On the Outside Looking Indian by Rupinder Gill

Rupinder Gill’s memoir On the Outside Looking Indian  (McClelland & Stewart, 2011) deals with her experience  of growing up with strict Indian parents in mainstream white eighties Canada–and her subsequent attempt to re-invent that horror story. Gill’s immigrant parents, who lived in Kitchener, Ontario, refused to let their daughter(s) get a dog, participate in  sleepovers or summer camp, or take tennis and swimming lessons, due to a knotty combination of sexism, financial constraints, and the alienness of such activities with respect to their own cultural constructions of girlhood. “Indian girls don’t swim, because only a fool would think that learning a lifesaving skill is more important than keeping your body hidden forever,” says Gill wryly.

(A note: Gill’s working class parents moved from a farming community in rural Punjab to Canada and were hence unfamiliar with such childhood activities; affluent urban Indians might not have held such rigid attitudes. Gill’s book is very specifically set in the former context, and hence, while her memoir is indeed a universal story of outsiders trying to fit in, it is equally a very particular story of one family’s attempts to negotiate Canadian society while trying to validate their own (rural Punjabi Sikh) cultural norms.)

Gill’s childhood was thus filled with academic achievement, chores, and television, even as her peers were OUT HAVING FUN. On turning thirty, Gill decides that it’s not too late to live a second (ideal) childhood, and embarks upon a journey that includes not just swimming and tennis lessons, but sleepovers with other thirty-something friends (no, not like that), and even a trip to Disney World.

On the Outside… is an affectionate, mordant look at Gill’s parent’s prejudices as well as Gill’s own hang-ups, written in an endearingly self-deprecating voice. (The prose is adequate, though Gill favors the full forms of words in her dialogue. “I will really miss all of you so much.”  “I am happy to finally be here!”  It sounded rather awkward to my ear.)  Gill considers getting a dog, goes for tap-dancing lessons, and debates moving to New York. There’s not much about dating though; readers looking for romance are requested to glue the book into Eat, Pray, Love.  Yes, Gill writes with a welcome degree of self-awareness–and an even more welcome refusal to take all of this too seriously.

As a child, Gill understandably projects her issues with her parents to India itself, holding the country responsible for her deprivation. My chief gripe with this book is that Gill hasn’t quite shed that attitude in her adulthood; she seems to assume (often for the sake of humor, and not always successfully) that her parents’ attitudes were/are typical of all Indians, and her consequent stereotyping of India begins to grate.  In a later chapter,  she does mention that Indian cities operate differently, and that things have changed despite her parents’ desire “to still believe  that India is perpetually suspended in the culture of 1971 “, but that acknowledgement was too weak and came too late for my satisfaction. I also felt that the last chapter didn’t live up to the bite and verve of the rest of the book, dissolving instead into a soppy happy vision for Gill’s future children. But these misgivings apart, On the Outside… is a fresh,  intelligent and  (oh, thank you, goddess) funny contemporary take on territory that has been strip-mined by generations of immigrant writers.

I think The Walrus review by Emily Landau  that has been the subject of some debate got it mostly wrong.  Landau faults Gill for thinking “there is some Platonic ideal of a normal childhood, and is outraged that her parents — who, although stern and traditional, were loving and engaged — deprived her of this Elysian adolescence.”  Um, when you are an outsider trying to fit in, there indeed seems to exist a miraculously unremarkable “normal” ideal, and you would sacrifice your favorite family member or your favorite kidney to not stand out. Being penalized by society for being different means that you gaze at people who aren’t singled out with envy and longing for their happy lives. And: since when has the knowledge that your parents love you and are engaged with you ever consoled a teenager denied the opportunity to be popular and have fun? Of course parents will tell you it’s for your good and that you’ll thank them for it later while imposing a seven o’clock curfew…

And this brings me to my bigger point: I felt that Landau implied that Gill must be held to a different standard of behavior because of her ethnicity. Consider this:

“Always present, however, are notes of self-indulgent petulance and alarming disrespect toward both her culture and her parents.”

I found this quite infuriating.  If a “normal” Canadian dissed her cultural experiences as a teen, I bet a review wouldn’t call her “alarmingly disrespectful” for it. A reviewer wouldn’t wonder why a “normal” Canadian didn’t react with moderation, if, say, her mom didn’t allow her to attend a Hannah Montana concert when all her friends were going.  And anyway, how did Landau miss the obvious affection Gill has for her parents? Towards the end, Gill says, “When I was growing up, I had always wished they were more supportive, more understanding, that they might have said “I love you” just once. But now I knew that they had done what they could, and that it was time I did right by them, for they had had neither the childhoods nor the adulthood they might have wanted for themselves.” Not exactly disrespectful, that.

Landau adds: “The experience of a traditional Indian upbringing in a North American context offers rich territory for reflection, and certain moments, like Gill’s visit to India, or the jarring differences between the ironclad rule under which she was raised and her younger brother’s more lenient upbringing, beg for deeper insight. Instead, the cultural analysis is limited to broad strokes and crass generalizations. “Indian parents have a deathly fear of sexuality,” she gripes, in between calling her Punjabi “gibberish” and rolling her eyes at her mother’s traditional cooking. Her parents, meanwhile, are reduced to stock sitcom villains who have the gall to clothe her in non–brand name jeans. In attempting to illustrate the restraints imposed by her culture, Gill’s memoir only manages to expose her own narrow-mindedness.”

Hey, I like this book because it dares not to take the immigrant baggage seriously. It isn’t about Venerable Traditions or Preserving Your Culture or Respecting Indian Values. The Walrus review seems to view the deviation from such stereotypes as a shortcoming of this book; I think it’s one of its chief strengths. Immigrant writing isn’t just about subalterns reflecting on being the Other; we also chat about the fallout of non-brand name jeans on our teen selves.  Mainstream novels have been written about less.

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13 responses to “On the Outside Looking Indian by Rupinder Gill

  1. Wow, the review you quote from seems pretty terrible. You are right that there shouldn’t be a double-standard for what teens are allowed or not allowed to say about their upbringing or what they can or can’t complain about. And again the policing on what can be written, sad to see that still rearing it’s head.

    I definitely think that all of us think there is some kind of glamorized ‘normal’ childhood – or at least all of us who were raised super strictly! (Yes, I had a 9pm bedtime in grade 12 and was never allowed out unless my parents first spoke with the parents of my friends to ensure they would be home.) Being from a different cultural background, I would imagine, would make the longing for normal that much stronger.

    Though the book doesn’t sound perfect (the stereotyping that you mention for example), it does sound like it is much better than the reviewer thinks. I’m still not sure I’ll rush out and get it but not for the reasons that she mentions!

    • Yes, I felt there was an unstated (but still apparent bias) on what immigrant writing should be, what such writers are “allowed” to write about. As I said, infuriating!

  2. Rupinder Gill’s experiences seem very similar to my own but I can’t claim any ethnic differences between me and my schoolfriends. However my parents were older than most and that meant that I wasn’t allowed to do things with my friends. Not getting to a Bowie concert still rankles! My brother was allowed to do anything and everything!

    • :) bowie concert! I do think there are boatloads of adults who want to get a shot at the things they were forbidden to do in their childhoods. Lots of middle-aged men amongst rock concert attendees…

  3. Honestly, this isn’t a book I would read. I am currently tired of immigrant stories about “fitting-in”. I wonder how most children would turn up as adults if parents leave them to their devices. Often times memoirs are presented one-sidedly. Almost always the parents are the bad ones imposing something on the writer. But we fail to question how that writer would have turned out to be had these seemingly ‘bad’ parents left them to do whatever they wanted to do to ‘fit in’. Should children be allowed to do whatever they dream off? Yet, the irony is that when a child does something negatively spectacular the first thing that is asked is ‘how could his/her parents look on when he/she was descending into such a mess’.

    In my culture it is absolutely disrespectful for a child to talk back to his/her parents, hence I would consider it as such when ANY child, irrespective of his/her origin and his/her concern, does that.

  4. @ Nana: I don’t think the parents are bad guys in this book. If you see the excerpt I quoted, the author accepts that they did what they could, and really, this isn’t a book about how her parents made her miserable, but how she decides to take control of her life.
    South Asian culture places a huge emphasis on filial obedience, and this comes with its pros and cons. I don’t think it’s necessarily disrespectful to talk back to your parents if, for instance, they espouse bigotry. Or are blatanatly sexist. It’s a difficult path to negotiate, but I think there has to be some moderation in the “absoluteness” of this issue.

  5. Yes, but I also understand the writer’;s point of view.

  6. Thanks for the review.Please review Girl with dragon tattoo.

  7. Really nice, thoughtful review! This sounds like a book I would enjoy. I like memoirs because they allow me to experience another person’s point of view, even if I might not agree with it.

    With regards to the “normal childhood” concept, I definitely think there are social norms in which many kids within a certain culture or society participate. Certainly not all, of course. But then those kids who are Canadian, say, but who don’t go to summer camp or take swimming lessons for whatever reason probably feel like outsiders, too. I think it’s a pretty common experience and one with which most people struggle at some point and can probably relate to.

  8. Seriously it’s so nice to have a FUNNY story about being a first generation teen/adult. The cover is adorable and eye catching. I do want to read this book! (haha that does sound awkward)

    But you are very right, if the author had not been of a different culture from the ‘normal’ Western culture, the reviewer would not have taken special note of her tone and accused her of being ‘disrespectful.’ She probably would have said the author was being a ‘typical whiny somewhat grumpy’ teen.

    I haven’t visited your blog in so long but I like the new layout =D

  9. @Erin: Thanks! Yes, I agree that the being left-out thing is a universal experience, but in this case, with a very specific context. So the book is doubly appealing, imo.
    @Ari: OMG, yes to the funny! I’m so tired of reading the same old (sad) stories–I think it’s important to recognize that reality includes such light-hearted narratives as well.

  10. Niranjana,
    On this subjet I would like tio recommend you the book “Kiff Kiff tomorrow ” that is only of the most beautiful books I have read on the “fitting in” of immigrant adolescents. I have read it in french though- dont know how good the translated version is.

    • I looked this up on Amazon, and it sounds fascinating–thank you for the recommendation. The author was apparently 19 when she wrote the book–pretty amazing! It’s not available in my library, so I’m going to have to hunt for it on the net, but it’s definitely on my TBR.