The Asians who didn't turn out right
I sip from a teacup at the dinner table, half listening to my family’s ear-splitting conversations — which, in our world, means light chitchat. My uncle and aunt are talking stocks. One cousin is showing us his dancing skills by flipping his sister over. My grandmother is putting salted fish down. On one end of the table, my older cousin has been roped into a conversation about a startup with my father.
“— and so you could help me design the software for the A-P-P,” he says, pushing a laptop towards my cousin. He looks over at the screen.
“I mean, I guess, yeah.”
“It’s all about artificial intelligence. That’s the hot industry right now, so many job opportunities!” My father looks pointedly at me.
“Uh, I’m a Communications major.” I shift my teacup between my hands.
“But communication is still important. A.I. is all about communication!”
“Well, the major looks more at media —”
“Man to machine! Communicating!”
My uncle looks over. “I thought you wanted to do business?”
“Um, I didn’t get into the program.” My foot drums nervously on the floor. Truth be told, I realized halfway through the year that I would probably hate myself if I ended up in a corporation selling a good I didn’t care about.
“Well, that’s okay. You can transfer to engineering,” he shrugs. I refrain from mentioning that I failed high school quantum mechanics.
A few days later I tell my family that I want to work in media diversity, maybe through social media or brand management. Try and teach at a university later. I am met with a pause.
“That’s not easy,” my father says slowly.
“Nothing’s easy,” I retort.
My aunt bursts out laughing. “That’s true. I like that.”
Shame is rooted in the comparison between yourself and social standards. My cousin hosts a Brooklyn comedy show by that very name: Shame with Yang and Blane (free most Wednesdays in Brooklyn, New York). The older generation is not very aware of the side hustle, because he has a “real job” as an engineer. Maybe the irony is intentional.
Shame and I, however, are on intimate terms, a bubbling in the back of my throat I can immediately associate with my family. To me, it’s always been clear that there is a right way to live, by my community’s standards. Go into a STEM field (even law was tabooed by my parents), keep a healthy savings account, raise kids, stay out of liberal arts. Combined with the throttling pressure of acting as society’s model minority, being a social justice-loving, article-writing loudmouth has set me up to feel like the worst-kept secret of our new American lineage. Even my mother, who had the gall to get divorced and talks openly about politics, resists my career path. I know they are afraid I will not reap the rewards they sought for me when they immigrated to this country. I know I will probably never be able to pay them back, for all they have given me.
But I also wish someone had told me earlier that my family hoped for my happiness. And to fulfill that, you must do it on your own terms. My cousins, who write and perform in secret. Girls at Chinese school who want to be dancers, diplomats, linguists. Kids who don’t have the top standardized test scores and go to mid-tier schools, when we are expected to outperform everyone else. There are so many Asians who didn’t turn out right.
It is a monumental effort to go your own way. To reject your parents’ wishes, to brush aside their sacrifices. There are many reasons why a path cannot be feasible. But shame is not a reason to live someone else’s life in the hopes it will one day become yours. It’s not an easy decision.
But nothing is easy.