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How I Learned to Be HEALTHY As A South Asian Immigrant

How I Learned to Be HEALTHY As A South Asian Immigrant

A look into how I found health in my South Asian culture. 

As a young adult in an immigrant family, it was always made clear to me that others came first. Them first, you second—at all costs. It was a cultural tradition I was told. A way to show respect to elders, family, guests and strangers. It was praised, ingrained and expected

I learned from my mother, grandmother and even my male relatives. My mother would work all day and then come home and cook a full Indian dinner, clean after dinner, tend to me and my brother and then go bed for another day of martyrdom. I look back on that now and wonder if she ever wanted to go for a workout or learn a new craft - or whether it was even an option in her mind. 

Healthy practices like exercise, self-care and creative pursuits were a luxury and, in a way, selfish. In fact, I still feel a sense of guilt when I go for a workout, start my fast when others want to eat or spend time working on my passions. It's this voice in my head that says, "Good moms work themselves to the core".

My mom was constantly serving her kids (us), her husband, her in laws or someone else deemed more important.

So goes the immigrant narrative on health, self-care is indulgent, healthy food is expensive, therefore wasteful. Having boundaries is breaking tradition. We needed to eat conservatively, live simply, reuse every container, bag and save up as much as possible for the relatives back home. How dare we be self-indulgent when our relatives back home were suffering?

As I traveled through my own dark period of health, I started to see the similarities in many women in my life. I felt trapped with responsibility, guilt ridden at all times and anxious about judgement. 

But I started to learn about nutrition and gut health and how it affects your brain—that we are a tree and the gut is the trunk and the brain it’s sturdy branches. I learned that many people—in books I was reading—were able to elevate themselves out of a life of fatigue, routine and ingrained social constructs. As a child, my dad made me feel like I could be different and these books were confirming this.

After much trial and error, I realized I could only attain the freedom described in these books by creating boundaries. Boundaries, first with my time—to healing time in nature, so that I could sleep adequately and eat in a transformative way and practice what I learned from nutrition school, medical school and the experts I “met” in books. 

Boundaries with my energy and with my mental health became the most important boundaries. I learned that you don’t “owe” strangers and toxic relatives anything. You are not forced to put their needs before yours at any cost. You don’t have to sacrifice your mental health. It’s not for taking. 

If someone is toxic to you, it does not matter if they are elder, related, famous, rich or higher on the social, economic or age scale. For people, who don’t know, everyone in South Asian culture has a hierarchal position in society. Your “elders”/grandparents, the senior males and aunts are all above you. If you take a stance to remove your energy from any of them, it’s a rebellion. I learned that this serves the toxic people who seem to have no recourse for their actions.

So, I removed my energy from the toxic people to improve my mental health, I created boundaries for my mind, my body and my time. With that came room for positive relationships and health. 

I rejected the old social construct and created my own. I stopped feeling guilty for choosing to spend my time on healthy pursuits. I took my kids to the healthy grocery stores and farmers markets. I modeled good health practices and soon my husband, my kids and even my parents and relatives followed. I no longer justified to others—or myself—why I deserved time to get exercise or nature time. I decided that my money was more well used on buying fresh, healthy food then saving it for a day where we may not have health. 

This scarcity mindset—that there is not enough food, money, happiness or success for everyone was crippling so many people in the culture.  It breeds competition, jealousy and anxiety. I rejected it.

I sought out the beautiful parts of the south Asian culture like turmeric, ginger, Ayurveda, holidays and community. I rejected the hierarchy, the scarcity mindset and the martyrdom. There was just so much beauty, warmth, spirituality and community that I loved.

It was a mix like a beautiful, complex delicious spicy curry. Unique, yet modern.

That’s how I found health. 


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