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How to Navigate Standards of Success as a South Asian

At the intersection of mental health and career, lie South Asian youth confined by cultural standards for success. The abundance of South Asian engineers, physicians, and computer scientists we see today is far from being a mere coincidence. It’s this social rigidity around acceptable careers, that has proven to be mentally taxing for both the individual pursuing the career, and their family.

Photo of a South Asian woman
Photo by Sukhmani Bal

Canada is home to 1.6 million people of South Asian origin, the largest racialized group in the country. Representing one-quarter of all working-age visible minorities, career choosing has shown to be a significant source of stress for this group. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that a fulfilling career leads to better life satisfaction, and as a result, lower vulnerability to mental health problems. The expectation for South Asian students to pursue what is considered an “acceptable” career in South Asian immigrant culture is sourced from cultural, familial, and societal expectations. Research has shown higher rates of anxiety and mood disorders for this population compared to immigrants from other parts of the world. The lack of acceptance for more “liberal” or “creative” majors prevents South Asian students from pursuing their true passions, which in turn leads to the suppression of cultivating meaningful work.

Coming from a collectivist society, South Asian immigrants traditionally place more value on prestige and status over individual desires. This in return, causes your career to become a reflection of honour and reputation. Parental pressure and expectation to pursue high paying careers has been linked to the insecurities South Asians may feel about their immigrant status. This is highly reflected in society today, as Asian Canadians are highly over-represented in careers in mathematics, engineering, and biological science. Likewise, statistics report an equal under-representation of Asian Canadians in non-traditional careers, including education, social, and behavioural sciences. When navigating through a western society that prides itself on individual expression, the boundaries around self-identity for South Asians can become blurred. South Asian children can find themselves conflicted when choosing a career - blindly following the default option can seem easier than pushing for an idealistic one that goes against traditional values. These topics aren’t discussed enough within these communities, which can negatively impact the mental health of those involved.

Beyond cultural expectations, South Asian Canadians are also stereotyped by the model minority myth, one that labels South Asians as economically successful, untroubled, compliant, excelling in math and science, and succeeding in spite of racial barriers and discrimination. In other words, Canadian society expects South Asians to be high achievers as well. Those who fall short of the expectation may experience feelings of incompetence, and a constant need to prove they can be just as successful. The stereotypes placed on South Asians can serve as a source of pressure and influence onto their career choices.

However, students aren’t the only ones experiencing mental health issues. South Asian immigrant parents who may have once experienced significant financial insecurity, , sacrificed meaning and passion for a job that put dinner on the table. More than success, career choice became a matter of survival. Through this lens, choosing a career for personal happiness becomes extremely foreign, and can be dismissed as being naïve. Consequently, students choosing culturally ‘unconventional’ career choices can serve as a source of fear for parents due to the immigrant emphasis on financial security. On the flip side, progressive immigrant parents who watch their children pursue careers of their choice can even experience feelings of regret and purposelessness with their own occupations.

In ‘The gifts of imperfection’, Brené Brown explains how squandering our gifts brings distress to our lives. If we suppress our passions, we pay for it with our emotional and physical well-being. This can evoke feelings of disconnectedness, emptiness, frustration, and even grief.

“No one can define what’s meaningful for us. Culture doesn’t get to dictate if it’s working outside the home, raising children, lawyering, teaching, or painting. Like our gifts and talents, meaning is unique to each one of us.”

Today, we’re seeing a rise in successful Canadian South Asians breaking boundaries in arts, entertainment, and political arenas. This type of representation overturns the cultural norms, paving new pathways for young, old, and middle-aged South Asians. However, it’s the challenges we face throughout our journey in which the bearing weight of traditional standards for success seem to feel heavier. This culture-specific source of mental distress makes it all-the-more important for South Asians to seek culturally sensitive therapy. Mental health professionals who understand the unspoken norms and expectations can provide clients with the appropriate help and guidance. Taking the first steps to finding a counsellor may just be the key to unlocking the diverse potential South Asians hold.

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Buvneet is a 3rd year Indo-Canadian student at McMaster University majoring in Biomedical Discovery and Commercialization, and minoring in Community Engagement.


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