sunnyvale or Livermore. (I'm only half joking.)

They wanted my happiness so much that the engine of their hope drove me all through my childhood and adolescence. They were pushing so hard that I never had to push myself.

It took me a long time to remember that I have desire and agency. I can choose a life for myself! And so began my milquetoast rebellions.

I majored in political science instead of computer science at UC Berkeley. Note: Both of these are not actually sciences; no discipline that has "science" in its name is.

I dated — and worse, I dated white guys.

I studied abroad in Russia, unlike my Indianer-than-thou sister, who spent a semester in New Delhi. She learned Hindi and Kannada and how to cook Indian food. My Indian-ness consisted of reading Amar Chitra Katha ("Immortal Picture Stories"), comic books about Indian mythology and history.

That's how I learned about Buddhism.

I didn't know where I was going or who I wanted to be, so I just defined myself in opposition to my parents. After graduating from Cal, I ended up in dead-end customer service jobs because they wanted me to go to graduate school, as my sister did.

But then my parents went back to India. Instead of talking to them on the phone every day and seeing them every month, I started talking with them once a week and seeing them once a year. I relaxed. My fear of their disapproval, and my disgust with my own need for their approval, faded.

On my own, I slowly learned how to make my own plans for the future. When I was a child, my parents had moved our family abruptly and often, but now I learned to believe that tomorrow would be very similar to today, and that my choices could affect the future. Sure, in school the teachers had urged us to make timelines and goal maps, but all the empty promises in the world, even promises to myself laid out on construction paper, didn't have will behind them.

Now I marveled at my ability to make and carry out plans. I could choose my own meals and mealtimes, throw parties and travel on my own. I imagine this is how prisoners feel in the first days out of jail.

I gave away the huge bags of food my mother brought me every time she visited, but I kept the idols of Ganesha, the god of luck, doorways and opportunities.

Eventually I could consider my career plans without hearing their voices in my head. I could acknowledge their advice gratefully without feeling it was a constraint. They still want me to go to graduate school, and I'll consider that path on its merits. I doubt I'll go into medicine or engineering, but law sounds interesting. I probably won't marry a Kannada-speaking Indian man, but if I have children, I'll want to regularly take them to a Hindu temple.

I still don't eat meat, and I still pray, and I still take my shoes off when I come home. I won't let my parents live vicariously through me, but I'm still their daughter, and an Indian.

I haven't relinquished all my desires. (Sorry, Buddha.) But I'm learning that I have them, and that my desires, not my parents', are the ones I have to heed to live a satisfying life.

Sumana Harihareswara's column appears on Thursdays in Bay Area Living. You can e-mail her at