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Kushal Sahabir

July 28th, 2020


We all want respect. Everywhere we go, everywhere we look, respect is a desire waiting to be sated. This is a fact of life almost everywhere, but even more so in Asian culture. Whether it be East Asian or South Asian culture, it’s revered and even treasured as a lifestyle. So growing up in a household that followed South Asian culture to the letter, I wanted some of the respect that was so heavily pushed on me.

“Respect your father, respect your mother, respect your teacher, respect God,” I was told. Why didn’t I get that respect? Just because I was a younger brother and the youngest in my family shouldn’t take that right away from me, I thought. Confucianism says otherwise though; the 5 Bonds say the young and the children should show respect and get only kindness in return. Where was my respect? I mean sure we didn’t follow Confucianism, but the idea was there -- I wasn’t getting any respect, but I was giving. Even as an 8-year-old, I knew this was wrong. So I decided to change it; master of your own destiny and all that, right? Little did I know, this one little action would change everything but how I was respected. And it all started with one word: Bhaiya.

Growing up in a South Asian household, things were … less than perfect. I couldn’t complain though, I was fed and I had a place to sleep, but maybe it was my mindset with respect for elders that rubbed me the wrong way. I thought maybe I deserved some of that respect too. “After all, what did they have that I didn’t?”, my naive 8-year-old self said. For others, respect may not be a big deal, but to me as a child? Of course it was. I hated being overlooked and underappreciated just for my age. I worked harder and harder at literally everything, but nothing came to fruition. I was still talked over and my needs (or wants) were given less of a priority. One thing that irked me the most, however, was my brother.

I loved him, of course, but growing up, I was taught to call him bhaiya. In Hindi, it means “big brother”. Doesn’t seem like much, right? For me, however, it meant so much more. It meant that to me, I had to respect him to the point where I couldn’t get to call him by his name without being reprimanded. It sickened me; after all, he could call me by my name. Why didn’t I get that respect? Why didn’t he call me bhai which means “brother”? Why couldn’t we be equals for once? It was puzzling to me so I figured I’d level the playing field. One day, out of the blue, I called him by his name. It was fine at first; he didn’t pay much attention to it. Maybe that’s why I admired him so much. My father, on the other hand, had a differing opinion. A man born out of the pains and the struggles of a rural village in Trinidad, he was a big enforcer of respect and discipline. He believed it held everything together; I didn’t though. I knew the consequences of this seemingly trivial thing, and yet, I took on the fight; brave, right? He flipped out, but it wasn’t a surprise. That was an act of rebellion, and I had just declared war. He cooled down, of course, but it was an act I couldn’t take back. It was an act I never took back.

In my quest for mutual respect, everyone in my life were assigned lesser roles. Papa became Dad, Mommy became Mom, and Bhaiya became Vijay. In a way, it was me growing up. To me, I was trying to be respected. But traditions never changed; I kept getting talked over, and my priorities still were overlooked. No matter how hard I tried, I never got the respect I thought I deserved. I was naive to think I could’ve; I never did. Maybe it was for the best though. Maybe the respect I sought so badly wasn’t mine to have, but more so my brother’s. We were always close from childhood and as he grew up, I thought I was entitled to the same things he was.

In a way, it made me grow up faster. I learned about sex, drugs, and adult relationships from the shows my brother watched (How I Met Your Mother, of course). Through trying to be like my bhaiya so much and trying to gain respect like my bhaiya so much, I lost the innocence and lost the childhood I wish I held onto. Now I’ve grown up too quickly, and it came at the expense of the naivety I wish I still had. What did I gain? Maybe at the end of my quest for mutual respect from my parents, I used up the last of my naivety to grasp something that wasn’t there and lost the very thing that made me a child. Losing the one thing that meant the most to me and gaining nothing but early maturation isn’t what I expected from this defiance, but it’s what I got.  All because of one word, my bhaiya.

Cover image taken by writer.

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