Here is an age old adage that any child of Tiger parents will recognize:
You can be anything you want when you grow up — as long as it’s a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer.
I was the anti-thesis of the model Asian Tiger child. I loved the kinds of activities that were only meant for leisure and never as a career. I didn’t have the patience to sit and practice piano for hours on end or the brains to become an anything prodigy. I liked to draw and paint in front of the TV instead of memorizing my time tables after school. Wouldn’t any 8-year-old prefer SpongeBob and doodling to learning division and multiplication?
I wasn’t quiet or sweet or disciplined. I wasn’t naturally interested in math or science or computers. I liked art and poetry. I was incredibly stubborn. I was precocious and restless and loudmouthed. I got in trouble for acting out all the time in secondary school. All throughout adolescence, I liked to take my parents’ advice and run in the opposite direction. Almost every decision I made would eventually bring them despair.
I didn’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer. In school, I always studied hard but it was clear I excelled in fields that required creativity and imagination, and less so in traditional disciplines that would one day guarantee job stability and security. Eventually I enrolled in university. In an effort to strike a middle ground with my parents, I agreed to pursue a science degree. I knew they hoped I would change my mind and realize the safe dream was the right dream to chase. Study hard. Study medicine (or law, or engineering). Become a doctor (or a lawyer, or an engineer).
Have the kind of life we could never have dreamed of.
When I inevitably decided I did not want to become a doctor, my parents felt despair. Growing up as the child of immigrants, you are constantly forced to navigate the boundaries of two different and conflicting worlds. As I’ve gotten older, I find the decisions that I am forced to make about my life often bring me to a crossroads. They force me to ask: is the path that brings happiness to my Tiger parents the same path that brings me happiness? As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to believe that these are two different paths existing in those two different and conflicting worlds.
I often worry that if I chose to defy my Tiger parents, I would also lose their love. When I chose a path that didn’t lead me to being a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer, I ended up with a degree in Psychology, unemployed right out of college, couch surfing, and swimming in student debt.* Then I proceeded to write about these shortcomings publicly. These were decisions that brought my Tiger parents the greatest amount of despair — they had parted oceans for me after all. Through their lens of Chinese culture, steeped in the tradition of saving face and holding status, they despaired over how little I had amounted to.
Although I have defied my own Tiger parents countless times, I wish I could say without doubt that you can in fact defy them and still win their love. But the fighting that came with their despair was always horrible and intense. Defying my Tiger parents has often led me to a war — one where victory seems to be Pyrrhic.
My father loves airplanes. He is an aerospace engineer by training. After work, he goes to a small sitting area outside a landing strip at our local airport to watch airplanes take off or touch down. My father grew up in intense poverty, in the city of Zigong, home of the Chinese lantern festival. He was taught all his life that to escape the cycle of rural poverty, he had to pursue his dreams in America. The land of freedom and opportunity.
However, being an aerospace engineer didn’t lead to promising opportunities abroad. It meant he could work his way up in Chinese government. But my father wanted to leave. He wanted a better life. He wanted his children to have what he could never have.
My father became a self-taught software programmer eventually, and moved to the US on his own when I was only a year old. Through his resourcefulness, he had managed to find contract work with an employer willing to sponsor him for a work visa. While working in the US, before he could migrate our family over, he had periods without work and a salary in between contracts. In order to continue supporting his young family, my father — an aerospace engineer by training — took up work as a busboy in a Chinese restaurant. He knew almost nobody in the small town of Skokie, Illinois. He lived in a stranger’s basement that he rented. He barely spoke English back then.
As children of immigrants, there is an unacknowledged debt that we feel we owe to our parents for their struggles and sacrifices. Our mothers parted oceans for us to have homes free of fear, persecution, and poverty. Our fathers bussed tables at Chinese restaurants so that we would never have to.
I wish I could say you can choose to defy your Tiger parents and still win their love. The truth is, they may never understand. Instead, I want to say that you should stop seeking their understanding, and defy them anyways. When you decide to defy your Tiger parents, stand firm and be unwavering. Even if it takes years. Your Tiger parents will eventually learn to stop asking questions if they see that you are happy. You might also not be happy — you might not be right about your own convictions. But, the greatest gift your immigrant parents have given you is the privilege to have choices they never had, and the freedom to be wrong about your choices.
Before I left home for university, my father told me a story about the letters he used to write to my mother from the US while they were apart. In these letters, he describes the beautiful Christmas lights in the city, and how his only dream was for us to see them too. Because of my father, I have seen these beautiful Christmas lights, and so much more. I may never make decisions that do not cause my Tiger parents despair. I may never win their full understanding and approval. But I hope to be unwavering in my defiance. And I hope that in being unwavering in my defiance, I can one day show my Tiger parents the other side of the oceans they parted, the beautiful Christmas lights, and so much more.
*I eventually found a job and thus, got an apartment and stopped couch surfing. My parents have stopped feeling despair about this part at least.
**Michelle Kuo wrote this piece in the NYTimes and was a huge source of inspiration. Thank you for helping me find the words to tell this story.