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Waiting for Sunday: Growing up in Mumbai, Navigating Cultural Gaps and Breaking Societal Norms

Usha Tunuguntla
Business Strategies Senior Manager
Pronouns: She/Her/Hers
Riverwoods, IL

Waiting for Sunday

Growing up in a big family with 6 siblings was chaotic—to manage us all, my parents followed a strict schedule during the week. But Sundays were different. We’d break from the routine on Sundays to make the day extra special. On our weekend escape, we’d play board games, takes quizzes and challenges, read comics and books.

We also cooked special meals— food we wouldn’t usually eat every day. My father especially liked to source international foods, different cheeses and breads. He shopped at international markets for produce that wasn’t easy to grow locally. All this in an era when there was no internet. My mother would make delicacies from scratch. Making them was laborious because of a lack of modern appliances back then. Some of my favorite dishes were Pulao, Dahi Wada and Wada sambar. All of us sitting down together for a meal felt like a festive celebration with warmth, comfort, love and affection. We had many memorable conversations during those meals.

As Sunday wound down, I wished the day would never end. I’d eagerly start thinking about what the next Sunday would be like—deserts like Gulab jamum and snacks like chakli, gujjia. My parents spent a lot of time and effort to celebrate the little things in our lives. We didn’t wait for holidays, special occasions or vacations to celebrate. We just waited for Sunday.

Breaking social norms

As a woman of color, I’m part of two historically oppressed groups. Growing up in an all-girl family in Mumbai, one of the biggest cities of India, my parents gave us the independence and freedom to make our choices. In retrospect, their open-minded approach added an important dimension of self-responsibility to my personality. They never limited us or prevented us from breaking any social norms.

I’ve always believed that navigating through the unknown makes me stronger, and I’ve never shied away from opportunities when they arose, knowing they may not come around again. I feel privileged to experience the benefits that activists, both in India and here in America, have worked towards. While we do have lot of work to do, I believe as a society, we’re making headway on accepting people and leaders of color.

Power to say no

I’m not a typical employee of Indian origin. I started my career at Discover on the phones with an undergrad degree from Mumbai, India. I very quickly learned that growing up, everything my culture taught me not to do (which I did anyway and was seen as rebellious) was permissible in the U.S. For instance, I was surprised I had the power to say “no.” I learned that I don’t have to wait my turn to speak or wait to be called on. I could speak my mind, provide input, and share my thoughts and views. I felt empowered in meetings. I felt motivated to work harder and develop an unrestricted perspective to find solutions.

Influenced by my roots

Growing up in a big family, I learned to socialize at an early age. At Discover, I’ve expanded on my skills by learning from, and interacting with, a broad group of people from diverse backgrounds. In some ways, I believe my roots have an unaltered influence on me. To this day, I still struggle when I’m asked to introduce myself. We seldom flaunt our accomplishments in my culture.

Understanding authenticity

Understanding authenticity at work is important. It’s the alignment of who we are, our interests (our internal self) and understanding how we can incorporate this in our day-to-day work. Putting up a front, a public image, can cause a lot of agony. It’s not who we are.

Being authentic gives me a sense of confidence. I find myself more engaged, satisfied, better able to make decisions, and in return, accomplish more. It’s helped me build trusting relationships and connect freely.

Becoming hungry to learn

I recognized early that my married life journey would take me to different places. My husband initially held a consultant role, which meant we moved frequently. That also meant I had to make some choices. I’m naturally open-minded and make the best of the situations, so I decided to put my existing skills to use and explore opportunities to enhance those skills. I enrolled in continuing education, certification courses and volunteered for non-profits.

I’m grateful for those early decisions because they contributed to how I started my career here in the U.S. After I completed by MBA, I couldn’t believe myself when I signed up for another certification course. I felt a hunger to learn new things and constantly update my skills. The saying, ‘once you stop learning, you start dying’ has stuck with me for years.

Crucial conversations

I’m the chairperson for the Asian Professionals at Discover (APAD) employee resource group (ERG). Initially as a new member, APAD gave me an opportunity to share my culture and traditions with my fellow co-workers through year-round events. Stepping into the leadership role as chair made me feel more empowered. I now have the platform to influence and make an impact for our members.

Organizing events has also given me the experience of collaborating with various people internally and across different companies. Above all, by exploring and researching my community’s needs, I continue to develop skills that I wouldn’t have otherwise gained. I recently had the privilege of moderating a crucial conversations session about the recent hate crimes against Asians. These topics are often ignored or considered “taboo.” I’m proud to break the norm and provide a forum within the Discover community for Asians to speak candidly about their hurt and pain. I’m honored to be in a position where I can enrich my fellow employees with these learning experiences.

 

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