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.