On Bad Boys — And other things I learned in India
Michelle Sindha Thomas
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
But that’s what happens. Watch The Good Wife. Alicia evolves to become far more wicked than the Bad Boy husband she enabled. She masters his methods. It’s human nature. As the Bible says, “Bad associations spoil useful habits.”
I do have an appetite for mischief.
But that doesn't fully explain it, because I can be mischievous on my own.
Bad Boys are not necessarily badly behaved. Bad boys love their moms, in fact they have an unusually strong attachment (Perhaps stemming from a life of together trembling before a dominant, charismatic, yet hurtful dad? Hurt people hurt people. Yet this cycle is not mine to amend. I die trying.). Bad Boys are always proving their worth. They need an audience to reassure them. They take highly visible risks, they spend big. They love to talk and are great storytellers — not conversationalists, storytellers.
None of this makes them bad, per se. From whence, then, does the name derive?
Bad Boys, simply, treat girls badly.
I was burned out. I was burned out by the meaninglessness of my work, by disappointment in people, places, and things, and a strange dismay at what I had become: A master of breezy banter, a purveyor of nothing but texts and DMs and IMs and GIFs and memes and dings and swoops to fill the dread of silence. I was e-fatigued but keeping up the chatter because it distracted from my emptiness and loneliness.
I took time off to rest my mind and travel. It was difficult to unwind during the first month. I went to stay with my parents in India, where they retired. I would obey my mother when she saw my bedraggled face in the morning and said, “Turn around. Go back to bed. You are here to rest.” I focused on a slowed way of being. An unexpected by-product of this self-care: Increased self-respect.
In India, my activities were accompanied by lemon basil tea and guided by an affirmations app, a spiritual app, a wellness app, a workout app, even a bedtime app. I listened to only the happiest of jams on Spotify. I challenged my intellect by learning to read and write Malayalam, a liquidy local language with a very curly script. I’ll never fully grasp it, and guess what, it’s okay. My life doesn't depend on it. I took voice lessons with a Carnatic music guru. His method was relaxed and thorough. After months we still hadn’t yet approached a song. We focused on breathing and rhythms and hitting the notes sa-pa-sa at gradually ascending octaves.
I could not stay in India forever, not because of pythons and monkeys, but because I faced those demons of close-mindedness and nationalism that I ran from in November, and here they were larger. The people around me made me feel like a foreigner, despite my best efforts to integrate, and in the wake of prosperity and India-for-Indians political rhetoric, they had lost all interest in foreigners. I had naively run to my roots with arms wide open, only to face general rejection. The upside was that I grew closer to my parents and benefited from their care, protection, wisdom, and perspective — themselves bewildered, returning after 40 years to live in an India they did not recognize. After speaking to a wise friend on the phone I accepted that this was simply a time to sit and heal.
In an effort to preserve sanity, I buried my head in the sand with regard to American politics, but continued my lifelong mission to normalize the exotic with the means at hand. I wasn't the only one. Around this time, Aziz Ansari said on Saturday Night Live:
I think a part of the problem is a lot of people haven’t interacted with any brown people in normal life. The only people they see are these monsters on the news who are just a drop in the ocean. Maybe on the news reports they should do a second report about other brown people who are up to normal stuff . . . So like, ‘The suspect is considered armed and dangerous . . . Not armed and dangerous are these four other Muslim people eating nachos in Chicago! Let’s go to footage of them . . . Uh oh, it looks like Nasir just spilled a little cheese on his khakis! Got a little overambitious with the last dip. We’ve all been there!’
My India posts were so “normal” to Western eyes that a few friends even called them boring. No elephants! No snakes! No hookahs! And that’s how I know I succeeded. If I dampened the intrigue of India for Westerners, then I hit my mark.
“Is this your idea of relaxing on a tropical vacation?” I make everything difficult because everything has been difficult. My nature is not bold, but I put on a bold face for a seat at the table. I’m naturally docile and have always enjoyed affection from the people around me, but I’ve worked very hard to gain pet status: To teachers, I had to prove myself extra clever. To friends, I’ve been extra generous and deeply forgiving. Towards bosses, I’m near obsequious. To boys, I’ve had to prove myself worth the risk of crossing a cultural bridge (In case you wonder, I knew only about three Indian-American boys growing up. They loathed themselves and thus me, intensely. Maybe it was because classmates always assumed that our parents knew each other and had arranged our marriage for an auspicious date post-graduation.)
The problem with this continuous social effort is that I’m dismissive of those who accept me immediately. I have a tendency to disrespect those who care for me without convincing. What madness. What fertile ground for the Bad Boy.
I don’t naturally have a thing for Bad Boys. The first crush I ever vocalized was on Bollywood actor Aamir Khan, widely known (when I was in fifth grade, confiding to Reena J on the school bus) as a very good boy.
I think my first brush with the Bad Boy was soon afterwards, when I transferred from a diverse school in Chicago to confederate-flag-flying Lansing, Illinois. There, Eric vG had deep interest in me. Maybe he had a burgeoning thing for Indian girls with spectacles, which he had undoubtedly never seen. Maybe Eric vG didn't know what to make of this illicit interest, and so became the first person to bully me for my race and appearance. He’s the source of a lot of confusion I’ve taken years to unpack. Obviously, still unpacking.
I think I was only so shocked because my life was so straightforward and protected until then. I was a hypersensitive child with puberty on the horizon and must have observed that something didn't match between his rough words and his constant observation. And at that crucial moment, something about his personal confusion became addicting to me. I was new in town, I needed the approval of my peers, I was a preteen and wanted to be liked by boys. I had his attention — an attention that he was conflicted about granting me and so tucked it into attacks. Over time I became a hyper-groomed, overdressed teen, a high-scorer, a perfectionist and goal-setter, making every effort to present in a way that would rise above criticism.
After about three years, I stood up to him (in art class, a place where the teachers leaned toward liberality and I was always made to feel confident). I stopped him when he opened his mouth to speak and asked him, “Why do you hate me?” He was startled, I think. He stopped, turned, and walked away. After that, every time he saw me, he said, very seriously, “I love you, Michelle Thomas.” I ignored him, but I was shocked and disturbed and strangely pleased. I had won. Expression of affection was a battle and I had won it.
A year more of this and then, thank God, we moved away from Lansing. But not before this conflict had become a habit and an expectation. I’ve ever since allowed myself to be entangled by the conflicted, the badly-behaved, the emotionally unavailable, who make me work for credit as they sort out some unrelated issue. Lansing somehow wired a message that if approval isn't difficult to acquire then it’s not desired. Of course, this was not a conscious hard-wiring. I was simply experiencing puberty in the wrong place at the wrong time, but this re-wiring is what makes me work so hard for broken goods. This re-wiring effected the shift in my affection from the do-gooding Aamir Khan to rascally Shah Rukh Khan, a playful, mischievous scoundrel who, in the 90s, generally played the rowdy, charismatic villain. Ah, but I got the sense that he would treat me badly, that he had some unresolved hurt and would use my approval to feel better about himself yet never allow himself to be vulnerable and show me that I had his unconditional approval. What utter madness.
I’ve broken free.
I’ve never been able to see this before I stepped away from my life and examined it from a distance, with no stake in the game. I was in India, fatigued by my life in Silicon Valley, all romantic interests extinguished, binging on The Good Wife and seeing my errors writ large. Westerners find answers in India. This has little to do with spirituality or ancient Oriental wisdom. We find these answers because we are so far removed from our normal routines that we can see them clearly. We realize what to keep and what to change.
In India, I realized that I did not want to start over. I didn't want to throw away everything I knew. I wanted to learn from my past, I wanted to push my baggage down the Ganges, return to the all-accepting San Francisco I knew, and understood well, and loved. And simplify.
I traveled a little more and hit a few more bumps, achieved milestones, and waded through sorrows of my own making. Along the way, the adulthood switch flipped on. Eric vG had no hold on me. I ran into the most recent Bad Boy and actually felt sorry for him. Once you master the Bad Boy’s tricks, you find them lacking in moral sense or somehow compensatory: The unresolved daddy issues, the unhealed broken hearts. None of these were my problem. I was so thoroughly rested and well and clear-headed that no one could persuade me otherwise. At last, I loved myself. I had affection for myself. I respected myself. In the time I pressed pause on life, I had fallen in love with myself and valued myself so much that I would never again hand my heart over to an irresponsible keeper.
I’m now making a living on my own terms, keeping only the company I wish to keep, writing and painting every day. I refuse to even consider work that could send me down the burnout rabbit hole again. I’d taken this huge risk in unhinging from life and after taking such a leap I refuse to settle. I’m very close to finding my Utopia.
Before you quit Bad Boys completely, take stock of all you’ve learned from them. You learn how to charm. You learn how to smile, to compliment, to bat lashes, to mirror, you learn how to interview really well. You learn how to sell your car at a fair price and win the apartment bid. You are an open book because you’ve turned your sins into adventures and the stuff of legend. People confide in you because you “confide” these stories in them, not realizing that you’ve illuminated the script and filled it with cinematic magic. What’s the harm, you believe it yourself. You learn how to keep friends — contacts — in all the right places.
You are now a bad boy . . .
No, just kidding.
You’ve just learned all their tricks (bounty earned from years of close observation, long-suffering, near death experiences).
One day, you decide to make an effort to stop bantering so close to the edge of danger, you decide not to abuse your talent and do your utmost to avoid giving the wrong impression. You’ve beat them.
And you refuse to join them.
That’s when you know you’re cured and that’s when you know you’ve won.