After graduating from the George Washington University this past May, I spent my summer facing my quarter life crisis; otherwise known as answering the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Having come to the realization that I am well on my way to being a “grown up,” I seem to have developed a new hobby of asking successful individuals about their paths post graduation. I met Chaya Babu, a talented and successful writer, to talk to her about her path in the field of journalism.
Tell me about growing up in Westchester, New York and your experience as an English major at Duke. What were some of the challenges you faced along the way?
I was probably always a writer at heart and passionate about social issues, but I faced more than just a conflict with my family. I grew up in Westchester, a predominantly white town where everyone was a lawyer and doctor. The idea of a career that addressed social justice issues, systematically disadvantaged communities, and writing didn’t seem practical or feasible.
My parents used to say to me that, “writing is a hobby not a career.” I respect my parents so much, but I think they come from a different time and a different place. I’ve noticed that they don’t have hobbies. My parents’ extracurricular activities include being social and maintaining a community, and I see that now as necessary when you’re part of a marginalized group. My parents have a hard time grasping this idea that you can have things that you love but don’t get paid for.
Constantly fighting this battle must have been exhausting on some level, so what inspired you to continue to pursue writing and go to journalism school?
I worked in advertising in my early twenties post graduation, but I was miserable. It seemed like out of all the careers that were acceptable in our subculture, a marketing job was on the fringe. One day, I applied to journalism school. I don’t even think I knew at that point that I wanted to be a journalist or writer. After taking that one step, everything has unfolded.
Describe some of the positive and negative experiences you had while living in India.
After grad school, I set out to do a residency at Vogue India. I worked for about five months, but shortly after, that went south. I’d committed to being in India, and I wasn’t ready to leave, so I stayed almost two years. When I left Vogue, I wrote about cultural and women’s issues and became part of a feminist movement there I would say which was really gratifying.
India is a beautiful place in that it has a lot of life and vitality. I thrived on that energy. There was a death in my family that deeply affected me, and I talk about it on my blog, but the noise, and the color, and navigating the daily challenges brought me back to life. I was forced to constantly process new things, and my mind was constantly going. It’s such an intense experience, and there are a lot of things that you don’t normally contend with. There’s something awakening in the assault on your senses. I wouldn’t say I connected with my roots or anything. I was as much a foreigner there as I would be anywhere else, but it was an adventure that helped me find my boisterous energy again. India broke my silence.
When people asked me why I came back, the sole reason is that I felt traumatized by being a woman there. I was really suffering. I knew I was unhappy because of gender issues, and it was really unhealthy. I was upset all the time about women’s issues that didn’t relate to me particularly. The sad reality is that these issues will be here in five years, so I recognized that I needed to go home and regroup.
If you could give advice to a South Asian American girl going to live in India, what would you say?
To be honest, I don’t know if there is a way to prepare for that. I would say, know when you’ve had your limits. Don’t second-guess that. You can’t feel like it’s in your head. There’s this idea that when you’re in a new place, you should do whatever it takes to assimilate and adjust. I came to learn that that’s not true. I had to trust and rely on myself and trust my gut.
What purpose does your blog, “The Fobby Snob,” serve in your writing career, and what’s your definition of the word “fob?”
I consider my blog as my personal brand and how I engage with a more personal audience. When people use the word “fob,” I think it means traditional, someone who hasn’t modernized. They live in a home with a specific Indian sensibility, not to be confused with Indian values. I have Indian values, but it’s a specific perspective of seeing the world.
In your article, Walking the Tightrope: Good Indian Girls, Race, and Bad Sexuality, you write, “The silence around female sexuality – everything from the onset of puberty to reproductive health to attitudes about sexual activity – is common in Indian American homes. And then young people take this with them into their personal and social lives, carrying stigmas about sex and judgment for those who break the rules.”
How do you think we go about changing that in Indian American culture? Do you think it’s even possible to remove the stigma around female sexuality?
There is a silence around sexuality and really harmful gender ideals. When I call out these belief systems amongst my generation of Indian Americans, I’m met with disapproval and dismissal. I don’t think a lot of people in my generation openly recognize that problem. On some deeper level there is this acknowledgement that telling your daughters that virginity is an ideal to uphold. I see educated women from my generation that are allegedly modernized that pass these ideas on to their daughters, and I want to address these issues.
There are some people that will openly say that the premium placed on chastity and a certain image of “respectability” is positive and it’s a virtue, and then there’s this more subtle, unspoken belief that moving away from this value is probably bad. I’m talking about whether or not it’s ok for women to be sexual beings on a cultural level without being punished for it. I just don’t think enough people within our community are helping us get there. Of course, it’s not just from within the Indian community. There’s a whole other battle coming from outside pressures. As far as change goes, I think it happens slowly. If I were to have daughters, I would make sure they understood that sexuality and desire is normal.
Have your parents’ attitudes towards your writing career changed?
Indian parents are very concerned about what people think, but if your parent’s friends approve, then it’s acceptable. They’ve gotten calls before from their friends complimenting my writing, and I have a stable salary, so they have definitely come around. The reality is that it’s such an unstable path. It’s unstable enough that it’s scary for me too. I think that’s what makes them nervous, and I have to reassure them that it’s going to be fine. The fight to pursue writing no longer exists because I’ve pushed hard enough, and they see that I’m happy. Overall, I’m definitely lucky because I know many people have had a tougher fight than I have.