“I think I’m going to apply for Journalism,” I said without a second thought. It was the last year of high school and teachers were constantly inquiring about our future plans. I saw my teacher stop in her tracks. I could almost see the knobs turning erratically in her mind while the wires glitched and sparked. “Journalism? How is that going to make you any money?” she asked while looking incredulously at other students who stared back at her in confusion.

This was not an isolated incident. My plans to pursue a career in journalism were constantly interrogated and mocked in my last years of high school, especially by my teachers. The same treatment was not afforded to students who sought a degree in medicine, mathematics, engineering, and computer science. The sciences were simply glorified more than the arts.

I lived in a community that was founded by the first Indian settlers who were brought as indentured laborers to work in sugarcane plantations. Their lives were difficult, and education, as a means to escape poverty, was (and still is) an immense privilege. A culture of striving to attain high paying jobs was born out of this poverty my ancestors constantly fought to escape from.

Both India and South Africa are developing countries. When my ancestors left India for South Africa, they brought with them the mindset of only pursuing things that are monetarily advantageous. Studying towards a high paying job was the goal, and that demanded one to excel at mathematics and science. Many believed the average doctor or engineer to bring in a higher income than the average painter or poet. However, being good at (or simply just passionate about) English Literature and writing? Well, that was of no use.

My grandfather saw his own father pursue his passion to the detriment of his family. My great-grandfather fought against the Apartheid government – an undeniably admirable thing to do. However, this did not afford him the luxury of having a stable job or home. He was constantly on the run. Constantly in hiding. You can imagine the effect it all had on my grandfather’s childhood. To put it quite simply- he grew up with zero financial security. It shaped the way he thought about work, which in turn, shaped his life.

My grandfather loves singing. In his youth, he was in a band. When I was growing up, he used to burst out into song whenever the mood suited him, and all his grandchildren loved to listen. However, despite expressing regret at not being able to pursue his passion, he knew that becoming a factory manager was the responsible thing to do for his family at the time. They needed to eat, and singing did not pay the bills.

No one can deny the immense sadness that comes with this mindset. Many in my community had to sacrifice their passions in order to live with the security that a stable income brings. This is not to say that people aren’t passionate about maths or the sciences, or that the arts can never make one any money. However, occupations paid through a commission system or only pay once someone gets a gig provided a less constant income – something people living in poverty can just not afford to risk. As seen in my grandfather’s case, some just do not have the luxury of pursuing what they love.

Things have changed for the worse in my experience. This culture has evolved into not just viewing education as a means to earn more money, but it has become a shaming tactic. The prioritization of the sciences over the arts resulted in my community attributing intelligence to only those who excel academically in the former. Anyone else was basically considered stupid.

There is a stereotype that both East and South Asians excel in school. My mere racial identity placed this pressure on me to prove my worth through academic achievements. But even when I did well in school, if it was not in mathematics, then it meant very little.

Though the historical context of gravitating towards certain professions to alleviate poverty makes sense and once served a purpose, I now see how outdated and unhealthy it can be for a community, especially their youth. Money can be a powerful thing, so choosing between what you love and how much you want to earn can be an incredibly difficult decision. However, I like to believe that if you follow your heart, you’ll figure out the practicalities along the way.

Some may believe my decision to make a career out of writing was too risky…perhaps outright irresponsible. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

  • Kajal Premnath

    Kajal Premnath is a journalist, writer and editor based in South Africa. She enjoys interrogating the ways in which representations of diverse cultures and social justice issues in popular media affects everyday life. Kajal is obsessed with dogs, hates cheese, and believes "Jane the Virgin's" Rogelio de la Vega to be her alter ego.