What Will Your Verse Be?

Apr 26, 2016 Main blog 22 comments

Blogging has died down over the years, but every now and then, readers still email me to encourage, be encouraged, or let me know they’re enjoying my posts. Every so often, there’s one from a young writer. I’m really drawn to those. I wrote a blog response back in 2013 to a high schooler who didn’t know whether a writing career was right for her. Since joining Wattpad, I’ve gotten lots of messages like that because of all the teens who hang out there. The messages are almost always from other Asian-Americans, drawn in by my Asian name and my photo, and almost all say: “I want to be a professional writer, but my family doesn’t like it. Do you have any advice? How did you push past your parents’ disapproval?”

Answer: I didn’t.

This post is one I’ve wanted to write for a long time, but it always seemed to come off as a whiny generalization that all Asian parents are as strict and crazy old-school as mine. So here’s a disclaimer: I am not whining or complaining. I am grateful for all my parents have given me. What I share is the truth, but only from my own experience, and I hope it helps a teen writer somewhere push past their own obstacles, parental or otherwise.

In my family, children are taught to be 1,000,000% obedient. Parents are gods. Any disrespect, whether it’s talking back or being sarcastic or sighing in their presence, is like spitting in your mother’s face. I used to freak out when I heard the way my black and Caucasian friends spoke to their parents, because I would be dead and buried if I ever tried that with mine.

If you are born a girl, these rules are compounded by another 1,000,000%. In my family, girls are not as valuable as boys. Don’t get me wrong: my parents loved me very much and spoiled me rotten, but they made no secret of the fact that they preferred my brothers. As males, my brothers had freedom, they were served first at dinner, they never had to do any housework, and they were never, ever subjected to the emotional and verbal abuse I constantly got from my father. (See what I mean? It sounds like I’m whining, but that’s the way things were.)

One rule, however, remained the same regardless of gender: the only careers we could pursue had to do with math or science (read: doctor or engineer). Anything else was strictly forbidden, ESPECIALLY the arts.

So here I am, only a girl. Let’s add to that the fact that I’ve always been a natural at reading and writing; let’s add all the writing contests I won in school, the spelling bees I dominated, and the high school level reading list my third-grade teacher had to create for me because I was already too far beyond the other kids.

My parents thought it was cute at first. My dad used to take me to Waldenbooks (yeah, remember them?!) and Barnes and Noble and let me pick out whatever I wanted. I had my own bookcase packed with everything I wanted: Nancy Drew, Babysitters Club, Sweet Valley, Saddle Club, and all of my favorite classics like The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables. I had expensive leather journals for Christmas and top-of-the-line art supplies for my birthday, and I was allowed to keep my head in the clouds all through my childhood.

The whole time, my father thought he was simply spoiling his daughter. What he didn’t know was he had planted a seed that had taken hold for life. He and my mom figured it out when I entered high school. I was 16 years old when they asked me what I wanted to study in college.

“Creative writing, so I can have a career as a published author.”

Can you guess how well that went over?

I fought as hard as I could against the box they wanted to put me in. They had trained me to be unquestioningly obedient, yet something inside me said: You WANT this. What they’re doing is wrong. You need to live your own life. But when you’re a girl in my family, especially a nice, gentle girl, you have no choice but to give in to your father’s nonstop barrage of bullying, teasing, threats, guilt trips, and insults. No choice.

I still cry, remembering the time he dropped me off at school after literally screaming at me for fifteen minutes in the car about how I’d be worthless and poor and not able to afford even McDonald’s if I chose writing over being a doctor. Somehow I found the guts to get out and slam the car door in his face. He went after me in a violent rage, and I don’t know what would have happened next if teachers and students hadn’t been standing there.

“Just GO,” he spat, in a beyond disgusted voice, to show me I was an utter waste of life.

Have you guys ever seen the Dead Poets Society? I watched it again recently and I cried and cried and cried at the storyline about Neil Perry, who’s a boy pressured away from acting and into medicine by his rigid, ruthless father. There are some people who do not understand the choice this character makes at the end of the movie. They are the same people who ask me: “Why didn’t you fight harder? Why did you let your dad bully you like that? You should have been stronger.” But only when you have LIVED an existence like this do you understand how utterly small you feel, how trapped and hopeless, and how you escape any way you can.

I gave in. I declared pre-med, and when my dad left me at my dorm on the first day of freshman year, he kissed me and told me how very proud he was of me. He didn’t care how unhappy I was. He preferred that I be wealthy over being content, and he told me to become a heart or brain surgeon (strangely enough, he was flexible there) and then be appointed president of a hospital so he could brag about me to his friends.

It was misery that saved me. Complete and utter misery at studying so hard yet never excelling, filling my brain with organic compounds and mathematical formulas I couldn’t possibly care less about, and struggling to grasp concepts that came so easily to my friends, the ones who went pre-med because they were passionate about being healers and caretakers of humanity… not because their parents jerked their puppet strings. Choosing to let my father control me would make me worthy and enough for him. But when would I be worthy and enough for me? What was the point of even living if I was so hopelessly miserable?

I know this sounds dramatic. I know it sounds like a caricature, an overblown perpetuation of the strict, be-a-doctor, Asian parent stereotype. But this was my reality. I lived through this and I came out the other side even more determined. A lot of people praise my discipline and resolve. “You’ll definitely make it as a writer,” they say, “because you want it so bad.” Well, now you know why I want it so bad. Now you know it is the only thing I have ever wanted, and being bullied away from it has only made me want it more. Now you know that when I pursue this dream relentlessly and struggle through all of my setbacks, I am reassuring myself: This is ME.

Looking back, I realize now my father lived a life of fear. Maybe he still lives one. Who knows? I don’t particularly care. But I refuse to live that way. I refuse to be so afraid I don’t even try. I refuse to settle into a certain way of life and squeeze myself into a box just because it is safe and it pays well.

I will stand up for anyone I see struggling the same way I did. At a family wedding in September, I talked to my youngest cousin, who is a fantastic soccer player like her brothers and dreams of being on the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team. I overheard one of our uncles instructing her to go to Yale or Princeton and study pre-med, and then her mother chimed in to insist that she be an accountant. Believe me, I took my cousin aside and shut that down REAL QUICK, respect to elders be damned. “I hope you play in the World Cup one day,” I told her. “Go to the school you want to go to. Do the things you dream of doing. At least TRY. Don’t ever be anyone else but yourself.”

I don’t know why some parents push and push and push against their children’s natural inclinations. I guess it’s because their fear is stronger than their desire for their kid’s happiness. Maybe it has something to do with the immigrant mindset: “Hey, we’ve made it. We’re in America. Go big or go home – but only with the three things on this checklist.” Anything else is a risk, a gamble, a possible gateway back to being poor and destitute in a friendless foreign country. But they brought us here for freedom: freedom to believe what we want, to live in comfort and security, to have better lives than the ones they had before.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be successful as a writer. But I’m starting to understand that I’m already successful when I’m being true to myself, and the last decade of my life has been spent learning that. So if you’re out there reading this and some small part of it resonates with you, just know that you have the ability to make your own choices. Maybe you’re stronger than I am and you’ll fight for it in your teens, or maybe you’ll come to it later like I did. But know that our parents brought us here to live the lives WE want, even if they don’t realize that themselves.

This is why #OwnVoices is so desperately needed and important. We need more Asians in the arts. We need people to share their experiences and breathe life into stories others can’t even imagine until they hear them, because they have never lived them like we do. If you are Asian with artistic inclinations, don’t ever, ever let anyone kill that part of you. LEAST of all your parents. You and your voice are needed, and even if it’s a gamble – even if you’ll never be rich and successful – at least you’re doing what you love, and at least you’re living life by your own rules. Life’s just too damn short to live a fake existence. Be odd and weird and nerdy and quirky and strange and unique and beautiful, and do it on your own terms.

I hope, I HOPE, this helps somebody out there.

22 comments

22 Responses to “What Will Your Verse Be?”

  1. Laura Pohl says:

    This is such a great and heartfelt post, Julie! Although my parents weren't as strict, I don't count on them for support on my writing career either. But it's as you said – staying true to yourself if the most important of all. I'm glad you made it, all the hugs!

  2. There was a time my parents forbade me from reading, because they thought I was wasting too much time. Thank you for this post! It's a relief to know other people understand what it's like. *hearts all over this*

  3. F.Y.TaPri says:

    I cried the whole time reading this. Because that was my story you put there. I did raised like you, to treat our parents as God and to defied them was sin. I am the eldest but if my brothers wanted my food or eat their heart out until all the plates were empty I must allowed them because "girls didn't need food as much as boys". I also fight my parents when I wanted learn english and they wanted me go to med school. I followed their decision wholeheartedly but when I graduated and finally thought I have free time to started my writing career, they drew their last card. Get a job in medical world-as my education approved-or leave the house and live in street. Endless tears and silent screamings, I had it all. But eventually I give in. Now that I lived away from home and stuck in a world which bring me pain, I realized I've spent too many time away from my dream, from the essence of who I am. And I hoped, I fervently hoped that soon will come a day were I can live my life doing things I love, creating lifes and giving hopes through my writing. Because when my fingers moving on pages that was when I felt most alive and happy.
    And like you I sincerely hopes that many Asians like us have the courage we learned from all those hardships, much earlier.
    I'm not an asian american like you but my parents leave their hometown too (a transmigrant it was called here in Indonesia) and so I understand those fear you mentioned. But I wished, how I wished it didn't had to hurt as bad as that.

    • F.Y.Tapri says:

      I still remember the day when I wrote the comment above. I’ve never cried so much reminiscing the past while reading about it. In a sense I think this blog post awaken me. I’ve read a beautiful book last night and one of its line echoed in my heart
      “Live, because only then there is hope”…
      Huge congratulation for you, Julie. When I wrote the comment back in April, I knew you’ll score Big.
      ?????????

  4. Suja says:

    Wow, Julie! This is an awesome post! Couldn't help crying by the time I was done reading. I grew up in India, and most kids at that time were encouraged (often pushed) toward medicine or engineering. My siblings rebelled. I didn't. I did what my mom wanted and became a doctor. Lucky for me, I ended up loving the profession and loving my patients, though I hated med school. About five years ago, I wrote a short story of a competition, and then found I couldn't stop writing. I love it so much now. As for my kids, my daughter has stated categorically that she will not go for the sciences. We, as her parents, are fine with it. I'm hoping the current generation of Indian teens aren't being subject to pressure from their parents. But from what I hear from my daughter, and from my colleagues, I fear they still are.

  5. {hugs} Love you, Julie, and so glad you shared this story!

    Funny timing, too: Yesterday, my 5th grader was furious that a character in her book wasn't allowed to pursue a career in art, and she didn't understand why the parents wouldn't let their kids do whatever they want. "It's their own life!" she shouted. So, I told her about you going into medicine, because that's what your family wanted, even though writing was your passion, and that it was HARD for you to stick up for your passions and follow your heart. She was stunned – and so so happy that you did! You're an inspiration, just doing what you love, and doing it with so much passion and courage. 🙂 <3

  6. I never understood why parents would do that to a child. Maybe they want their child to achieve all they couldn't? I'm fortunate my parents encouraged me to pursue my interests. (I even got to minor in music at college – there's another one of those art careers that's not likely to make much money.)
    Glad you stuck to your guns. Keep encouraging your cousin as well.

  7. Tiana Smith says:

    Lots of hugs Julie! And I'm proud of you for posting this and for everything you've accomplished so far. What is your relationship with your parents like now, now that you've given up medicine and become agented?

  8. Such a wonderful post Julie. I went through something similar, but it wasn't my dad pressuring me. It was the guilt of my mother's expectations (along with the Asian community)and a desire to make her proud because she'd given up everything so that I could have an opportunity.

    I entered college as a pre-med student, but came out with a BA in English Literature with an emphasis in Creative Writing. My mom is sweet and wants me to be happy, but sometimes I still see it in her eyes. The wish that I had turned out to be more. It's not in a cruel way either. As an immigrant, she couldn't dare hope for a prestigious future for herself due to circumstance, but she could dream big enough for me.

    I continue to write for me, but there will always be a part of me hoping to make her proud. I envision the day I can take her into a bookstore to show her a book I wrote on her shelf. Not to rub it in her face or anything, but as a way to say I can dream big for us, too; but just in this other way.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for this brave post, Julie. While my family is not Asian, my parents were also perfectionistic (with the added bonus of narcissistic). So much of this resonated with me because your story is very similar to mine. The expectation of perfect obedience, the yelling, shaming, blaming, and manipulation was a regular part of my life, too. In college, I was not allowed to follow my passion for medicine, so I went with my other love – English Literature. Obviously, that did not go down well either.! The things they have said and done to discourage me and to discount my small publishing successes has left me with a few scars. But I keep writing. Seeing that someone has succeeded despite similar circumstances, helps me to continue along this path. Thank you so much for being brave enough to write this! <3

  10. storyqueen says:

    You are strong and brave, Julie, and a great writer, too. Thank you for sharing your struggle.

    I am probably not the first to think this, but I believe that the seeds of a novel lie within this post. It will be there whenever you are ready to write it–I don't know if contemporary/realistic YA is something you want to write, but WOW, this is a story.

    xoxoxo–

    Shelley

  11. Sarah Ahiers says:

    This was a fantastic post. It actually reminded me a lot of LEVEL UP by the amazing and wonderful Gene Yang. I love that graphic novel because it so wonderfully shows the gray scale of life, and does address the father's fear which you touched on in your post.

  12. Yahong Chi says:

    Ahhh JULIE. Thank you so much for sharing. So many aspects of your story just make me go "YES". I'm never certain if whether I'll succeed as a writer either, but reading your story makes me feel a little more like the fact that I'm trying is important, and good enough. Thank you again. <3

  13. Julie C. Dao says:

    Laura: I'm sorry your parents don't support your career, either, but I am VERY happy that you are going to go ahead and write anyway. I wish it was easier for them to accept that we're artistic and that we won't be rich, but… oh well. Just keep going! <3

    T.S.: I don't understand why people look down on reading and writing so much. I guess they think it's "easy" or a waste of time. Hugs to you, friend! Glad you're doing it anyway!

    F.Y.: I cried reading your comment, which I told you on Twitter! <3 <3 <3 BIG HUGS to you, dear. This is exactly why I wrote this post: to offer up my experience as a way to bolster others and show them they're not alone, if they went through the same thing. I hope you heal and I hope you know how important you and your writing are.

    Suja: That's so interesting that you were pushed into the profession and ended up loving it anyway! What luck for you and those in your care <3 And you are a very understanding mom with your daughter insisting she won't go into the sciences. She's a lucky girl!

    Marisa: Love you for sharing my story with your girls! Your friendship and support are a big part of why I decided to share this. I wrote it to help others, but I also wrote it as a way to get it out of my system and move on completely. I've been healing over the past 10 years, but this was the final stage <3

    Alex: You are VERY lucky to have parents encourage you to do what you love! It's a privilege not afforded to many, and I'm really happy for you.

    Tiana: Hugs, and thank you! My relationship with my mom is great. Since I got an agent, I've been more "official" in her eyes because someone validated me. She's been as supportive as she can. My brothers are especially supportive and encouraging and keep telling me they think good things will happen for me <3 My father is not in my life and I am happy to keep it that way.

    Michelle: That made me tear up. Your mom sounds so sweet. And don't think that way… I'm sure she loves you just as you are and wants you to be happy. I just don't get why being a doctor is the ONLY way to make our parents proud. I know one day you'll make her proud when your book hits the shelves! <3

    Anonymous: Thank you SO much for sharing your story with me. Controlling parents are definitely not exclusive to Asians and so many have stepped forward to share their experiences. I'm so sorry you had to deal with all of that, but I am so proud and happy for you that you're still pursuing your dream regardless. You know something I've learned? When your biological family isn't supportive, you will find a family who IS. I've found mine in my writing friends and the community I've become a part of all these years. Without them, I'm not sure I would've had quite as much drive to keep going. So find your people – people who understand you – and hold on tight to them. Let them filter out the negativity. HUGS.

    Shelley: What's funny is that since writing this post, I've realized how many pieces of my own story are in the fiction that I write. Every novel has a little something: a controlling parent, a character who yearns, people who struggle to stand up for themselves. I think I'm already sharing bits of me in everything I write. <3 <3 Thank you for your support, as always!

    Sarah: I have not read LEVEL UP yet but I am definitely putting that on my TBR! Thank you so much for the recommendation!

    Yahong: Hugs to you, my friend, and your trying is so fundamentally important. I hope you keep going and do what you love! <3 <3

  14. Thank you for this amazing post, Julie!!!
    My parents didn't want me to take creative writing classes, and I took them anyway. I changed majors, I goofed off, and somehow, we all survived.
    However, I did cave and get a teaching degree . . . which I have used in a different sort of way as a home-school mom and as a writing teacher/tutor for home-school teens and pre-teens.
    It took me at least fifteen years to get courageous enough to really "go" for writing.

    Keep writing and living and loving life, Julie!

  15. Anita Saxena says:

    First, I want to congratulate you on signing with an agent earlier this year. Second, I want to commend you on your bravery to write this. Third, when I read this I felt like you were telling the story of my life. ?

  16. Megan Jean says:

    You are amazing, Julie, keep going. You are such an inspiration ♡

  17. Megan Jean says:

    You are amazing, Julie, keep going. You are such an inspiration ♡

  18. Julie C. Dao says:

    Tyrean: Glad you took the creative writing classes anyway! You are a braver woman than I! I wish I had switched majors without telling them and then they would only have figured it out on graduation day 😀 I'm glad you found the courage to go for writing. Wishing you all the best! <3

    Anita: Thank you, thank you, thank you <3 So happy this resonated with you!!

    Megan: YOU are an amazing friend <3 <3 <3 Thank you for loving PPP so much!

  19. DL Hammons says:

    Julie…

    *Gulp*

    Wow!! We've known each other for a long time (blog years) and although you've hinted about this several times, I had no idea about the depth of your struggles, and the stranglehold you were subjected to. This is an amazing post…by an amazing woman…and I'm so glad this morning I wondered "What is Julie up to these days?"

    Hang in there girl! Success is just around the corner. 🙂

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