Updated: Jun 3
By: Deanie Chen.
One of my biggest strengths and one of my biggest weaknesses is that I live solely in the present. I don’t dwell on the past, but I also don’t plan for the future. I live in blissful ignorance of deadlines that I’ve willingly forgotten, always choosing instant gratification over making the best choices at the moment. I live without regretting the past or worrying about the future, avoiding conflict at all costs and doing whatever makes the people in my life happy – the path of least resistance. At times, I become strikingly aware that I live too passively, often feeling like a bystander to my own narrative. However, as my college graduation approaches, I found myself standing at a fork in the road: I could either pursue my passions by continuing my career in photography or take the less risky route of attending law school. And while most people I have encountered without hesitation push me to “follow my dreams”, the choice is far from that simple, and my passive personality only contributed to the overwhelming feeling of suffocation that accompanies a life choice. To combat the hopelessness of facing this loose grasp of my own identity and my future, I decided to dig a little deeper, not into my own past, but to that of my parents, for their experiences as immigrants to the United States hold deep meaning and relevance to my choices and how I view myself today.
My parents grew up during the era of the Cultural Revolution in China, a time where Mao Zedong still had full control of the country. My mother, the daughter of a poor farmer from Hunan, grew up defying the stereotype of the calm middle child, known for tattletale-ing, skipping school, and bullying both her older sister and younger brother. Out of the siblings, my mother is the most like my grandmother, adopting both her temper and smothering love. But despite growing up poor, my mother tells me that she and her siblings always had enough to eat, because my grandmother would always forgo her own food, preferring to save it for her children. Family comes first, above all in the Yuan family, a sentiment that my mother still embodies today.
My father grew up in Shanghai, to a rare divorced Chinese family. He speaks fondly of his mother, and less so of his father, who rarely showed affection of any form. He still tells me of the daily horrors he saw, horrors to which eventually he and his friends all grew numb. He tells me of being so hungry that he would stare through the window at the roast meat shop on the way home from school every day, dreaming of the day that he could afford a piece. He tells me of seeing a grown man yanking a Chinese roll from a little boy, stuffing his mouth from hunger and shame as he ran away while the little boy cried. He tells me of running down to the stream by his house with his friends, placing bets on the gender of the bodies that would float face down in the water. His dream was to go to college and to get an education, and thus he spent all his free time reading and studying. And when he hit his teenage years, he volunteered in place of his older sister, sent to the countryside to work in the fields as part of Mao’s plan to rebuild the Chinese economy. Once he arrived, to avoid working in the fields so that he had time to study for the dreaded “Gao Kao”, college entrance exam, my father was the only volunteer to replace the dangerous post of the previous cook, who was stabbed by an angry, starved worker. My father learned to survive on his own, to achieve his dreams in difficult situations without help from others.
Later, when my mother and father got married, they decided that immigrating to the United States would be the best way to establish and provide for a family. My father flew to Lawrence, Kansas first, to begin his master’s degree at the University of Kansas. Ironically this choice, that has determined the state where he and my mother have lived for thirty years, was merely because he had no money to pay for application fees, and KU was one of the few colleges with a free application. He arrived at the airport with two overweight suitcases, carrying everything he owned from clothes to blankets to pots and pans. With no transportation or place to stay, my father looked so disheveled and lost that he was found by a kind stranger who took him to her house. This kind stranger and her husband became my adopted grandparents, not only fundamental to my upbringing, but to my father’s establishment in the United States as well. The first years in the United States were difficult for my parents: my father, whose degrees he earned in China were not quite compatible in the United States, simultaneously worked as janitor while completing his master’s and a doctorate in English, while my mother, with a degree in mechanical engineering, worked as a housekeeper while trying to learn English by watching Seinfeld. They rented and lived in the attic of a house, barely getting by on the cheapest groceries they could afford. When I was born, my mother was 38 and my father was 42 and just graduating with his PHD. Luckily not long after, my father was offered the tenured position he still works today. We moved to the suburbs, finally living more comfortably: I did not grow up with as many toys and clothing as my peers, but my mother would always cook the best food for me, and my father and I would wrestle and play when he got home from work. It was a humble life, but I was attending a good public school in a good neighborhood, and I had the world of opportunity that my parents dreamed of their child having.
Growing up in a highly individualist society, it is unconventional to weigh my parents’ experiences so heavily when constructing my own identity. I’ve been told time and time again, that my future path shouldn’t be dependent on others. But this future has only been made possible by the path my parents have paved for me to reach this fork in the road. Like other Asian parents, my parents want me to be a doctor, a lawyer, and other stereotypical careers because they want me to be self-sufficient and independent. I used to hold a large amount of resentment and bitterness over this, feeling shuttled into careers for which I hold no passion. I remember seeing classmates state proudly their dreams of being artists, ballet dancers, and musicians, and feeling twinges of sadness and jealousy because those were unreliable dreams with high rates of failure, and I couldn’t afford to fail. It was the burden of being a child of immigrants, and it was a burden I didn’t want to carry. But as I have grown older, I have learned to recognize and deeply appreciate the altruistic nature of the sacrifices my parents are still making daily for me to afford USC, to minimize loans I have to take on top of the scholarships and grant aid I receive. They never eat at restaurants to save money, and they are postponing their travel plans for after I get a job.
The phrase “follow your dreams” is only ideal if we live in a vacuum: in reality, taking into consideration your background is just as important as following your most glamorous passions. My identity is so heavily tied to my parents and the sacrifices that they have made for me, and therefore, an obligation to myself is also an obligation to them. Despite being passionate about photography, my dream is beyond that: I want to be able to pay back just a small portion of what I have been given. Risking everything in this case is more than forgoing financial security and comfort for myself, it is forgoing the guarantee of providing a better life for my parents. Personal dreams will always be there, and sometimes they must be set aside for a more holistic goal. My mother’s dreams were not to work as a housekeeper in a foreign country, where she had to learn the language from scratch. My father’s dreams were not to be sent to the countryside as a young teen, and they were not to get spat on and sneered at by other students of the college he attended simply because he was working as the janitor to make ends meet. But these were the cards that they were dealt, and with a stringent grasp on realism, they were able to make it to where they are today, to give me a better hand of cards. I am able to live passively, not looking at the past or the future because I have the privilege of doing so. And as I head off to law school, this is something I will remember. This choice is a compromise to myself, to my obligations and to my heart. I have learned that my fulfillment is far from just following a dream, but it is contingent on the effects of my choices on the important people in my life. Thus, I realize that I can only truly feel fulfilled if I am delivering on my obligations to myself and to them.