I can’t take credit for the quote in the title of this blog post but it’s a quote that stuck with me since I first heard it from Ayesha Mattu, an incredible writer, storyteller, and contributor to the anthology Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion by Piyali Bhattacharya. Ayesha said the words at an event for the book, in response to questions about how her family and community responded to being featured in the story she wrote. Here is a snippet from her story:
Working to amplify the stories of children who had been sexually abused finally loosened my own shamed tongue. I applied for grants from European non-governmental organizations, gave presentations to journalists, parents, ambassadors. and teachers; and proudly told my mother’s friends in formal drawing rooms that I was working to address jinsi tashadud — a term our executive director had coined to translate “sexual abuse” into Urdu.
Simply speaking those words silenced entire roomsful of aunties. I could see them balancing in their minds the commendable act of helping children with the utter shame of the body. Ami [Mom] never reprimanded me during my unseemly outbursts, though she often blushed. She simply served chai in English porcelain teacups to the stricken aunties, and afterwards, signed checks to support my organization.
“We are the Aunties we have been waiting for,” she said. Laughter echoed throughout the room because we all knew that in our cultures, varied as they may be, the Aunties are a force to be reckoned with. Who is this proverbial Auntie we speak of? An Auntie is basically anyone your parents’ age. She could be a family member, family friend, someone your parents met once in their life, a lady you run into in the grocery store that looks vaguely familiar but her name escapes you, etc.
“They can be your fiercest advocate and your most dramatic detractor, all in the same breath.”
The thing about Aunties is that they can be your fiercest advocate and your most dramatic detractor, all in the same breath. Some might wonder if it’s fair to lump all of them together. Probably not, but we do it anyway and honestly, there is some truth to it. One Auntie by herself may not live up to the potential of the proverbial Auntie, but in sum they are a mighty presence.
For some of us, the term Aunties conjures up memories of being asked (usually in very public settings) about when we are getting married (beware — this may be a leading question that ends with a request for your biodata), when we are having kids (their daughter already has two kids and is so glad she didn’t wait until she was your age), when we are going to get a “real job,” etc.
“We love them because they would do anything for us, but we fear their judgment of our life choices.”
I like to believe that these questions are asked with the most positive intent and genuine concern for our well-being, but as times change and we change, this line of questioning can strike a nerve. It is this nerve, perhaps, that triggers the laughter in the room when we talk about Aunties. We love them because they would do anything for us, but we fear their judgment of our life choices. This fear of judgment likely reflects culturally ingrained sensitivities we already have about our life choices…but that’s a topic for another day.
Even with this fear of judgment, as I reflect on all of the Aunties in my life, my memories are colored in a positive light. I remember them being there for us in times of loss or need. I remember them being at my wedding and beaming with as much happiness and pride as my own parents. I remember them being a constant warm and loving presence in our home and in our lives. I remember the power of their collective wisdom when we were sick, in trouble, or just at a crossroads. Not everyone has this same experience with Aunties and that is why I am so excited for the opportunity to be one of those Aunties we have been waiting for.
“I am so excited for the opportunity to be one of those Aunties we have been waiting for.”
I intend to take my transition to being an Auntie very seriously. What kind of role do I want to play in the lives of my nieces, nephews, and friends’ children? This is a big responsibility and I want to make sure I am up to the task.
So, to my darling nieces, nephews, and babies who lovingly call me Auntie/Masi/Kaki, here is my Auntie 2.0 manifesto:
1. I will support your life choices. The world is changing in a beautiful way (and I hope it continues in that direction). I hope you have freedom of choice and I hope you choose to live your life in a way that keeps you happy and fulfilled. Respecting your life choices, however, does not mean you have a free pass in my book. I do not want to be the Auntie that thinks you can do no wrong. I will assume positive intent but I will also call you out when you do something that is not in line with your values. I will help you realize your full potential (no, this does not mean you have to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer), pick you up when you stumble and share in your joy when you have discovered its source. Some people in your life may not understand your choices, but as long as your choices aren’t harmful to others, I will be your fiercest advocate.
2. I will be curious and patient. I will celebrate your differences. Are you a little boy who wants to wear a dress to our holiday party? Fine by me. Do you want to check out my daughter’s dresses? Are you an angsty teenager who wants to sit in my house and brood while you are having a fight with your parents? Here’s some chai. Brood away. Have you chosen a career path that doesn’t make sense to your parents but is your true passion? Let’s talk about it. It is my sincere hope that I, along with your parents and our whole generation, will shed these notions of rigid pathways to “success” and “happiness” to make way for a “choose your own adventure” type of life instead.
3. I will be a good role model. I once heard that you should always have five mentors and five mentees, regardless of how old you are. I love this. It is not enough to have people giving you advice, sharing their perspective, and being your sounding board as you make important decisions. If I have someone looking up to me (even in the quiet moments) and seeking that same input from me, I will strive to live my life in a way that is truly exemplary. I am human and I will make mistakes but I will be honest with you about them. I will share what I have learned and I will support you through your own mistakes.
4. I will be a good friend. Before I was your Auntie, I was your parent’s friend. I will remain their friend, even if you are at odds with them. It is not my job to take sides, but to be there for you and your parents in different ways. Just know that my relationship with your parents does not void everything else I have promised you, it strengthens it. Watching my parents interact with my Aunties and Uncles taught me a lot about friendship, relationships, compassion, and connection. Being a good friend is part of being a good role model.
5. My door is always open. Literally and figuratively. Yes, we are a generation apart and I will slowly become less and less cool (do kids these days even say cool anymore?), but I promise to always be there for you. You will always have a place at our kitchen table and in our home. You will always have someone to talk to, even if it seems like we are worlds apart. I will offer you empathy instead of sympathy because even though I may seem old to you, I want to understand where you are coming from and just be there with you while we try to figure it out together.
To all my nieces, nephews, and babies — I am so lucky to be your Auntie.
What would you add to your Auntie manifesto?
* * *
Aparna is a new mom and has made her career in the non-profit/social enterprise sector. She is currently living and loving in the Bay Area, musing online at https:[email protected], where the original version of this post appeared.