How I stopped living out people’s stereotypes of myself
Whenever I strayed from their mold, their reactions would scare me to fit back in.
By Uma Patel, Contributor
I grew up feeling inherently mediocre in the shadow of my intelligent older brother. Despite my parents' constant reassurance that they did not compare us, I still did —every. single. day. We all know “comparison is the thief of joy,” but when you’re comparing a 17-year-old’s accomplishments (my brother) to a 10-year-old’s (me), the finish line seems far away. I knew what my brother did at my age and all I wanted to do was reach it or be a little better, anything else felt like a failure. I remember the first time someone recognized my name was in sixth grade when my math teacher gasped during roll call and immediately exclaimed “Are you Rushi Patel’s sister?” I awkwardly replied, “Yes,” and she made me walk across the hallway to tell the English teacher about my familial legacy. I felt like a celebrity. Shortly after the connection was made I started to spiral: She definitely expects me to be good at math. I need to be on my best behavior; my brother is so quiet and studious.
Up until that point, I was getting 60’s on my math exams and missed the invite to honors math, which felt like my first strike. So, I promised myself I’d make it up in middle school. In all honesty, if it wasn’t because of my brother, it was because of my ethnicity.
Kids in my grade, and even teachers, expected me to be smart, timid, and reserved.
So, whenever I strayed from their molds, their reactions would scare me to fit back in. For example, my closest friends know I’ve always been a jokester; making people laugh is my favorite thing to do, regardless of the situation. However, humor wasn’t in the list of qualities I felt like I was allowed to have, so it was off-limits to the outside world.
Middle school ended, and I managed to uphold straight A’s, as expected. I received the “Effort Award” at graduation (what an unfortunate name). I was so excited to start high school with my best friend at a private Catholic all-girls school —without the pressure of my brother’s image. In my head, it was a fresh start to finally be more like myself with new people.
photo credit: Uma Patel
On the first day of high school, we had a rose ceremony.
Freshmen and senior sisters went on the stage of our auditorium and gave each other roses. I remember sitting next to my librarian and thinking about how nice it is to not have a sister at this school —all of sudden, I hear my name. Turns out, there was another Indian girl with the same last name as me in the senior class, and the school just assumed we were sisters. So, we both awkwardly played out their ceremony, until telling them after that “Patel” is just a really common last name and that we’re not siblings. I thought that was it, but I started hearing teachers talk about this accomplished senior as if we were related. I found out that she was a top, ivy league-bound student, who was well-liked by the faculty. Now, it’s not like I started high school with an aim to fail all my classes and be a troublemaker, but to be honest, I would’ve liked to have that option. Instead,
I felt like I was given a whole new set of expectations, just in another form.
I felt the fear come back.
I monitored my humor, hated dress-down days, and started to cry at every grade that wasn’t an A. I was getting amazing grades, but none of the work was for me; it was simply to keep up appearances. I started to dig through my brother’s old high school report cards without my parents knowing just to make sure I was on track: getting A’s and taking the perfect amount of honors and AP classes. During this time, I was starting to go on international dance tours with my Indian classical dance company, but that part of my life was unheard of at high school. Just like humor,
My creativity felt off-limits to the outside world, even though it was a huge source of energy for me.
It truly made me feel powerful, yet the lack of creative Asian representation around me made me believe it was just something I wasn’t allowed to be.
I was constantly feeling a resistance inside me, but I didn’t realize where it was coming from until senior year.
The breaking point was the infamous college rejection letters. I had been working hard for 4 years to please others and uphold stereotypes of a studious, respectful Indian girl. When it came time to plan my future, I had nothing to base it on. I was burned out from pushing myself to like things I wasn’t attracted to and started to confuse passion with obligation. Was I passionate about medicine and ivy league campuses or did I feel obligated to go down that route? Somewhere along the way, I convinced myself that if I wasn’t confirming people’s stereotypes of me then I was failing.
The realization shook me to my core and ultimately left me entering college undecided: my first act of rebellion. I told myself that I’ll take that year to unlearn all the things I was told to care about, sort out what I’ve been doing for others and what I want to do for myself, and truly find who I am.
I quickly realized it wasn’t going to take a year, but more so, a lifetime. But what matters is that I started.
I don’t think there’s ever going to be a finish line. But one thing I know is that since getting to this point, I’ve opened up a range of possibilities for my life that feel more like me and aren’t confined to a chosen set of “acceptable outcomes.” I still have moments where I catch myself doing something for validation or approval, but I call that a win because at least I’m exercising that awareness. One of the ways I like to check in with myself is to see how I feel about the work I’m doing: Do I feel resistance or anxiety? Am I excited to share my work with others? Would 5-year-old Uma be excited and proud to see me? Small questions like these can help refocus where the drive is coming from, and I found the childhood question usually works the best since that’s right before you start comparing and thinking logically of the world.
photo credit: Uma Patel
For example, growing up, I was always into arts and crafts. I would make jewelry, scrapbooks, and wallets made of folders. I even attempted to build a store in my backyard by hand-laying my dad’s old bricks in a square. I loved the feeling of looking down at something I made that didn’t exist that morning. Yet for years, I neglected those childhood activities until I was forced to relearn who I am.
Those memories ultimately allowed me to give myself permission to write more, take photos, and pursue the world of entrepreneurship.
Hopefully pieces like this and having more Asian representation in the media will ensure that more young children grow up believing that they can truly be anything they want, despite what others expect. Remember that your inability to uphold people’s expectations or stereotypes of yourself is not a failure on your part but on their part.
Maintain awareness in your decisions by looking at what your driving force is; think: Am I motivated by fear or curiosity? Remember, it’s never too late to change direction when it comes to what you care about, and that as long as your work fills you up at night when you’re alone and have no one to share it with, then continue to fill your soul. Compliments and positive impressions will only be a bonus.
About — Uma Patel is a first generation Indian-American college student studying Chemistry and Computer Science at Drexel University’s Pennoni Honors College. In 2020, she started a fem-tech platform on Instagram with her friend, Melinda Hu, called Let’s Sync Health (@lets.sync.health) with an aim to provide approachable and inclusive women’s health content. In her free time she enjoys taking both film and digital photography (@umaypatel), going to art museums, and finding new coffee shops. She’s lived in Philadelphia, New York City and now Boston as she works toward breaking into Venture Capital and writing her book on female polymaths.
Cover photo credit: Uma Patel, @umaypatel