Conditional love from tiger parents

Tuesday, September 4, 2018 - 6:10pm

.

Roseanne Chao

“Thank you for applying to the Stephen M. Ross School of Business. We regret to inform you that you have not been admitted to the Class of 2020. We encourage you to apply again next Winter...”

Rather than a boozy, relaxed year of skipping classes and taking blow-off courses, autumn of 2015 would launch my toughest year yet. After running a three-year marathon of extracurriculars, AP classes and a set of parents perpetually disapproving my efforts, the end was nowhere in sight: It was finally time to apply to colleges, and it was going to be my year. With undying ardor, I chased the forbidden parental words: “I’m proud of you.”

I’ve had the same circle of friends since kindergarten that seemed to be the way of the land back home. We did everything together, from taking the same classes to sleeping over at the same houses. But this foundational common ground soon became grounds to compete upon. With the ACT season closing and college application season commencing, many turned our backs against each other, whispering tidbits of envy and contempt to one another.

“Did you hear that Jack went to the Dartmouth information session? Like, there’s no way…”

“You don’t really believe Christine got a 36, right? She’s been insecure since like fifth grade about this stuff…”

The race for valedictorian-esque titles became tighter, and most chose the challenge over our friendships. What once was a unified group of 10 nerds soon became three exclusive cliques, broken up by ACT scores and desired school admissions. Our lunch hour became grounds for subtle insults of one another’s intelligence, creating exclusive Saturday night plans in front of those uninvited and a tireless game of one-upping each other’s accomplishments. The sleepovers got smaller. The carpools disappeared. My phone buzzed less, until it became every man for himself.

My parents are immigrants from India: The only people in long generations of family history to escape their hometowns and establish a life via the American Dream. I always felt they assimilated with me, growing up while I did, navigating the United States. I grew up getting spanked, teaching my parents how sleepovers work and begging them not to make me perform a walk of shame out of Health class, sitting out of the sex module while my peers snickered at how much of a prude I appeared to be at 13.

My parents grew up in households of tradition, beatings and strict allegiance to academia. Extracurriculars came third in a tier of school and family, and fun was a taboo rather than an element of growing up. School was their religion, and I largely owe my success today to their undying allegiance to education. But alongside their expectations stood an everlasting custom of verbal abuse. A good grade meant you can always do better. A bad grade led to week-long silent treatments and outcries of wishing they had a daughter with value, a daughter they wouldn’t regret having.

Because of this regular familial event, fear largely drove my motivations. Committing mistakes as I grew older drove them into worsening abuse. The comments got harsher. Their demands got stronger. I soon found myself with a 9:00 p.m. curfew at 17 years old, getting my phone confiscated and a string of damaging insults for pulling into the driveway at 9:02 p.m. after marching band rehearsal. Their outcrys shattered my composure each time, my 12-year-old sister growing to be the only person who kept me alive for the next morning.

Between parents whose expectations replaced my oxygen and friends who were no longer friendly, I decided to let my anticipated college acceptances lift me into the now foreign concept of happiness. I knew that each acceptance would bring me closer to my parents, and hopefully new beginnings. But this utopia of thought would slowly, and surely, be destroyed.

Spring break of 2016: A family vacation to Barcelona. They call it rush hour, but it felt far from. En route to the airport, I received five emails within a single hour.

 

Cornell University: We regret to inform you…

Harvard University: Thank you for your interest…

Yale University: This year’s pool was the most competitive...

New York University: Thank you for applying to the Fall 2016…

Georgetown University: The admissions team thanks you for your interest...

 

My parents expressed intense levels of disappointment in my inability to impress the nation’s finest universities.

I had gotten into the University of Michigan months prior, but this didn’t make my parents blink an eye.

“Everyone gets into Michigan around here. It’s just a public school. Now you’re no better.”

Up to 10 college rejections later, my only plan was the University of Michigan. But there was an 11th that remained: Ross School of Business. I put my utmost time and emotional investment into my Business School application, and felt the pressure of hope deepening each day of April, awaiting fate in my inbox. Perceiving Business School to be more “prestigious” than the rest of the University, I came to see it as the key to my parents’ approval. I convinced myself that this could be how I finally rise to true value in my parent’s eyes, and ultimately bring some form of peace to my household.

And then I got the email.

For the rest of the year, I would cry myself to sleep, withdraw myself from all of my friendships, declare myself rebellious to my parents’ wishes, and let their daily reminder of my failures seep into my blood and flow into my most controlling thoughts and dreams. The girl who won “Most Optimistic” in high school marching band lost her faith in God, her friendships, her parents and the sight of herself.

Summer 2016 consisted of my first internship for which my parents would eventually accept me leaving the house. But once I came home, I was confined. Newly rekindled friendships were quickly put out by an unmoving curfew. Silent treatments were incessant. Prayers for happiness were denied. Ann Arbor quickly became the enchanted light I dreamed about finding at the end of a relentless tunnel especially when it meant I could apply to the Business School one last time. My parents begged me not to attend the University of Michigan, their pleas deriving from fear to be let down again by another rejection letter if I reapplied. My resilient sister and poetry journal kept me sane, becoming the only things that kept me out of depression.

Imprisoned in a home where I was not welcome and having no outlet to vent to but to my sister, I poured the only energy I had into hope, hope that the grass was greener in Ann Arbor.

Move-in day. The sun was brighter and my steps were lighter. The air smelled sweeter, absorbing parental complaints before my ears could. Symbols of freedom decorated my clothing and room decor: bright yellow block M’s. Just a 90-minute drive stood between me and the rest of my life.

I could feel a chapter closing in the air or perhaps it was just postponed. All I had was all I ever really wanted: a fresh slate for new friendships, hopes, whirlwinds and hopefully, accomplishments.

***

I persisted through two semesters of snarky remarks and doubts of my second admittance to the Business School on the other line. Then, in the middle of a meeting on the first day of my internship, I refreshed my email.

“Congratulations! You have been admitted … ”

I ran on unadulterated adrenaline for the rest of the day, and finally called my parents after work, who finally uttered, “We are proud of you” on the other side of the line.

This was the first stepping stone toward an authentic relationship with my parents. In a deliberate effort to cultivate a more personal relationship, I began to steer topics during phone calls home toward my personal life and admitting small failures. Shifting conversation from academia and grades to dating and dealing with stress resulted in unforeseen friendship with my mom and long, nourishing conversations with my dad.

Though a measure of my parents’ love was never what you’d call unconditional, their expectations always served as a barrier growing up, culminating into which university I’d leave the house for. Though an unhealthy basis for our relationship, it is a product of their own upbringing to which I owe, in part, where I am today. I haven’t yet addressed my grievances with how they treated me in high school in contrast to now, but I endure in the ambition of changing the only parenting style they know, hoping to eventually shift their mark of value from rank and numbers to simply love. And perhaps that day will come.