What does success look like from Asian parents?

In other words, the price of familial obligation

As a prolific reader of any publication that contain the words “New York” I subscribe to a lot of newsletters from — you guessed it — the New York Times. One of them is called The Edit, a newsletter specifically for the “young” ones, written by recent college graduates about things that pertain to their world today. I may not be as young as the audiences it’s intended for, but today’s newsletter really hit it home for me.

The contributor, Nushrat Rahman, talked about her experience growing up in Detroit with a gang of extended family and hard working immigrant parents, and how her parents worked so hard to build a community in America — working laborious jobs in factories and as homemakers, and all their sacrifices, for the sake of their children. Seeing this example of hard work had an effect on how she wanted to pursue her life and her career. In it, she says, “Children of immigrants often have a different perspective on financial success and what makes for a good career path compared with those whose parents were born in the U.S.”

As I reread the piece again, it occurred to me that I’ve thought about this a lot, as I’m sure a lot of children of immigrant parents have as well, and yet, we don’t ever talk about it. It’s as if talking about how our future aspirations have been thwarted by our parents’ perspectives puts a damper in our race and our culture. It makes us sound like we’re not grateful that our parents sacrificed everything so that we can have the chance to become doctors, lawyers and engineers, and pharmacists…never mind the fact that some of us may want to be something else, say– a journalist (like the author of the newsletter), a performing artist, a photographer, a designer, a musician, a carpenter or anything else that involves using our hands and bodies instead of our minds. It’s even more of a shame that we all buy into this thought that success comes from achieving high paying, lucrative careers and that there’s only a small handful of those lucrative careers to choose from. After all, limitations is what drives the immigrant experience.

Our parents, being immigrants, are limited to educational opportunities because they’re not U.S. citizens who possess fluency in English, because they were impoverished in their own countries, because they were never taught anything else by their elders except for “work hard, keep your head down, and rely on your children” to provide them with a better future, or a “retirement plan,” as Nushrat puts it. Therefore, they tend to err on the side of caution, to encourage their children to choose professions that require more brain power and knowledge that can be learned in school rather than the creativity that propels it.

Growing up in Vietnam, I was a little bit on the shy and quiet side. Being an introvert is perfectly normal, of course, but for my parents, it was not. Being shy and quiet in a family full of boisterous, loud individuals means that you were “different” and different usually means “slow” and “slow” usually means unacceptable. One thing I had going for me, though, was that I was cute. Very cute (not tooting my own horn at all). So my parents used every opportunity they had to show me off. I hated every moment of it. I was not a person who enjoyed being the center of attention.

Because of my quiet, observing nature, I preferred to play by myself. Most of the time, there were kids nearby and I’d play with them. But what I coveted the most was playing with my dolls by myself. I’d watch my brother and mother make clothes for other people and learned how to use a needle and thread along with the scraps of fabric that was left behind from their sewing projects. I made these elaborate outfits for my dolls and I remembered that it filled me with so much joy.

So I knew I had more to learn about sewing. I knew the intricacies of making clothes for real human beings and that I wanted to pursue it when I got older.

Fast forward to high school — I was still interested in fashion, but we didn’t have all the necessary equipment in our household for me to learn to be a better seamstress; thus, my sewing skills were subpar. BUT I decided that I would pursue it in college anyway. When my mom found out about this, she was not happy. It was as if I’d just told a homophobic that I was gay. Fashion design, to my mother, was as wasteful of a career choice as a painter, as well as anything in the realm of creative design.

“How are you supposed to get a job?” She’d always asked. As naive as I might have been back then, I always thought I’d move to New York or somewhere on the west coast like LA, where fashion was plentiful and I could have all the exposure I wanted. But I didn’t know how I would do that, or if I even have the courage to do it.

The question of, “How do you get a job?” and “How would you make money?” drilled deep into my brain for over a year. And by sophomore year of college, I started to seriously consider changing my major. After all, I had no idea how I could make any kind of creative career happen.

Fast forward to today — I graduated with a business degree, and I work as an accountant. But to those who know me well, they may have heard on more than one occasion that I wanted to do something creative. Writing is certainly one of those “creative” professions. Following the footsteps of my father, who was a poet and a writer, and who did get published but never made money from it, I feel like I’ve been living a secret life — one where I’m so glad that my true sense of self is out but one where I’m also trying to hide it from my mother as well. She doesn’t know that I like to write, and that I could write, and to be honest — for a long time, I didn’t either. I didn’t have the kind of support I needed to pursue something that fits me more than a career that hundreds of thousands of my fellow Asians have already made.

Of course, my mother isn’t wrong, and neither are other immigrant parents. Sometimes you just need a career that will lift your family out of poverty. I just wish that the pressure isn’t put on the children so much to be the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. I wish they knew that those who are currently in those “artsy” professions are taking a risk, and by doing that, they are creating their own path towards happiness, for you will never know if something can make you truly happy without stepping out of your comfort zone into an unfamiliar territory.

Recently, while browsing in Instagram I saw a post of an old friend of mine who recently started her own clothing line and had a debut at a trade show. In the post, she poured her heart out. “It’s taken me a really long time to bite the bullet,” she said. I thought how wonderful it is for her and I’m really happy she did that. Like me, she also comes from a Vietnamese family with immigrant parents. Our lives no longer intersect (except on Instagram), but our passions are quite similar still. I may be more wordy now than I was in the past but she is definitely more hands-on with her designs.

“Congratulations,” I told her. You go girl.

Editor @ BooknBrunch. Writer who focuses on Asian American identity, language & culture; occasionally business and finance. More at hoangsamuelson.com

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