When I came to UCLA, I knew that I wanted to try out for its Bollywood dance team. I figured it would give me friends, and eventually a home, in a school that I felt way too small to navigate myself. I didn’t really have a backup plan – and luckily for me, I didn’t need one. I formed a solid friend group, and at the end of my sophomore year, I left UCLA Nashaa. While I don’t regret my decision to leave, a pattern stuck out to me. Regardless of the team – Raas, Bhangra, Bharatanatyam, or the South Asian acapella team to name a few – the arts seemed to be something that the South Asian students of UCLA were making a pit stop at. Very few of the people I knew on each of these teams intended on keeping these art forms in their lives after quitting the teams – even fewer after leaving college.
Beyond the stereotype of becoming a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, the pool of South Asians that I knew intended on pursuing the arts after graduation was one that I could count on one hand. To be fair, I fell directly into this category – a pre-med student who was on a dance team for a bit and didn’t expect to look back – which narrowed the pool that I interacted with to a similar scope. Even still, I was surprised that I knew very few South Asian people that planned on a career in the arts, especially considering my school is located in the heart of Los Angeles. Given the narrative of the few South Asians who have “made it” in the entertainment industry in the US, I figured the pattern had to be rooted in our culture.
I myself am no stranger to defecting from the arts. When I was young I wanted to be an actress. A pipe dream, to be sure, but it still shocked me that my aunt laughed at me when I told her. In the first year of high school, my love of writing made me want to pursue journalism, arguably more plausible and grounded than becoming a famous actress. Yet again, I was discouraged from it, the threat of job instability looming in front of me. Even the little media representation of South Asians notes, albeit in hyperbole, the fact that many South Asian families prefer a more traditional professional career. Most parents of this Indian-American generation studied to be engineers and doctors, following a relatively cookie-cutter path that gave the most promise of coming to the US for a better life. Careers in technology and medicine are low-risk and high-reward, and for our parents who exhausted themselves to come here, seem like an obvious choice. The lack of representation of South Asians in mainstream entertainment is partially to blame. With very few success stories, it’s no wonder that our parents fear a seemingly inevitable failure of a career in the arts. The path is paved with discrimination, stereotypes, and dissent, all in the face of attempting to manuever a balance between South Asian and American culture.
So the brevity of time that UCLA’s South Asian students spend on performing arts in college isn’t that out of the ordinary. It isn’t uncommon for someone who has danced for as nearly as long as she’s been able to speak to abandon it altogether in college. I did, as did most of my friends, almost as if it’s a part of growing up. But as the narrative evolves to be more inclusive of BIPOC, in daily life and mainstream media, there seems to be a growing window for South Asians in the arts, and maybe these undergraduate clubs can be part of a longer journey rather than pit stops. I’m excited to be Editor-In-Chief of the UCLA chapter of SAP, to indulge my former writer dreams, and to promote South Asian voices in the arts. While I’ve found a new career to dream about, I hope that those who truly do want to pursue the arts aren’t discouraged by precedent in our culture, and I’d love to support them so that they see that it doesn’t just have to be a pipe dream.