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What Will People Say?

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

There were at least ten of us, in a group, all armed with a slipper in our hands. The goal? To see who gets hit by the slipper the most. The sounds of our laughter filled the warm evenings. All of us were children of expatriates, all from different parts of India. Our ages ranged from 5 to 15 but no one discriminated against each other – not for any reason. We would gather at one of the houses whenever we could after homework was done and before dinner was served to play any game that required minimal to no equipment. I have no words to describe the joy I felt from those experiences – this is what love felt like, this is what community was all about. For me, community meant “with unity – three or more people unified by their uniqueness.”

Image credit: 448271 from Pixaby

But this sense of unity (and community) I felt was shattered by one incident or rather the way people responded to one incident. We came to know of a 9-year-old girl who was gang raped. This girl wasn’t part of our group as she lived in another part of the city. We met at a social function and even at the tender age of 6, I knew something bad had happened to her but not to ask or comment on it. I tried to be nice to her, to talk to her, to make her feel that she was just like me, that she was my equal. She was a sweet, quiet girl.

People started talking – she was raped because her parents always dropped her off to school early, before the gates were open. She would have to wait outside, alone – that’s why she was raped. It was her parents’ fault. That is what people said. Truth is – she was raped because those men raped her – the rape was the cause, nothing else. Unfortunately, because of what people said, I shudder to think how she and her family were affected by these comments.

It was at this point that I began to notice the extent to which my parents’ rules and regulations dictating how I was raised had always revolved predominantly over “What will people say?”

I was raised very traditionally which included being taught to speak my mother tongue fluently without an English accent because what would “family” back home say? That my parents left their culture behind when they emigrated. From not being allowed to talk to boys, to not showing my legs, to getting married by a certain age, to showing myself as “marketable” to any potential future husband and his family, to being responsible for my parents’ honour for which I was required to walk the straight and narrow, everything in my life was dictated by “what will people say?” No one asked me what I wanted. Worse yet – no one asked me if I was happy. It never was about me, it was about ensuring no one pointed fingers and gossiped about my parents for any action I took of my own free will. I had no free will.

I thought things would be different after I got married because now I was creating my own community and my husband’s family claimed to be liberal thinkers. However, I would soon find out that the liberal thinking applied only where it suited their needs while I was expected to follow traditional ways. I followed this regardless of the contradictions due to my own fears – what would people say about how my parents raised me? What if they convinced my husband that I was not a good match for him? What if he left me because of this?

One common theme I noticed in both my own family and my husband’s family is that if I failed to toe the line, or in other words: failed to live up to their expectations of me, I would be yelled at – told what I did wrong and if I didn’t apologise profusely, I was given the silent treatment. This hurt deeply – that I ceased to exist for my family simply because I thought and my thinking went against their beliefs. I was not allowed to think – at least not if what I thought questioned their beliefs. Would I ever get to experience community again and was this the community my own and husband’s family wanted to experience?

Sadly, I see a lot of children of immigrants battling what I did growing up. Every time I attend a social function, I see these kids dressed up in traditional clothes, following religious rituals, and speaking their mother tongue yet when they are alone away from their parents, the picture is totally different. Every second word is a swear word, children 13 years and sometimes younger are uttering slurs against marginalized groups. Why?

Just like me, these children are being raised from a place of their parents’ fear – what will people say? Their parents broke the tradition of living with their immediate and extended families under one roof. They wanted a better life for themselves so they moved away. Most likely, they were taunted for abandoning family, for being selfish, and furthermore taunted about their children who wouldn’t know their culture and roots because they are growing up outside of their homeland. Those back home probably mock their children for their accents when they speak their mother tongue. Why do those left behind taunt? For that reason – they feel they got left behind, abandoned, and will eventually be forgotten. This is what I have seen firsthand.

This causes the parents who get abused for taking the step to move away to want to avoid any more abuse. The way the parents do this is to overcompensate with their children. That means parents are trying to avoid abuse from their parents by abusing their children.

And it is these factors that push immigrant parents to pressure their kids in multiple ways including in their education. Nobody wants to be pressured, why would kids be any different? So they act out trying to find their own identity.

Would it be so bad if parents just listened to what their kids wanted and let them have a choice? What’s the worst that could happen? That their child wouldn’t have to live a dual life and they might actually be happy because they feel safe and free to be themselves?

Yes, I speak from experience – my children have this freedom to choose and I have no qualms about it. As for the taunts, I have a simple answer: what matters more? That my child is happy because they feel safe or that my child is miserable following rules and regulations so that I am not taunted?

Becoming more and more of my authentic self has shown me so many things. Those who give the silent treatment are showing me that they lack the maturity to handle conflict, they are prideful and incapable of considering they could be wrong and the silent treatment is manipulative as well as abusive. Knowing this, the silent treatment no longer hurts me, I’ve risen above that.

Why do people value public opinion? Another simple yet profound answer – we lack confidence in our uniqueness hence we seek external validation to feel better about ourselves. External validation is based on superficial things like image, appearance, and fitting in. I often struggle to sit through some social functions because conversations are all about one-upping each other in every tangible area: career, finance, children’s education and achievements, holidays – you name it.

How do we overcome giving public opinion so much value? There are two very simple principles: causality and non-contradiction. What is the cause of someone sharing their opinion/advice/taunt? Is it to facilitate my purpose and progress or is it to facilitate their needs/stifle their fears? Would you take criticism from someone whom you wouldn’t take advice from?

Non-contradiction: Are they willing to do what they are asking me to do? Are they currently doing it?

The answers to these two questions helped me discover whose thoughts, guidance, and advice I should value and embrace, writing the rest off to background noise. Based on this, I determined who truly belongs in my community and who doesn’t – I have no regrets about letting go of those who don’t belong in my community because I’m beginning to get back to experiencing a community as I had before.

The reality is community is not what it was before and is continuing to get worse because parents are focusing more harshly on “What will people say?”, which proves they aren’t really in community with these people.

Let me leave you with this – what do you value more: your/your child’s happiness or public opinion?

Originally published on Bizcatalyst 360:

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