I know a lot about disobeying immigrant tiger parents. I didn’t take the conventional route of becoming a doctor or going into tech, as many Asian parents want. Instead, I nurtured lofty ideas about living radically: My heroes were Malcolm X, James Baldwin and Dorothy Day.
The choices I made confused my parents and caused them despair. I majored in social theory and gender studies: Despair. Worked on women’s rights in Kenya: Despair. Became a teacher in rural Arkansas: Despair. Declined an offer from a corporate law firm to do legal aid work in Oakland, California: More despair. Every fight was intense, terrible. None of us could believe what was said (or thrown).
We grew up in two different worlds. Taiwan, a developing country when my parents were children, didn’t have many options. Science and engineering could get you a job. Other professions, in social work and the arts and activism, were dangerous or unstable, or didn’t exist.
My book, Reading with Patrick, tells the story of how I came to reject my parents’ wishes for me. I have been moved by young readers asking me how they should talk to their parents about career choices. Their families come from Nigeria, China, Ghana, India, South Korea. These teenagers and college students are at a crossroads in their lives. They want to change the world but fear losing their parents’ love.
Here are my suggestions:
n 1. First, a note on the son-daughter disparity: Sons often get more leeway and more freedom. The sooner you accept this, the less time you will waste dwelling on it. Don’t get mad; observe. Observe how the brother does it. Observe that he doesn’t apologise for his choices. Observe his confidence — he knows he holds power, and he doesn’t feel guilty about it.
n 2. Invite your parents into the conversation. Let them believe they are helping to guide you. Offer information that might persuade them. Mention older people whom you have consulted, spelling out their paths.
n 3. If you find that you can’t persuade them, stop trying. Buy the plane ticket, find housing, accept the offer.
n 4. When they challenge you, do not back down. Do not even look as though you are backing down. Defy their expectation with a powerful display of your inflexibility. (Note: You may privately be open to their viewpoint, but don’t show it.)
n 5. If they get angry — if they start to throw things or talk longingly about the other immigrant children who are totally superior to you in every way, remember that they are afraid. They are losing power over you. Grow tender in the face of their fear.
n 6. Take note of their other worries. All immigrants are afraid of not making it. They’ve washed dishes in restaurants or tended the counter of a gas station. They’ve experienced dislocation, heartsickness and uncertainty. They want to spare you that life. But remember that you can navigate the world in ways unimaginable to them.
n 7. If, at any moment, you feel yourself expecting understanding from them, stop. Ask yourself: Why do I need it? Accept that you may never get it. Transcendent perfect understanding, as a goal, is out of the question. Maybe you’re thinking, but I know a family like that! They’re the nicest! Consider: Doesn’t the child seem weirdly lacking in edge? A little too well adjusted and cheerful? (Note: These are the perfect people to marry; marry them.) Your parents gave you this edge. Because of your relationship, you know how to fight — you know how to articulate what you believe and withstand scepticism. You’ll thank them some day.
n 8. If you hope to deepen your relationship, ask them questions. What did they want to become when they were younger? What was the political situation? Was it a just world? What was hard about coming here? If you don’t know their native tongue, try to speak it, even if that means you have to fumble and be uncomfortable. (Welcome to their lives!) If your parents tell you not to bother learning their language, this should break your heart.
n 9. Remember that what persuades them is your stability. By definition, that takes years to prove. On some profound level, they know they can’t argue with the fact that you’re happy.
n 10. But you may not, in fact, find happiness. You may not like the choices you believed they failed to understand — it may be you who fails. Prepare yourself for what they will say. Thought you could change the world? Thought you could do what you love and still pay rent? We told you so!
n 11. Let them say it.
n 12. In theory, parents know you most intimately. In practice, they often have no idea how much they hurt you. They feel, rather, that it is you who have hurt them. And this impasse is painful, because in a battle where both feel betrayed, victory is Pyrrhic.
n 13. I wish I could say: You can disobey them and win their love. I wish I could promise you that your choices are the right ones, and that you won’t come to doubt them. But winning and certainty are actually not the point. The point is: Do you believe that failure is yours to have, rather than theirs to fear?
n 14. Have faith. There is a long game. They might never see things the way you do, and that’s OK. Show them love as best you can. Show up for them, and the things that they care about, in the ways that you are able. After all, when you were a baby, they bathed you, wiped your nose, cut your food into tiny little chunks so that you wouldn’t choke and fed the stuff straight into your mouth. And someday, maybe you’ll get to do that for them.
— New York Times News Service
Michelle Kuo is the author of Reading with Patrick.