I tend to think of South Asians as a successful, motivated group of people, and with good reason. It seems that everyone I know is either a doctor or lawyer, accountant or engineer, businessperson or scientist, rising to great heights within the chosen line of occupation. Even those that follow less conventional routes are still motivated and accomplished in their own right. But this weekend, as I was out celebrating the milestone birthday of a good friend of mine, I was engaged in conversation with a Crown lawyer who reminded me of another kind of South Asian.
The kind of South Asian who comes from a hard-working working class family that has sacrificed everything in order to provide for a better life for the next generation, but who chooses not to pursue higher education and who fails to realize on that promise of opportunity. The kind of South Asian who lacks drive and motivation to succeed. The kind who is disenfranchised and impressionable, falling under the influence of the wrong crowds and their misguided notions.
It is not that my head was buried in the sand. Every so often, the news reports on South Asian gang activity and lost youth. The now-infamous Toronto 18 spring to mind as a quintessential example. Young Muslim-Canadians who espoused violent ideals that would target the very same secular and egalitarian nation in which they were raised. Tamil gangs are also often cited for high levels of gang activity in the Greater Toronto Area. At the Network of Indian Professionals Conference last Fall, I saw a screening of Warrior Boyz, a film directed by Vancouver-based director Baljit Sangra exploring the phenomenon of gang warfare among Punjabi youth out West. The violence, the staggering loss of life was disheartening, but even more disturbing was the aimlessness of the youth and the futility of it all. The kids just seemed so lost. More recently, an addictions psychiatrist friend of mine told me of the overlooked impact of gang membership on girls who seek the approval of gang members and end up engaging in a variety of illicit activities, including substance abuse and prostitution.
And so I must ask: Why??
What are the factors that lead to gang membership?
Is it more prevalent in some communities than others?
Why, given that the South Asian culture places a heavy emphasis on education, are some of our youth falling through the cracks?
Where are the parents who have sacrificed everything - their homeland, their proximity to extended family and culture – in order to re-settle their families here, when their children begin to exhibit questionable behaviours?
Is the nature of the immigrating class, be it a professional or a working class, a factor in the outcomes of our youth?
I don’t pretend to have any of the answers, but these questions have started to concern me.
Perhaps it is because my husband and I came to Toronto after having earned our professional degrees that our circle of friends ended up including mostly doctors and lawyers, and I suppose it was just easier to generalize with broad brushstrokes based on our personal experience. Denial, after all, is always easier than confronting uncomfortable truths and asking the tough questions. Thankfully, gang violence has not touched our lives directly, so nothing earth-shattering has happened to alter our perspective. Unless you count that we are raising our own little South Asian Canadians and have a vested interest in their long-term wellbeing.
That, in and of itself, is enough to change anyone’s perspective.