Monday, July 17, 2006

Duty Calls

My wife was listening to Story Corp's "This I Believe" on NPR this morning and told me about this testimonial from a 13 year old Chinese girl in New Jersey. Suffice to say, it strikes quite a nerve since I - and I think many of us here - know a lil something about a sense of filial piety and duty. Here's what worth noting:
    "All my pride, love, self-esteem -- they merge into duty. There have been times I wanted to throw away everything, but duty and obligation were always there to haunt me and to keep me strong. I would think: My parents and grandparents brought me up, my country gave me shelter, my teachers spent so much time building my foundations just to have me throw it all away? No, I can't do that! I must repay all that they have done. "I must," "I should," "I have to," all those little phrases govern my life and the lives of many of my classmates. We struggle on because duty reminds us that the awaiting success is not just for us. It's for our families, our heritage and our country.

    I used to want to be a gardener. I liked working outdoors and the gritty feel of dirt was much more tangible than a bunch of flimsy words strung together. But I can never grow up to be a gardener. Everything I have done so far points to the direction of becoming a lawyer. That's a job my family wholeheartedly supports.

    There is no other choice for someone who's been brought up by such a strict system, someone who has ambition. Here in America, there is almost a pressure to follow your dreams. I don't want any more dreams -- dreams are illusions. And it's too late for me to work toward another future, to let the foundations I have built go to ruins."
May I just note again - she's THIRTEEN which both gives me some hope (she's very young to be making these kind of pronouncements) and despair that even at her age then, she thinks the future has foreclosed on her dreams and instead, all that lies ahead is obligation. One can only hope that by the time she's 30, she's not still stuck in this mentality. (I figure, give her a few years, a boy/girlfriend, some alcohol/weed and a larger social circle and we'll check back). Otherwise, I see somehow who's going to grow up to be crazy bitter and depressed, not to mention, not self-realized.
--Poppa Large


daddy in a strange land said...


Was wondering how she came to do the "This I Believe" piece--the NPR site says she wrote that at age 13 as a social studies class assignment... Interesting...

Still so much of a need for non-traditional role models to show that there are other ways to make it, to serve, to be successful.

Somebody's gotta tell her about landscape architecture. :)

R2Dad said...

Hopefully she doesn't get depressed about it and spin out of control. Wiser family members should tell her:
1) If she is going to be a lawyer, she still can choose any undergraduate degree she wants. Anything technical (engineering, science, math,architecture) is a bonus and can only help her later
2) Maybe law isn't her thing. Her parents probably won't mind if she wants to be a doctor (OK, short list of acceptable options)
3) Wait and see. She might not come around until she's 20. There is plenty of time to discuss this and the teenage years are wrought with so many other stresses it is not productive to stress this issue now.
My wife is 2nd gen chinese, and her parents always insisted she should be a doctor. Always defiant, she chose to be a research scientist (MD, pHd, it all seemed the same work load at the time). But in retrospect, she admits her parents were right...sometimes your parents aren't completely clueless wankers.

la dra said...

Maybe I buy into this thinking because I'm a generation 1.5 (born there; grew up here), but where would I be if it weren't for duty to community and family? I believe it still drives my actions today. Maybe the current generation of post-college grads living at home waiting to "find their bliss" or trying to meld their passion with their job need a reality check. There's nothing wrong having a stable job that affords you the freedom to follow your dreams outside of work.

Violet said...

I don't find it extraordinary that she has these feelings at 13, but I do find it extraordinary that she has expressed them so poetically. I was never pressured to become a doctor, lawyer or accountant because I was only expected to marry a nice Chinese professional. But I did always have that voice in my head that told me to be grateful by being dutiful.

Poppa Large said...

La Dra,

Personally, I don't know very many lawyers who have time to pursue much else besides work. And believe me, I know a lot of lawyers.

The choice isn't between a draconian sense of piety vs. a totally bohemian "follow your bliss" attitude.

The question becomes: how does one balance taking care of your family against a need for personal self-fulfillment. The latter is neither selfish nor frivalous especially in light of the ideal that one reason why families are willing to relocate themselves to foreign shores is precisely to afford their children certain freedoms and privileges that would have been otherwise curtailed in their home country.

Moreover, if anyone can offer a justification for how a 13 year old should have decided - and been endorsed by their family - to have chosen a legal track AT AGE THIRTEEN, I'm all ears. If the issue is one of gaining material security/stability, seems to me there are a lot of other ways to go about that. Gardening too!

To me, my experience - both as the child of immigrant parents who had their own expectations (and subsequent disappointments) over what I should do with my life (and yes, when I was still in high school), as well as someone who has worked with many 1.5 and 2nd generation Asian American youth - is that too many young people are pushed into career choices dictated by either a sense of social prestige and/or earning potential. The idea of personal happiness, fulfillment and satisfaction seems almost like an alien concept EXCEPT for the belief that "being materially secure is one way to be happy". That may be true - for some - but how many of us know depressed professionals and well-to-do people? Yeah, a lot, right?

Being materially comfortable and happy are not mutually exclusive of course. But if you were to stress to your child which ideal they should strive towards...AT AGE THIRTEEN...which would it be?

Gia-Gina said...

I felt the same way as a child and I just finished reading a children's book called "Diary of a Chinese School Girl" about a young girl wanting to finish her education even though her family could not really afford it.

I think I broke out of the mold when I did not go to medical school.

nina said...

I think that poor little girl's piece perfectly captures the tension between first generation immigrants' ambitions for their children and second generations (and some 1.5ers too) balancing act.

Anonymous said...

hey, she's only 13. she ought to be rebelling right now. what's happening to the kids today? when i was thirteen, i was listening to heavy metal, smoking, shoplifting, messing around with guys, and lo and behold, trying to sharpen my chops as a creative writer.

i've always been compared unfavorably to a pretty, straight-a cousin who did everything right, and is now an ob-gyn working on her residency. she's the golden child of our family, and i've always grown up in her shadow. she's a doctor, which is what everyone in my family expected and predicted her to be, but i hear about how she's got fifteen hour work days and is always on call, and barely has a moments' rest and time to be with her new husband. what kind of life is that? she's got appearances to keep, too, since she is a doctor and everyone in our family has all their big expecations for her. doctor's what she's been shooting for all her life, and even though her and i are estranged (fuck, man, i'm estranged from many family members besides my own parents), i've always wanted to know if she's a doctor because she loves and cares about her lot in life, or because she did it to please her parents.

meanwhile, i've got no appearances to keep and no one else's expectations to honor, and i've got more free time. i am not as high-ranking and successful as her, but i'd rather have my life than hers.