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Prachi Gupta takes on the model minority myth in new memoir


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Amna Nawaz: A new memoir out today reveals how a family's picture-perfect life hid the turmoil and trauma roiling behind closed doors.

Author Prachi Gupta unpacks how the model minority myth and pressure to succeed impacted her Indian American family in her debut work, "They Called Us Exceptional: And Other Lies That Raised Us."

We spoke recently here in our studios.

Prachi Gupta, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thanks for joining us.

Prachi Gupta, Author, "They Called Us Exceptional: And Other Lies That Raised Us": Thanks so much for having me.

Amna Nawaz: So, for anyone looking at your family from the outside, you were the picture of success, right?

It's the American dream fulfilled, successful immigrant parents and high-achieving children. But the story that you detail about life behind closed doors is starkly different. So why did you decide to share all of those details, often painful ones, with the world?

Prachi Gupta: I decided to share them because we need to hear the stories.

We need to hear and really understand what the pressure of success and achievement does to a person's psyche, to our relationships, to our family. I think we live in this hypercapitalist culture that really only values us for what we can produce in the world. And as immigrants coming in to this country — well, my grandparents came to Canada.

And they were — they came here in search of better opportunity and really had to buy into the American dream, which I think the same pressures exist in Canada, in order to belong, to assimilate, to fit in. But when they spent all of this energy to focusing on that projecting this image on making sure their kids had these opportunities, there's also a hidden cost and a hidden toll to that and a lot of pressure that comes with having to fit that mold.

And America and I think Canada too really only accepts or wants immigrants if they look a certain way, if they behave a certain way. And I wanted to write an honest story about what that pressure can do to a person's psyche, what they can do to their relationships. And my story does not speak for everybody's, but there's so much pressure to hide these things, to not talk about them, again, because of the image that we're expected, especially as Asian Americans with the model minority myth to portray.

And I think we need to be honest about the harm that this myth causes our — on our bodies, our lives and our within our families.

Amna Nawaz: Prachi, you document your father's emotional and sometimes physical abuse too.

One story really stuck with me which you tell him the book of the family driving to a prestigious school that you and your brother hoped to maybe one day attend, and your father becomes angry with your mother and berates her when she can't get the directions and read the map correctly, ends up kicking her out of the car.

And the family goes on to the school. And you and your brother have to pretend like nothing happened. I think folks will wonder, how can that disconnect between what you lived and what people saw be so vast?

Prachi Gupta: In many ways, I felt like I was living a double life. And I think that that's a common experience, not just with abuse, but with your — with our life, my life as the child of immigrants.

I think, for all of us, there's this public face and this public image that we have to portray, and then there's your private life or your home life. And it — the pressure to maintain a certain appearance, I think any — any sort of person of color can relate to that experience in a country where whiteness is idolized and is the standard and is default.

There was a lot of shame in what was happening, but I also didn't know if it was normal or not for people who looked like me, for example, because we just didn't talk about it.

Amna Nawaz: You also talk about your family's own struggles with mental health, right, to even acknowledge that there are any issues in your family in the first place.

And, even today, it's worth pointing out that Asian Americans remain one of the least likely groups to seek any kind of mental health support. I wonder why you think that is.

Prachi Gupta: There are so many complex reasons for that. There are so many barriers to accessing adequate mental health care in this country.

And our mental health institution comes from a very Eurocentric perspective. So, it's really not designed to acknowledge or address a lot of the issues that people of color are facing. Another reason is too that therapy for a lot of us has been a form of control and domination.

The British Empire actually ran lunatic asylums in South Asia and used these, what they called lunatic asylums, as a way to assert control. So they rounded up people of South Asian origin who didn't adhere to Victorian social norms, and then said that they were giving them therapy. But, really, they turned into for-profit labor camps, where they extracted productivity from them.

That has had an astounding impact generationally on creating stigma, on creating skepticism around what is mental health care and what is it not. I think, also, there's a culture of struggling with not talking about feelings. I know that my grandparents definitely struggled with that as well.

And I know that, for me, personally, therapy really only started becoming effective when I sought out a therapist who treated all these conflicts, not as brokenness and not as contradictions, but as normal, because this was part of my normal experience.

Amna Nawaz: You write so openly and so intimately about some incredibly painful moments throughout your entire life and your family's lives.

And I just wonder, what has the reaction from your family been to the book?

Prachi Gupta: There are a lot of varying reactions.

But I think that the most — the one that really kind of kept me going throughout the writing process was that of my grandfather's, my dadaji, Who died earlier this year at the beginning of the year, and…

Amna Nawaz: Oh, I'm so sorry for your loss.

Prachi Gupta: Thank you. Yes, we were very close.

And he is somebody who really inspired me, because he grew up in colonial India and made the very difficult decision to leave India and move to Canada and raise his family there for a better opportunity. And he was, in many ways, a very conservative, very patriarchal father and husband.

But, in his later years, he actually began to identify as a feminist. And he said that it was seeing his granddaughters that really changed him, and seeing that — he didn't see us as future mothers or as partners. He saw us as full people. And he wanted us to be able to have all the rights in the world that he had had.

And when I told him about this book and why I needed to write it, even knowing that I would be critical of or interrogating some of the decisions that he had made, unearthing things that we had tried to bury or forget in our family, talking critically about my own family system, he said he understood, and he supported me, and he was proud of me.

And he said: "I understand you need to tell the story, and you need to tell the full story, or it won't have any teeth."

Amna Nawaz: You tell that story beautifully in this book.

It's called "They Called Us Exceptional: And Other Lies That Raised Us." The author is Prachi Gupta.

Prachi, thank you for joining us.

Prachi Gupta: Thank you so much for having me.

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