THE BLOG

Who's Afraid of Dr. Sanjay Gupta?

02/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Good for Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

But I fear it's a mixed blessing for the rest of us much more run-of-the-mill South Asians. It's exciting to see someone who comes from your stock make it big. The South Asian Journalists Association forum is justifiably excited about someone "oh-so-cute and eminently mediagenic". But another neurosurgeon-makes-good story is going to make the rest of us look even more like underachievers.

"What's the matter, beta? Why can't you be more like that nice Sanjay Gupta? Not just a neurosurgeon but on CNN AND meeting Obama for two hours?"

Not only is he dashing and articulate. Not only did he do brain surgery on a 2 -year-old Iraqi boy while embedded during the Iraq war, now he might be the new Surgeon General. Let me pause, and reel in the envy!

And his only qualm, according to the Washington Post "is said to involve the financial impact on his pregnant wife and two children if he gives up his lucrative medical and journalistic careers."

Golly. This is a South Asian parent's dream. He's 39 and he's already followed the four stages of a good Hindu life -- childhood, education, family and now a sort-of-renunciation-and-service.

South Asians have long been anointed the model minority. Spelling bees, Pulitzers, now a young bright Republican governor and a young, personable Surgeon General. There are 200,000 Indian-American millionaires and 41,000 doctors. Keeping up with the Patels can get a little harder each year.

Two years ago, a 19-year-old South Asian Harvard student found her world crumbling when it was discovered she'd plagiarized her chick-lit novel. At that time I'd commiserated with Kaavya Vishwanathan because of the pressure to excel at everything we do. Kaavya wanted to write bestselling chick-lit AND win the Booker AND try investment banking. In the end she took one disastrous short cut that ruined everything.

The fear is in the race to the top with the Sanjay Guptas of the world, those who don't conform get left further behind. Gays, undocumented men who work the graveyard shift in 7-11, abused women whose visas depend on their husbands -- they tend to get swept under the carpet. Minorities, when they really succeed have to be better, faster, smarter, brainier than their peers. Competence is not enough. They have to dazzle. (Kumar in Harold and Kumar might be a pothead but he's still a medical whiz!)

And while the Sanjay Guptas of the world deservedly become role models for their community, and the pride of their parents, they can also mean that a community obsessed with academic success will put that much more pressure on their kids. Put them on the autopilot to careers in medicine, engineering, chartered accounting. If Dr. Sanjay Gupta can do it, so can you. Yes, we can.

That is why immigrant parents like the Guptas give up their homelands to make new lives in antiseptic American suburbs where everyone mangles their names. Sanjay Gupta lived up to his end of the unspoken bargain (and then some). Some of the rest of us might want to have the anonymous freedom to fall on our faces and fail spectacularly as writers, musicians, actors without letting down the whole village. Or do strange things like study the underground economy, do labor organizing, make documentary films -- things that don't light up the Diwali potlucks with envy.

It's great that we have Dr. Sanjay Gupta out there -- a worthy first-class role model. I hope his success frees up other young South Asians to succeed (or fail) in their own ways. But I fear I can instead see that hit Indian reality show -- Who Wants to be the Next Sanjay Gupta? Aka Suburb-dog Millionaire.

Smart, media-savvy and articulate, Sanjay Gupta will surely make a great Surgeon General. I guess I just don't want to listen to my mother go on about it.