Geeta Naidu

“Opting in” means choosing legal culture over Indian culture

After finals, after the end of school year celebrations and the spring barbeques, I drive to Illinois to start my summer of living with my parents and working at Prairie State Legal Services. I have a few days before my internship begins and I spend it running errands for my mother and grandmother. I spend long afternoons driving around the suburbs of Chicago, stopping at the houses of family friends to drop off mango pickle, pick up pan leaves and Telugu VHS movies that have been copied and re-copied until the movie has a clear picture or a clear sound, but not both. At each house I chit-chat with aunties and they all ask the same question: "When are you getting married?"

After completing my first year in law school, I thought my family would ask me what classes I took, what type of law I want to practice, or maybe what kind of lawyer I want to be. I have answers sketched out for those questions, five-year plans with short and long term goals. At orientation, the dean of students warned us against giving legal advice to friends and family. There were no guidelines in the student handbook about how to respond to prying aunties, maternal pressure, or phone calls from pregnant cousins overseas asking, "What are you waiting for? It's your turn now."

While my mother and aunts have jobs, they had their babies before starting their careers. There was no discussion of opting out or opting in. There was only one track and it was not labeled the "Mommy Track" because that much was obvious--all women were mothers, no matter what their job was. These are women whose business suits smell faintly of curry and whose arms carried children then case files. To my mother and my aunts, my plan to focus on my career doesn't seem driven or dedicated as it does with my peers in law school. At home, among these women who have done it all--who mastered the sari, the child seat, and the business suit--my plans only seem selfish.

For me, "opting in" means more than putting my career first or juggling firm life with family life. "Opting in" means choosing the legal culture over Indian culture. At law school we hear a lot about work life balance. We hear a lot about finding equilibrium and about prioritizing. In my life I have had much practice balancing two competing interests, two opposing cultures and two countries oceans apart. I have learned that forming a self-identity is not about balance but about creating a new culture, a third way of life that sometimes does not conform to either Indian or American culture. My career will also combine many roles and expectations. As I move forward in my legal career I will create a new definition of what it means to be an Indian American lawyer, what it means to be an Indian American woman, and what it means to be a lawyer and a woman.



Thank you so much for letting me experience your particular challenges as a WOMAN OF LAW.  As is often the case, I find my individual challenges daunting.  You share the deep love of your family as you share the complexities of the particulars of your situation.  You make me very proud of you.  Keep talking to us of the larger world, as you have the time.  You enrich my world and I appreciate you. 

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