How The ‘Model Minority’ Myth Led One Indian American Family To Unravel

Prachi Gupta’s family appeared to embody the quintessential American Dream from an outsider’s perspective. Her father, a doctor, her mother, a devoted homemaker, and Prachi and her brother Yush were both high-achieving individuals. They enjoyed the comforts of a spacious five-bedroom home in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Gupta was raised with the belief that their prosperity was a testament to their diligent work ethic and adherence to Indian cultural values.

However, beneath this façade, Gupta reveals a different, more tumultuous narrative in her new memoir titled “They Called Us Exceptional.” She describes how her father’s temper and strict rules created a turbulent atmosphere at home, causing Gupta to grapple with the stark contrast between her family’s inner dysfunction and the picture-perfect image they presented to the world.

Gupta discusses the impact of this dichotomy on her identity, stating, “If you believe that success and achievement are integral to your core identity, any challenges, traumas, or hardships you face are internalized as personal failures. This compels us to conceal anything imperfect about ourselves.”

In her memoir, Gupta delves into how each member of her family coped with the turmoil at home in their own way. Her mother chose to tolerate her husband’s manipulative behavior despite enduring mistreatment. Gupta herself rejected the toxic dynamics she had once accepted, leading to her estrangement from her family. Her brother, on the other hand, learned to bury his emotions, ultimately embarking on a path that, according to Gupta, led to his tragic demise.

Gupta’s book is a deeply personal exploration that combines her own narrative with historical insights and cultural analysis. It sheds light on how the weight of the “model minority” stereotype contributed to the unraveling of her family.

CNN recently interviewed Gupta to discuss the motivation behind her book, the tragic event that inspired it, and the authenticity of the American Dream. Below is an edited excerpt of their conversation:

What inspired you to write this book?

“In 2017, my brother Yush passed away. At the time, we had been estranged for two years, but prior to our estrangement, we had shared an incredibly close bond. He was only 18 months younger than me, and for most of our lives, we were best friends. His unexpected and untimely death, caused by complications after cosmetic limb-lengthening surgery, initiated my journey into writing this book. I needed to comprehend who he had become and the decisions that had led him down this path.

Part of the reason for our estrangement was my strong feminist beliefs and his adoption of men’s rights views. When he passed away, I wrote an essay titled ‘Stories About My Brother,’ which was published on Jezebel in 2019. The response to this essay was overwhelming. I heard from immigrant mothers who were unaware of the challenges their children were facing and decided to discuss mental health with them. Sisters who shared complicated relationships with their brothers found solace in my words, and Asian American men indicated that they were heading down a similar path as my brother but reconsidered their choices after reading my essay. Men from various backgrounds confessed that they had battled depression without ever acknowledging it before.

Realizing the shared struggles and isolation that so many people experienced, I felt compelled to share my complete story. There was much more to tell about how the culture we live in encourages us to distance ourselves from our true selves and communities in pursuit of success and achievement. I believe that if my brother and I had been exposed to this narrative earlier in life, our relationship might have endured, and he might have made different decisions that could have saved his life.”

Why did your and your brother’s paths diverge so dramatically in adulthood?

“We grew up in the same household but had vastly different experiences. Our family adhered to traditional gender roles, and this created a divide between my brother and me. I witnessed the injustice of these roles and how I was treated differently due to my gender. He absorbed messages about masculinity and the expectations placed on men. He learned not to express his emotions, avoid discussing feelings, and felt pressure to be a provider.

These differing expectations, coupled with our dysfunctional family dynamics, pushed us further apart as we grew older. I questioned the family system and sought to understand why things were the way they were, while he leaned into his traditional role. This friction became the source of our estrangement, and we were unable to reconcile our differences.”

You documented many painful events in your book as they were happening. Did you always intend to write a book about your family?

“I always felt a need to document what was happening in some way. Writing was my means of making sense of the world around me. I grew up in a volatile household where reality could change in an instant. My father would alter facts, and suddenly, I’d be told that certain events didn’t occur, despite my clear recollection of them. I constantly questioned my sanity, and writing served as a way to preserve my memories. Documenting everything felt essential to my survival. However, I never initially planned to write a memoir or a personal account. My intention was to use these observations to create fictional narratives in the future.

After Yush’s passing, I didn’t want to relegate him to a hypothetical concept. I wanted to honor his memory and shed light on the real harm caused by the ideologies he had embraced. These pressures are genuine, and they have genuine repercussions on our bodies, lives, and relationships. We often discuss these issues abstractly, but they played a role in my brother’s tragic end. I wanted people to understand that these pressures are real and have real consequences.”

In your book, you often avoid using terms like “abuse” or “domestic violence” to describe what happened in your family. Can you explain why?

“Yes, that was intentional. I found empowerment in labeling these dynamics as abusive and toxic because it helped me distance myself from them. However, these situations are far from black-and-white or straightforward. Experiencing such situations is disorienting, especially when the person hurting you is someone you deeply love. It’s not easy to simply categorize it as ‘abuse’ and move on.

I also wanted to convey what it feels like to be in such a situation. When we use terms like ‘abuse’ or ‘domestic violence,’ everyone has a different mental image. Many people primarily associate physical abuse with these terms, but psychological and emotional abuse exist on a spectrum. We lack effective ways to discuss these forms of abuse and their consequences.”

Your book is framed as a letter to your mother. Why did you choose this format?”After Yush’s death, I wanted more than anything to reconnect with my parents. I wished to keep Yush’s memory alive through our relationship. However, this proved challenging.

I often contemplated mortality following his passing and didn’t want to leave my mother in the dark about who I truly am, on my terms. I wanted to explain to her why our relationship remained distant and clarify that it had nothing to do with my love for her. It was a difficult conversation to have in person, so I felt compelled to write it down.”

Have your parents read the book?

“I’m not certain. I did send them a letter before the book’s publication, but I’m unsure whether my mother has read it or not. I agonized over this decision but ultimately felt that it was necessary. After my brother’s death, I needed to find meaning in his passing. (Courtesy: TIME)

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