British Columbia·First Person

I rejected the doctor or lawyer career path so many desi kids are pressured to take

When Manjot Mann chose a career as a therapist, it strained her relationship with her dad.

There’s not even a word in Punjabi to describe my work as a therapist

A smiling child sits on a horse statue.
Manjot Mann, posing on a horse statue at age five, was supposed to follow her father’s dream to become a lawyer or doctor. (Submitted by Manjot Mann)

This First Person article is written by Manjot Mann who lives in Surrey, B.C. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I always have a pit in my stomach before I appear on the radio.

I am a therapist but I am also a 32-year-old desi (South Asian) woman in Canada talking about the stigma around depression, setting boundaries with your family and the judgment around being a working mom in the South Asian community. 

I always wonder who's listening, who's turning the dial up or down, who's nodding in agreement or shaking their head. I wonder what they think of the disembodied female voice speaking on the local Punjabi radio station about things we've been taught to never speak about openly such as mental health.

I always wonder if my dad is listening. 

When I applied to grad school three years ago, I did so with trepidation. How was I going to explain to my immigrant parents that I wanted to become a registered clinical counsellor?

My dad wanted me to become a doctor or lawyer. Those were my options growing up. They were my identity before I was even born. 

In the South Asian community, your profession is of the utmost importance because it impacts your status in society and can even affect your marriage prospects. And here I was trying to become a therapist so I could talk about taboo topics such as mental health.

My family and community have been clear about how they feel, saying things like;

Lok ke kehenge? (What will people say?)

Your career is also a reflection of the sacrifice your parents made to give you a better life in this new country. 

Why would you become a therapist when you can be a doctor? Did I make those sacrifices for this?

The guilt-tripping is real. 

It's not easy going against the desires of your parents as an immigrant kid because you risk estrangement from the only family you've ever known, in a country that sometimes doesn't feel as welcoming to you because of skin colour and religion.

When I put my foot down about my career and said, "I don't think this is me," it felt oddly displacing, even though I knew it was the right decision for me. I sometimes still question myself. I never became what my father wanted me to be and it feels wrong and selfish, despite processing my grief in therapy. 

Manjot Mann, left, as a four year old, grew up in Surrey, B.C. Her mother, right, moved to B.C. from India when she was nine. (Submitted by Manjot Mann)

But I know I'm not alone. As a therapist, I hear my story echoed in the voices of my clients, many of whom are second-generation immigrants from India.

Like many others, my parents immigrated to Canada for a better life. My mom moved to Prince Rupert, B.C., with her family when she was nine years old. My dad immigrated to B.C. years later at the age of 28 after marrying my mom. 

Perhaps because my mom spent her formative years in Canada, she has become acculturated to western life and has a liberal and accepting approach to my career. She's always been open to my siblings and me exploring careers that were never an option for her growing up. 

But my dad came here as an adult and saw the struggle for those who were not born and raised here. He was a drafting teacher in India before moving to Canada. His degree was not recognized, and he had to learn English while working long hours at a 7-Eleven making sandwiches. 

It was not the life he envisioned. 

For my dad, if I became a doctor or a lawyer, I would be successful and his sacrifice would have meaning.

As a therapist who discusses stigmatized topics, I feel like I don't make sense to him. In fact, I feel like I don't make sense to a lot of people in my community. 

The idea that people would share intimate details about their lives, that they want to improve their relationships with their parents or children, is unheard of and strange because, in a collectivist culture like ours, we are taught to keep these things hidden. 

Aapa theek aa, gull karan di kee lohd a (We're fine, why do we need to talk about it?)

It makes me feel strange to think about my career and that I not only chose something unorthodox but also a profession that lacks a direct translation in the Punjabi language.

At times, I'm not sure I make sense to myself. 

If you ask my daughter what my job is, she'll respond, "Mommy talks about feelings." 

She is the reason why I continue to persevere.

Three-year-old Sophia says her mother’s job is to talk about feelings. (Submitted by Manjot Mann)

I need to be my authentic self so my daughter knows what that looks like. To be fully and deeply embedded in a life I've created, based on the things I love — that's my gift to her. It's also a gift from my parents — whether they realize it or not. 

I didn't have to struggle the way they did and so now I have choices. I am blessed that I did not have to immigrate to a new country, learn a new language, start a career from scratch and get used to a new cultural climate.

I love my parents; I don't begrudge my dad for not understanding my chosen path, because I learned to accept myself. 

Today, my dad and I are a work in progress. We went from having a strained relationship marked with periods of silence to now trying to have more meaningful discussions around the dinner table. He is trying to accept what it means to have a daughter who has chosen a career that is difficult for him to discuss and define, and I am working to understand how his views stem from a place of fear but also love.  

This is new for us and we're still learning. We are going from never talking about our feelings to feeling comfortable sharing our happiness, discomfort, fears and hopes for the future.

I will always be uncomfortable on the radio. I will always be uncomfortable sharing my words. I will always hope one day my dad will read or hear something that will make him secure in the knowledge that my success looks different than what he imagined but I am happy nonetheless.

I am not a doctor or a lawyer. I am a therapist and damn proud.

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Manjot Mann

Freelance contributor

Manjot Mann is a mom, therapist and writer in Surrey, B.C. She writes for 5XPress and occasionally appears on Spice Radio 1200 AM.