Geared for Something Different

By Saleem Ahmed
Published November 16th, 2017


There is this absurd notion within the desi (South Asian) community to pursue a career that is stable, well-paying, and practical. Careers that yield an understood and predictable future. Careers in business, medicine, engineering and law. The maths and sciences, not the arts and education.

Whether you’re in grade school, college, or deflecting marriage inquiries, you will always be questioned by well-intentioned aunties, uncles, cousins, and that distant relative that you just met for the first time.

Every quantifiable attribute is subject to cross-examination, and is used to calculate your success. Your grade point averages, SAT scores, class rankings, college degrees, salaries, days fasted in Ramadan, and how often you pray.

Long story short, I’d probably only see success if they counted how many rotis I can eat. Lost within all this data-driven analysis is a simple, honest question: what do you really want to do?

 

Aydin, Saalik Khan

In high school, I felt out of place in AP and honors courses. I could pass the classes, but I had no genuine interest in most of the subjects. Figuring my future lied within the family medical business, I found myself enrolling in business electives.

I doodled in Economics, zoned-out in Investments, and got a D+ in Intro to Business. It all felt mind-numbing to me and I never did my homework. Then I switched gears and took a drafting class. I enjoyed the drawing exercises, but I got caught cheating because I didn’t want to calculate the measurements.

Classroom, Saleem Ahmed

Classroom, Saleem Ahmed

Needing a boost in my grades, I enrolled in photography and it was a breath of fresh air. Photography wasn’t about solving equations or bubbling-in multiple choice answers. It was open-ended and addicting. I finally looked forward to something other than gym and I was tapping into a whole new part of my brain.

With this newfound interest in photography, I did what every sane brown kid in my situation would do. I applied to college as a business student. I didn’t do well on the SATs nor did I receive any scholarships or academic awards (unless you count that cooking award from 8th grade). I didn’t follow my brother and cousins to big name schools. But lo and behold, the kid that got a D+ in business class got accepted to business school.

My journey through business school lasted one full semester before I jumped ship. It took an accounting lecture for me to fully realize that my brain preferred images and words over numbers and figures. Fortunately I was able to successfully communicate that to my parents, instead of continuing down a road of regret.

I’m Out, Ayqa Khan

I’m Out, Ayqa Khan

Soon after I entered the world of photography, I was introduced to the terms “coconut” and “whitewashed,” as some desis believed that I abandoned my brown culture for a purely white-American one. The fact is, I’m proud of my heritage, it’s just not the only thing that defines me.

It’s important to understand and recognize your roots, but you should still feel free to cultivate your own identity, especially if it relates to your career aspirations.

I saw plenty of friends following careers that weren’t meant for them. I could tell that many of them chose majors based on what was expected of them, rather than what they truly wanted to do. I could see it whenever they lied to their parents about studying. I could see it when they all started smoking cigarettes to relieve their stress.

Smoke Break, Saleem Ahmed

Smoke Break, Saleem Ahmed

I could see a part of me in their struggles. Potential artists, writers, and educators failing classes that they never had a chance to excel in. Struggling to memorize something they’d forget the following week. Dreading the idea of a pop-quiz or another make-it-or-break-it exam.

In my eyes, it came down to this on-going competition within the desi community for status and validation. Hasan Minhaj explained it best: Log kya kahenge? — What will people say?

There is this fear of what others will think and it usually outweighs the pursuit of passion. While I do know plenty of people that are happy with their careers, I always wonder about the ones that are faking it to please someone else. Are they satisfied deep down?


Ever since I deviated off-script, I’ve heard plenty of backhanded compliments, pessimism, and subtle jabs indirectly questioning my career path. Photography is just a hobby. Everybody's a photographer now. Oh, so you take pretty pictures. Good thing your parents have money. Teaching is a great job for girls.

Photograph by Baljit Singh

Photograph by Baljit Singh

To be honest, these things don’t bother me as much anymore. Even though I haven't quite figured it all out yet, my career path makes me happy and I realize that not everyone can honestly say that.

Teaching challenges me to spark someone's creativity, the same way mine was ignited so many years ago. Photography and writing allow me to wander and analyze my physical and mental spaces.

I use a camera to record an idea and I use a pen to understand what I’m trying to say, and vice versa. It's just how my brain functions, and it’s not something that should make anyone feel ashamed.

It’s not easy navigating uncharted territory, especially when younger and older generations are watching my every step. Luckily I have found inspiration through desi artists like Arpita Shah, Ayqa Khan, Baljit Singh, Saalik Khan, Nadeem Haidary, Mustaali Raj, and Priya Kambali.


It’s also encouraging to see an emergence of desi actors, comedians, writers, and filmmakers. They are all helping prove that success isn’t limited to predetermined career paths and are pushing the dialogue of cultural and social expectations.

Over the years I have become more and more comfortable with the decisions I've made. I don't regret pursuing photography and I have become adept at challenging any skepticism that I encounter.
 

Self-portrait, Saleem Ahmed

Self-portrait, Saleem Ahmed

I simply pursue things that generally interest me. I have an old pickup truck and a classic motorcycle. I play ultimate frisbee and listen to Japanese lo-fi hip hop. I prefer to get lost, rather than follow directions. I’m drawn to the unknown.

In the end, I want my work to encourage more desis to pursue the arts and education. I want my work to talk about real things. Things that I know and feel, rather than simply what something looks like. I want to start a conversation about the status quo, rather than see more desis throw away their dreams for someone else's satisfaction.


This essay is dedicated to my dear friend, Ali (pictured above), who taught me to go against the grain and to question our preconceived beliefs. I hope you're resting peacefully, brother.


Saleem Ahmed is a regular contributor to Strange Fire Collective. He is a photographer, writer, and educator based in Philadelphia. You can see more of his work by visiting his website or by following him on Instagram @saleemahmed