The Ties That Bind Us
In the article The Education of a Vietnamese-American Writer, Andrew Lam recounts how he “robbed my parents of their American Dream” by deciding to go to a writing program rather than medical school. I suspect that many Asian Americans have to navigate the tug between individualism and filial piety in one degree or another. This article rang a chord in me because I’ve experienced this to some extent.
My parents grew up in Vietnam. They went to high school together and I’m sure that if the Vietnam War hadn’t happened, there’s a possibility that they would have gotten married and raised a family there. But right before the war, my mother and her older brothers moved to Hong Kong to work and help pay for their younger brother’s way through medical school. My father and uncle managed to score very highly on their exams and took the opportunity to leave Vietnam and study engineering abroad. During the war, my father’s younger sister tried to escape on a boat filled with refugees. No one ever saw her again.
So I have a really deep appreciation for what the older generation has done. In comparison, I’m not sure what I’ve accomplished, if anything.
My mother has the notion that everyone has their own life and that it’s relatively pointless to judge others on how they decide to live. My father doesn’t care so much about what sort of career I end up doing as long as it helps pay the bills. Compared to some other parents, I think mine are rather liberal in their views on the direction of their kids’ lives. But even so, there are cultural expectations which are not so easy to shake. I am the first-born so I know all about the pressure and expectation to do well.
There was a point earlier in my life when I thought I would be taking the pre-med route like countless other Asian American kids. When I decided to break it to my parents that I wanted to go to grad school instead, it really was kind of nerve-racking even when they ended up being rather blase about it. As for the writing stuff–they haven’t shown much interest in it. Although I suppose if I actually sold a story or won the Pulitzer maybe they’ll decide that it isn’t just another of my harmless hobbies.
Of course, nowadays, I pretty much do things on my own and just ask my parents for advice.
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I recently overheard a conversation where some people were talking about a young woman they knew who had a disastrous experience with potential in-laws. Apparently her boyfriend’s parents either ignored her or made disparaging remarks during the entire time of her visit. Every night, she would end up in tears. There’s probably very little the young woman can do except to either grin and bear it, hoping that her boyfriend’s parents will eventually mellow out, or cut and run–favoring self-preservation over love.
This made me wonder what her boyfriend was thinking when all this drama played out. I bet it’s extremely difficult when you find out that your parents disapprove of your significant other. It’s that filial piety thing again. It would be much easier to please the older generation with an accepted match. But of course, in western culture, it’s not so surprising when people end up eloping. It’s probably even expected for people to run off and get married for love even when everyone else is against it. You can’t choose your family, but you can choose your spouse.
Whatever the case, I wonder if any of us really ever escape family expectations.
*Addendum: I just realized, after writing this post, that there are people who are going to disagree with me on the “choose your spouse” part. There are some, after all, who believe in this “destiny” and “soul mate” business. Which is fine, I suppose, as long as nobody believes that I’m their soul mate. I’m a rather practical (and cynical) sort of person so my view on the subject matter is that there are several people compatible with you, considering the billions of people who have lived on or are on this planet. The only problem may be that it may be difficult to impossible** to meet them–they’re living in an inconvenient place, the wrong age, haven’t been born yet, or are already dead.
**Depending on the case, you might need a time machine.