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Living up to expectations with Ms. Marvel: How Kamala Khan teaches South Asian Americans to be themselves

Ms. Marvel helps South Asian Americans such as myself find the balance between family expectations and their own path.

“I am raising you in our culture in America!”. South Asian American readers will relate to variations of that quote, which is full of expectations by their South Asian parents raised in the United States. Some families live up to them, while others do not for a myriad of reasons and circumstances. It is a frustrating dilemma to be caught between two worlds: on one side is family, culture, and tradition; on the other is one’s own dreams, desires, and paths. How does a South Asian American deal with their family and one’s expectations? You have to be a superhero to do that, right? Maybe not, but there is a teenager in Marvel’s pantheon of heroes facing this unique struggle. Enter Kamala Khan, A.K.A. Ms. Marvel.

Who am I? Am I an American, Indian-American, or a Punjabi-American? Like Kamala, I am stuck between the hyphen.

Growing up, I struggled to find myself represented and reflected in comics. Most characters were white males, who would not understand the expectations of a South Asian family. With the introduction of Ms. Marvel, there was finally a comic book character that I can relate to. Kamala’s desires and dreams come into conflict with the expectations of her family. In her debut story, Kamala sneaks out and goes to a party instead of obeying her parents’ wishes. They want her to embrace and accept their culture. Like any other kid born and raised in America, she just wants to fit in and experience life as an American — rather than a hyphen. Is she an American, Pakistani, or Pakistani-American? I experienced similar situations. Should I go to the temple with my family, or play ultimate frisbee with the kids from my school? Why can’t my parents learn English and not bother me for every little thing?

I grew up speaking Punjabi and learned English when I started attending school. Today when I speak Punjabi, I can’t pronounce certain words and I have a slight American accent. The same goes for English. I am caught between cultures. Who am I? Am I an American, Indian-American, or a Punjabi-American? Like Kamala, I am stuck between the hyphen.

But, Kamala is a girl in a somewhat-conservative Pakistani family. Being in that environment has higher expectations and upholding the honor of the family even more than mine. Her parents want to shield her from the dangers of American social life, like drinking, drugs and boys with uncertain intentions.

There is a lot of talk of trust from within the family, but Kamala doesn’t see it flow in both directions. There is a perception of duality at play. How can you say one thing, and act in the opposite manner? My parents used to tell me: “Trust is a two-way street for our family.” It never actually was until I attended college. They thought American society would corrupt me. They feared I would end up like “those kids who don’t respect their families.” Eventually, they realized their guidance worked and trust bloomed. Due to my parents’ upbringing, I was able to be the first in the family to graduate from college, be published, and gain media coverage for my research. If it weren’t for my parents’ sacrifice and trust, I wouldn’t be who I am today.

It can be a difficult journey to find one’s place as a child of immigrants in any country. But if successful, the struggle can be rewarding. Ms. Marvel shows South Asian American kids the possibility of moving beyond the dimensions of the Desi household.

The values that we learn from our immigrant parents cement themselves in defining who we are. Kamala learns from her parents to do the right thing and to help those in need as best you can. Kamala saves people from trouble in and out of costume. She understands and respects and embodies the values of her parents. When Kamla’s mother confronts her about her secret identity in at high school hallway, she is proud. Kamala’s mom says: “If the worst thing you do is sneak out to help suffering people — then I thank God for having raised a righteous child.”

Immigration is an opportunity. We all know how much our parents sacrificed for us to be in this country. My own family went through tough times to give me the opportunities they never had. My father and brothers worked several jobs, 24/7, to pay the bills, put food on the table and make something of themselves. They did so first by buying their own business and later becoming American citizens. My mother and sister-in-law raised children in America without any knowledge of the country and its language. The expectation from all the struggles of mine and Kamala’s family is “Make us proud.” Hearing those words is extremely intimidating. Many responsibilities are itched in those three simple words. Fear plagued my mind when my parents told what they expected of me. “Get a good job,”, “get a big house for us” and “we are doing all of this so you can be better,”, were just some of the words that haunted me. How could I live up to that and take care of everything? What if I failed? What about what I want?

Finding the right balance will be difficult, but if a superhero can do it, so can we.

Ms. Marvel shows South Asian Americans that the first step to finding a balance between old world and new is being honest and open. Kamala learns this lesson from her Iman when discussing her feelings for a boy and the expectations of her family. The Iman explains the relationship between (South Asian) children and their elders when it comes to matters of the heart — the older generation will warn of the dangers of love and the kids will jump in head first. There is no middle ground. Being yelled at, shunned, and humiliated are some of the reasons why facing parents or elders is frightening. The Iman’s solution to this dilemma is simple: be honest. Creating an open dialogue allows one to express themselves and to be understood. Along the way, a person is able to find themselves as well. I was able to do just that when it came to how I wanted to see my future. At first, it was extremely terrifying; my hands became pools of nervousness and my voice cracked throughout the conversation with my parents. Yet, in the end, my parents respected my choices. They said: “We will support you no matter what.”

Ms. Marvel gives South Asian Americans kids like me hope to balance the expectations of respecting the family and forging our own path. Finding the right balance will be difficult, but if a superhero can do it, so can we.

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