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Struggling to Find My Place

South Asian people are very social. We have approximately 15 different dinner parties every month, invite friends over 10 times a week, and have phone bills that sometimes make our hearts skip a beat. At one point in my life, I loved this aspect of my culture. I was always meeting new people, spent lots of time with family friends and always had lots of great food to eat.

It took getting older to see the toxic nature that surrounded these parties, mainly with the mother figures. Whereas the dads are busy with their talks about government, politics and sports, the moms focus on the more superficial aspects of life — the unattainable Perfect Family. Each woman aiming to reflect this goal with a perfect house, an awesome, well-paying career for the husbands, bright and beautiful children to light up the family portraits [and who will one day be owners of these wondrous letters: Dr. and Ph.D], and a wife with lavish clothes and high-end purses to boast.

The perfect family.

Too bad it doesn’t exist. There isn’t a mold that everyone should fit in, and those that don’t, well then, they’re imperfect? Life is too complex to work like that. But if they knew this, I wouldn’t have gone through my personal journey of self-discovery.

When I was younger, all anyone cared about was my hair style or my pink flowery dresses. I read constantly, everywhere, so I was deemed intelligent from the get-go. In high school, there was a lot of interest in what I wanted to do with my life. Because I’d been branded as “precocious,” people often assumed I’d become a doctor; they had already predetermined this for me. My post-secondary education was the most discussed topic with the moms at these parties. They were often satisfied with my answer of pursuing “something in the health sciences.” I held myself back from saying I wanted to be a doctor, because I felt it was what they wanted to hear, and I would not be the one to disappoint. Little did they know, I would graduate high school and would within one year of my biology program, switch my path to nursing.

“Nursing?” One particular Mom at a potluck gasped. Repulsion dripped off her words and the room went quiet as people tuned in to our pleasant conversation. It was like I’d told her I’d signed up to become a mermaid. Her face was an open book, flashing one all-encompassing expression: disgust.

What usually followed in these conversations was a look of pity and the infuriating question: “Why?”

“Why not?” I countered in one occasion, when my mother was nowhere near to hear me talking back. “What’s wrong with nursing?”

The mom stared at me with uninterested eyes, her mouth already set in a line of disapproval. This lady, who had a set idea of what is means to be “successful,” was judging my educational choices. “Well,” she hesitated, “are your parents okay with it?” 

I felt my heart speed up and anger flare. “Yeah,” I retorted, “they’re the ones who gave me the idea.” In reality, I was the one to introduce the idea to my Dad and he was wholly supportive. My mother on the other hand — bless her soul — is very stubborn, and from the moment she was aware of my plans, she began to belittle nursing. Her stance is reflective of her desire for the non-existent perfect family. Because in South Asian standards, nurses are deemed imperfect. The reality was hard for me to swallow, because in my mother’s eyes, I’d destroyed her dream.

“Oh, are they?” The nosy mom’s eyebrows shot up in skeptical surprise. Unsatisfied, she dismissed my answer with a wave of her hand and said, “Well, I always figured you were interested in becoming a doctor. I guess not everyone’s built for it.”

“No,” I nodded in agreement, looking her up and down, “I suppose not everyone is. You have to have a certain level of intellect to pursue any career for that matter. Not everyone is built for education. Some are only good for house chores.”

Of course, I didn’t say the last part. My mother would hear of my disrespect not only from this lady herself, but a dozen other people who’d inevitably get wind of the news in an instant. Gossip spreads fast in this community.

In situations like these, where one party is being belittled, the rest of the group takes it upon themselves to offer words of misguided encouragement and wisdom. I heard tons of stories that day about “my neighbor’s friend got accepted to UofT in his third year” and “my daughter has a 99% average and she’s studying for the MCAT, why don’t you ask her for advice” as well as the blatant lies “my son got accepted into every medical school in Canada and America! He’s having a tough time choosing which to accept!” 

All the while from across the room, I kept glancing back at my mom who was leaning on the wall nodding and smiling but not being able to hide the anger and embarrassment from me. Her cheeks had reddened, and her eyes were balls of steel as they flicked back and forth between the guests and me but if the other mom’s noticed, they didn’t end the conversation. They competed to outclass each other, and as a result, I’d hear of how other families were blessed and our family was cursed for weeks to come. My mom would be so angry she’d exaggerate the facts so that so and so’s son not only got accepted to every school in Canada and the United States, but the Queen herself offered him a residency at Oxford University. 

When conversation blessedly withered off, I trudged to my room with heavy feet and collapsed in my bed. The tears surprised me, but when the dam burst, I had a hard time stopping them. Rolling down my cheeks in cold, wet streaks, they would lull me to sleep that night. 

This was not a singular experience. In fact, I’ve lost count how many times I’ve fallen into this same pattern of communication. Some people have a hard time remembering, so I find myself engaging in the same conversation multiple times with the same person.

“Well, you asked me this the last time you were over, but to refresh your memory, it’s nursing that I’m doing.” 

“Oh?” a flash of a pitying expression, “why is that?”

“Because I like it!” 

“Oh, that’s good. It’s not a … well, anyway it doesn’t matter. As long as you like it.” 

What can one even say to that?

I began to wonder where this distaste came from. What made the nostrils of these older, supposedly wiser, people turn up? Despite my explanations of the career, what did they perceive of nursing? How could a field so honorable and selfless raise such levels of degradation?

I’d seen the other end of the spectrum at work when customers would engage in conversation about school. The conversations would always end with the customer praising my choice. “That’s awesome. Not everyone’s built for that rigor. Good for you!”

And I knew they were right. I knew I should be proud of myself and my achievements thus far. Nursing isn’t an easy career path by any means. I blamed myself for not being able to express my excitement for the career. However, as it seems, I was never alone in my fight.

The pieces of the puzzle began falling into my lap when I heard the story my uncle’s career path hurdles. Currently, he’s a criminal defense lawyer who studied in England, but this wasn’t his first career choice. He’d had an interest in nursing as a young child, and when it came time for applications to post-secondary education, it was what he applied for. He was ecstatic when he got in, jumping up and down and rushing around to tell everyone the ‘good’ news. “It was very puzzling,” a cousin told me of the memory, “you don’t see that happiness associated with … nursing? You’d have thought he’d gotten a medical college scholarship.”

It turns out that he’d gotten his parents’ permission to pursue nursing. Unfortunately, permission is not the same as approval. After all, he had all the negative stereotypes stacked against him. Not only was he wanting to go into nursing, he was the eldest son. “Imagine the embarrassment and shame everyone must have felt,” my cousin explained, adding offhandedly, “who would marry a male nurse?”

It saddened me to learn that because of the negative tension surrounding my uncle’s decision to pursue nursing school, the ‘embarrassment’ his parents felt, and the gossip friends and family members were spooling on the rumor mill, he was pressured to drop out of nursing and find another career path. 

Imagine the family tree exhaling a collective sigh of relief as such a ‘tragedy’ had been successfully avoided. This blood line had never produced a nurse, and it never would. That was the unspoken rule and my uncle was the only person to ever challenge it.

Until there came a time when I explored nursing and became hooked. Like my uncle, I learned early on that many people disapproved. It was visible in their expressions and in their unnecessary shock as I told them of my decision to apply. I learned that nurses in my home country of Pakistan were equal, if not seen as lesser, than ‘cleaners,’ which in Pakistan is considered as a very ‘low status job.’

How were people viewing the field of nursing in Pakistan? By what standards was nursing deemed immoral and unethical?

According to my father, the cycle of distaste was endless. Patients’ families would treat nurses with disrespect, and in return, nurses would retaliate by providing poor service. Their poor service would thus garner even more distaste from patients and their families, and that distaste would result in nurses retaliating further. It is a sad, endless cycle of anger and unnecessary hate. The major cause: poor societal values in a culture that values money, social status and ‘prestigious’ education. Over time, the career of nurses was tainted, and to this day, it remains in shambles.

Unfortunately for me, this nurse-hate association wasn’t bound merely to Pakistan. It had leaked its way into Canada. Family friends, who also happened to be physicians, would learn of my decision and would try to convince my family to encourage me to pursue a different path. “It’s a horrible field and they [nurses] do terrible jobs,” the majority of them advised, with the means to dissuade me with, “All day, cleaning this, cleaning that, getting compensated for nothing. It’s a neck breaker. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”

Although the advice was a little over dramatic, I wasn’t fazed one bit. I wasn’t naive. I’d done my fair share of research and volunteer work. I knew nursing wasn’t a walk in the park, but I’d also seen first-hand the difference a nurse could make, and that, to me, stood out. Making people smile in difficult times and encouraging growth was among the many things nurses did. Those other tasks, though they came along with the job and are also important, are secondary to what nurses do primarily: restoring patient’s wellbeing and their dignities. When thought of that way, we carry a lot of responsibility, and make a world of a difference.

Despite two years of trying to convince family friends that I had made the right choice when it came to pursuing nursing, I still get looks of pity, and sad shrugs of dismissal. My value in other’s eyes has diminished. They seem to hold the stance that I’ve wasted my talent. People will still tell me that I have time to reconsider my life. I’m still young, they tell me; I’ve got lots of time to do a 180 and find my true path.

 “You’ll learn the truth of the matter the day you find yourself sitting in a hospital, fear clinging to your soul as you or a loved one fights for their life,”  I always wanted to say, but always held back because it’s a very harsh and truthful statement. “The ego is terrified of the truth,” the author Byron Katie once said, “and the truth is that the ego doesn’t exist.” I should have spoken these words, but I never got the chance, for before I knew it, they were coming back to teach my family a very hard lesson. 

I returned home for the weekend during a holiday from school to find my mom and sister crowding my brother’s room. My mom was holding up soup and encouraging him to eat. The bowl was still full. My brother was laying in his bed, three blankets cocooning him in, and shivering despite his forehead being covered in a sheen of sweat, with his bangs slick and sticking to his skin. His eyes were half closed in exhaustion, as a layer of heat rose from his body. The most alarming sign were his lips. They were blown up to three times the size. “Kylie Jenner lip challenge gone wrong?” I joked with him, but inside I was worried because I had never seen an allergic reaction to this extent.

“What do you think?” My sister asked, “Is it an allergic reaction?” 

This was the first time I’d ever been asked to diagnose someone. I racked my brain of any information I could spew out at her. In the end, I had to admit I was clueless. “What did the doctor say?”

“He said it’s normal. He said this may happen, but…” she trailed off hopelessly. 

“Oh, okay,” I nodded, “Well, if it gets worse, we should get him checked out.”

He was admitted to the hospital two days later when he hadn’t ingested anything for 12 hours straight, while complaining of pain. His lips had gotten even larger and now they had scabbed over with a dried, crusted bloody outline surrounded by bright red dots of blood slowly oozing out. His skin was sallow and circular raw scabs had erupted all over his body, growing steadily by the day. There was no question: his allergic reaction had become alarmingly worse.

At the hospital, it felt like everyone was scrambling for a diagnosis. My sister told me that the team had to call pediatricians from other locations to get consultations. The term ‘Stevens-Johnson syndrome’ was introduced to us for the first time; finding out that my brother was inflicted with something so rare that it affected one to two out of a million people was quite off-putting. For the first time, we felt powerless and were at the mercy of the hospital staff and current medical technology.

It was a sad, quiet time at home without my brother’s, once annoying, but now missed, pretend fights with the air. Like a dark shadow, his illness repelled us from the house and we spent as much time as we could with him in the hospital. My mother, for that matter, only left his side for two hours a day to shower and get a change of clothes.

As a nursing student, I was keen to investigate this illness I’d never heard of before. Words like toxic, fatal and sepsis scared me away from digging any deeper. An unsettling fear would prevent me from sharing what I’d learned with anyone, and so I kept it bottled inside. Speak no evil, see no evil.

During one of my visits to the hospital, a nurse and her students popped into the room for a quick check-up. They checked his IV site, took his vitals, listened to his pneumonia-riddled lungs and asked us if there was anything we needed and also answered my mother’s questions. Once they had left, I noticed the room felt 10 shades brighter. My mother didn’t say anything, but I could instantly tell the difference the nurses had made in her stress levels by simply popping in for a routine check-in. They had shown us, through their care, that he was not just another number; he mattered, and for my mother, it meant the world.

Several days passed and on my next visit to the hospital, I was met with great news! Fortunately, my brother’s care plan regimen was becoming very effective and he was slowly getting better, although his lips would appear to reflect otherwise. He could finally swallow liquids after eight days of his elective “nothing by mouth” diet and his energy levels, as well as his mood, had exponentially improved.

With spirits high, talk of discharge were discussed excitedly. Amidst making plans of watching a movie in theatres and planning a barbecue trip to the beach in celebration, three knocks interrupted our plans. My brother’s most recent nurse poked her head inside. She was like a ray of sunshine; bright and bubbly, excited, and above all, compassionate as she took care of final tasks. Once she had left, my father said something that I will forever cherish.

“If I could go back in time to when I was in school,” he slowly reflected, “I would choose nursing school.” He smiled, and there was something that resembled regret in his brown eyes. When my mother scoffed, he snapped out of his revere and nodded. “I certainly would,” He reaffirmed his earlier statement, “You’ve seen how caring they are. How they tirelessly work, and make sure everything is okay. They literally nursed his health back. It’s a selfless profession,” he glanced at me with eyes full of pride, “…and that is very honorable.”

In the end, despite the pushback, it doesn’t matter what people think of your profession, it matters what you think. If you are happy doing whatever it is you are doing, keep doing it with your head held up high and proud. Make use of our complex psychology; read up on habituation and put it to practice when you hear the same, toxic droning-on about your life choices. After all, it’s your life and you should do with it what you please. That is what I have learned. 

There is something honorable about any career and focusing on that positive aspect is what we should all strive to do. The world works on a balance with each profession having its own significance and place. Getting the approval from my parents showed me that I didn’t need to get approval from anyone but myself. Hearing those words from my father made my heart swell up, and I had to turn away so they wouldn’t see my eyes tear up. But I didn’t choose nursing to get approval or respect. Rather, my culture and society tried to mold me to seek out and put both those things on a pedestal, as goals I should strive for. When all along, I just needed to be happy with my choice, and live life as it comes.

And in writing this, I can attest that I finally am.

Image credit: Nursing Degree by SLU Madrid Campus is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Mahnoor Javed (1 Posts)

Editor, Nursing Student

University of Windsor

Mahnoor Javed is in her third year of Nursing. She is passionate about health care and is interested in the environmental determinants of health. She is the Membership executive for RNAO's Ontario Nurses for the Environment Interest Group. Furthermore, her passion for writing has made her the National November Writing Month's Municipal Liaison for the Windsor Region since 2017, where she's completed two 50,000+ word novel projects. She hopes to make an impact on the world in any way - be it through her medical impact, or through the power of words.