Mirror of Patterns

Nisha! I got the job!” My mom rushed from her bedroom to the top of the staircase with a giant smile on her face. She bounced for joy as I stood at the bottom. Her face was brighter than I ever knew it to be, like she just got the job of her dreams – I imagined her as an art director at a gallery or as a lead designer for a fashion brand. I’d never seen her so excited about something that wasn’t about her kids – it was beautiful. I smiled back, trying to emulate her level of excitement, and said congratulations in the best way I knew as a 13 year old. Sure I was pleased that my mom was happy about her new venture. But, mostly, I was disappointed that she traded one clerical job for another. My aunt, her sister, had been working for the county for a few years so she helped my mom to get a job there as well. Union jobs with pensions were a rarity, and this position promised both.

So my mom jumped at the opportunity. She worked there for 18 years and reaped the benefits she was promised. For that, I’m grateful. After all, the American dream was to have a stable life and provide for your family. To sacrifice and diminish your passion is acceptable for the sake of others, right? I’d like to truly believe this. I often wonder how things would be if she actually pursued her true passion: art. And, selfishly, I wonder how it would have changed my life too. When I was a toddler and in grade school, my mom had a few jobs as an artist.

She was a supervisor at a wallpaper company, she designed towels for another, and painted silk pieces at for a textile house. While I don’t remember much at that age, I do remember some of these moments when I saw her as someone besides a mother. When I asked her why she left these jobs to work for a huge life insurance company and the county, she said she wanted to work closer to home because my brother and I seemed to be misbehaving more. From my memory, my brother and I were pretty well-behaved in the traditional sense. So this made me a little suspicious. It seemed like another excuse for her to have control and let fear stop her in her tracks.Years after retirement, my mom finally moved out of my childhood home. As she was downsizing, she sent the next generation, myself, my brother, and my cousins, photos of her old artwork.

There were paintings of beautiful patterns of flowers and shapes in vibrant colors. They had a retro 60’s look, since most of it was from her time at Sir J. J. School of Art in Mumbai. She claimed she went to art school because it was the cheapest college education her parents could afford. And while that was true, she was lucky to fall in love with it as well. She asked us all to choose pieces that we liked, and while we were civil, it was clear that there were fan favorites. She now lives in a retirement community in Southern California. After over a year living there, she still comes up with reasons to not open her art supplies.

They seem legitimate, similar to the ones I make when I procrastinate with my writing. After all, actually getting the nerve to start something creative, especially when you’re out of practice, is overwhelming. And it’s even harder when you think you need to do it perfectly. Read: my mom (and me). As I write this, I dread how the first draft will turn out. But, I’ll still end up with a draft – a blob of words I can refine. A mishmash of feelings I can comb through. A prism of myself that can and will make sense, eventually. I wish she spilled out her art just the same. I crave for her to experience the process of creation, a journey all artists deserve. While visiting my mom the other day, she declared, “We are going to make six salads.”I helped her fulfill this decision – an activity I didn’t request but couldn’t battle. The ingredients were bought and her decree was clear.

Grateful to have lunch and dinner for the following week, I mixed oils, vinegars, and fresh fruit juice. I sliced kumquats finely, modeling her precision, and together we decided whether to mix almonds or walnuts in the brussel sprout salad – we agreed almonds would be better. It reminded me how her artistry eschews a brushstroke. She displays it in the way she chops a scallion and in the cute teacup she discovers in a thrift store. I’ve always loved seeing her in her element. But it still feels like her creativity has more to give. When I began to fall in love with writing, I also avoided it for a long time. I started to whisper words onto the page a few months after my divorce in 2014, but this was soon thwarted by my decision to return to graduate school.

After I graduated and got a job, I realized that if I didn’t write and continued to make excuses, my anxiety would pervade my body. My voice would never be heard. At the time, I wouldn’t admit that I feared the same repression my mom built into her lifestyle, but it was true. I couldn’t allow it. As I’ve continued to hone my craft, I’ve come to realize the most sensible contradiction: investing in your own art shows you who you are and self-confrontation is not easy. Taking action peels away the layers, and while knowing parts of yourself is a relief, you still need to contend with them.

This makes me wonder if my mom feared herself. I reveled in seeing her outside of motherhood, but did she? It takes work to be multiple people at once, so maybe staying in place was more comforting to her. And if she didn’t fear herself, who is the person I would have known? What else would I have celebrated with her when I was 13? Would my perceived childhood transgressions have morphed into full-out rebellion?

Perhaps I would have started writing at 13 instead of 30. The only way I can find a semblance of an answer for the competing wills of being an immigrant, a mother, and an artist is to funnel the sacrifices she made into running paragraphs and crafted elucidations. It’s all I can do because I must.I think back to that day, staring up at my mom at the top of the staircase. I wished more for her, I still do. But I also feel her excitement in the softest of ways. I admire her desire to be present for us, her ability to predict exactly what we need, and her unyielding devotion to protect her family and culture. Because, to her, these were one and the same. So maybe she sacrificed it all, but I’d like to think that because of it, her vibrancy resonates through me in the form of foreshadowing and measured cadences. It shines like a mirror of patterns she couldn’t create, with the hope that, one day, I would.

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

We have grown since then, putting out bimonthly issues (we are contributor powered: apply to write for our next one!), and weekly reviews of culture, and news that is important to us.

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We do not claim to speak for all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. We are just here to give them a place to speak for themselves.

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