Why I Want A Degree In My Hand Before A Ring On My Finger
My parents came to this country without knowing how they would lead their lives, but they were adamant their kids would lead better ones through the power of education.
I always imagined a degree in my hand before a ring on my finger. Trust me, a diamond ring sounds nice, but as womxn of color, we are constantly questioned about our capabilities, so a degree is a tangible piece of evidence that defies patriarchal norms that regurgitate demeaning ideals for womxn.
My parents came to this country without knowing how they would lead their lives, but they were adamant their kids would lead better ones through the power of education. When my parents left Bangladesh, they were faced with vitriol, especially from family and friends. People felt they were betraying the country by leaving. My mother often told me that to prove we were not traitors, I had to maintain my roots while also assimilating into the American culture. As a six-year-old, I was torn between these two distinct worlds. My name at home was pronounced one way, while at school, it would be anglicized. I felt detached from my cultural identity until my mother gave me a pair of small jhumkas. Anything I wore to school screamed “I am American” to prevent myself from being the epicenter of mockery, but my mother forced me to wear the jhumkas to show gratitude for my culture. I wore them to school the next day while being confined in a cage of embarrassment. The compliments I received were bewildering because I wasn’t conforming to American standards. Through this small display of my culture, my Bengali-American identity became evident to me. I wanted to embrace every bit of it.
In 2017, I went to Bangladesh with the intent of learning more about my Bengali side. While learning more about my heritage, I also learned more about the womxn in my family. My aunt was in her second year of college when she received her marriage proposal. She wanted to become a nutritionist, but that dream came to a halt once her father decided she would get married. Another one of my aunts was unable to finish her degree because her mother-in-law condemned attending college while married. Both womxn were told to prioritize motherhood and being an obedient wife over their life ambitions. I was confused — my parents always said education would help me survive this world, but hearing these stories brought me discomfort with my cultural identity yet again.
On my fifteenth birthday, I asked my parents what would happen if someone were to mention marriage before I established my career. They fell quiet, and this long, uncomfortable silence felt louder than any life lessons they’ve given me. Their fear of being shunned again overruled the dream of seeing their daughter succeed in the United States, where opportunities supposedly abound. No one back in Bangladesh considered them to be a traitor anymore, but to go against tradition could be the catalyst of them being completely ostracized. But on my seventeenth birthday, my parents had an epiphany. They said, “If people tell you to put bangles around your wrist before a stethoscope around your neck, you tell them your parents would be proud of you regardless of what traditions say.”
I was proud of my parents for not submitting to traditional standards, but when I turned 18, rather than a blissful birthday wish from extended family members, I was asked, “When are you getting married?” My chacha and chachi became my physical Tinder, presenting an abundance of potential suitors. “I am not getting married for a long time,” I told them. “That doesn’t mean I don’t love being Bengali. It just means it’s time for girls in our family to finally fulfill their ambitions first without having to feel guilty.” They all looked at me with disdain, but I knew that if someone didn’t start somewhere, no one would get anywhere.
We live in a time when womxn in the United States are encouraged to get an education, including higher education, before marriage. They are told to be independent and not be defined by domestic work. To hear about womxn getting married as soon they turn 18 is unconventional, but it’s a reality. The youth often deal with the burden of carrying traditional values over to the next generation at the expense of their aspirations. One thing I’ve noticed about my generation is how Gen Z is breaking barriers between tradition and progress. Besides denying marriage at the age of 18, our generation has been challenging societal standards through many avenues. From embracing sexuality more explicitly to more social reforms, we are paving the way for a progressive society. My younger cousins finally have someone to look up to when they need assurance that they more than household chores. They can look down the road to their life without the roadblock of generational norms.
It's a cliché, but this year was supposed to be our year — full of independence, opportunity, or at least a few weekend afternoons spent with more than 10 friends with fewer than six feet between us. But with COVID-necessary social distancing, a shitty job market, and closed campuses, 2020 hasn't given us much to work with. Past generations have had to deal with a recession, social upheaval, and changing norms: We've had to deal with all of it at once. So, what now? What do we do with our careers, our relationships, and our lives? How do we move forward when we're still stuck in our high school bedrooms? These stories are for us — filled with the resources, blueprints, and people who are finding ways to turn all this garbage into something like lemonade.