Second Generation Guilt

I owe everything to my parents.

It’s biological. Without them, I would not be. I feel that for this alone, I must be grateful. And I am. They have gifted me with opportunity, with possibility, and with expectation.

Perhaps it is because I am an only child, and the only recipient of parental hopes that I feel the need to fulfill their wishes. Or perhaps it is my inherited Confucian value system. Irrespective of the cause, I fear that as I grow out of the angst of my teenage years, I have not grown to understand my parents more. Instead, I have developed a finely tuned and ubiquitous sense of guilt.

While my daughterly duties should be synonymous with my best interests, I often find it difficult to determine whether I am pursuing my own goals or those set forth by my parents. My success is my parents’ only hope for me, and I am reminded repeatedly of their sacrifices on my behalf and of their devotion. From the time I was six until I came to Dartmouth, my parents drove my 200 miles to and from Houston so that I could take piano lessons from one of the best teachers in the country. My needs were always placed before theirs, and for more than a decade, they gave up every weekend they had to accompany me in my musical pursuits. My parents were and remain eager to present me with every prospect that was not available to them, for they wish my history not to be a repetition of their own, but an improvement – a legacy that they helped create and one that they hope for me to continue.

My parents maintain a unique position as a part of the immigrant class of the baby boomer generation. Until he was 16, my father believed that he was destined to forced labor in the Chinese countryside under Chairman Mao’s dictatorship, and before he came to the United States in 1982 to attend college in New York and later Princeton, he had never seen a telephone, much less a taxi or an airplane. My father’s parents were academics who lived much of their adult lives in fear of the repercussions of the Cultural Revolution, and instilled in my father a need for practicality, hard work, and perseverance.

Over the last thirty-odd years, my parents have become far more successful than their parents, or even they, could have anticipated. The Baby Boomers and my parents enjoyed three decades of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity. In their optimism and their sense of boundless possibility, I was brought into the world. Like others in my generation, I was raised to be a dreamer.

And herein lies the disconnect. As I began to forge my own life and depart from the comfort and familiarity of home, my sense of what a legacy and a dream should entail diverged from that of my parents.

My parents are sensible, practical people, who believe that a degree is also a direct indication for a career. As such, they hoped that I would major in chemistry or biology, thereby paving my way to medical school and a career as a physician. My Government and Music modified with Women’s and Gender Studies double major, then, is far from the ideal. Their discomfort seems to be a derivative of their upbringing. They did not have the luxury of lofty expectations and endless possibilities. The world was not their oyster; rather, they fought for every grain of sand. For them, a government major should, ostensibly, go into politics, and a music major should be looking forward to a professional career in the arts. As I seek to do neither of these things, they have become increasingly unsure as to the value of my education. There is a distinct and narrow paradigm within which one’s future may unfold, and it is one that begins and ends with careful planning and a series of predetermined steps. When I left the nest, I also left behind the security blanket they provided. Now, it seems that their primary concern for me is to reestablish this sense of safety and security, by majoring in the “right” thing that will, inevitably, lead to a “good” job.

This point of view, however, is in many ways inherently antithetical to the way in which they raised me. It is a discrepancy that may very well be replicated with each successive generation, as it seems to be contingent upon opportunity, resources, and expectations that shift with the times. As a child,  I was told that I could do anything I wanted, and to follow my heart (not my mind or mind my wallet). I took this advice and these lessons with an eagerness that can only be expected from the truly innocent and eager, and I suppose my parents did their job well – for I still hold these convictions dear. It is not that I believe my ideals to be naïve – but it is rather the enthusiasm with which I believed that life can be built about and lived for the sake of the fulfillment of these principles that seems problematic for my parents. To them, I fear, I have failed to grow up and out of my naivete.

I view college as an opportunity to embrace my love of learning. This view is not shared by my parents, who simply see it as a four year period in which to develop the skills I will need to succeed in the workforce, one that will be dictated by the classes and major I choose. There is a certain efficiency with which they view the world before me – it is one where every situation is directive and precise, leading exactingly to the next step without the possibility of circumscription. From their perspective, my women’s and gender studies major is incomprehensible, begging the pivotal question: “what do people do with that?”

And I don’t have an answer. Unlike them, I am quite at ease with the apparently nebulous state of my future. And while I may be at ease with the prospect of studying a subject purely for the sake of enjoyment and interest, I am not at ease with their dissatisfaction. Perhaps the crux of it all is that I understand precisely the root of their discomfort: they want the best for me, and as a result, I feel that I owe it to them to be the best. As much as I want to give back to the world, I owe it to my parents to give back to them first.

I owe them.

Because I feel that I am irreparably indebted to my parents, I maintain a constant desire to satisfy their aspirations for me. Unfortunately, due to such a desire, I have begun to resent them. While my parents want me, first and foremost, to be happy, their idea of what happiness depends upon is very traditional: money, safety, and stability. When they told me that I could do anything, it was not so much with consideration of the world outside of me, but rather my world – I could do anything for myself, but as far as bothering with everyone else, that was not my concern. As talk of my future becomes less speculative and more concrete, it is becoming ever more apparent that, to them, there are certain paths that are more “respectable,” more “worthwhile,” and ultimately, “better.” Now, twenty years later, I cannot bring myself to dream smaller, or to dream only for myself. I am tired of the dissonance of expectations and hopes that I disagree with, and I am frustrated by what I see as a lack of appreciation for the way in which I wish to make an impact.  I do not want my blanket of security – I want fulfillment.

My parents are proud of me. Whereas my parents found that their hard work gave way to success, their expectations were set at a much lower bar. Changing the world was not a priority, mostly because it could not be. For them, escaping a Communist regime was first and foremost amongst their priorities. Mine are a bit, say, loftier because I was unfettered by a harsh reality when I first began to construct my goals. And especially at Ivy League and comparable institutions, we are unaccustomed to failure. There are hardly obstacles that we cannot, with intellect, skill, and perhaps happy fortune, conquer and overcome. But this is not foolproof. While my parents may have neglected to tell me to prepare for failure as a child, they seem hell-bent on preparing me now. As much as they hope for the best, they also fear the worst – that my illusions, along with myself, will be shattered when faced with the sad reality that perhaps I cannot be the force of change I want to be. Moreover, that my education will come to naught if I do not have a paycheck to show for it. To them, if my cause is not myself, I cannot be guaranteed success.

I am idealistic in my desire for a life that favors fulfillment over security. Because of my parents’ endeavors, my financial security and independence are virtually given. So instead of looking to the net below me, I look up for something more nebulous: a sense of meaning, a cause, without any idea of what that cause might be. It is the idea of a cause that I feel my parents neither appreciate nor understand.

Given the infrequency of our visits these days, these interactions are disappointing. I tell myself time and time again to be patient, to understand, and to be a better daughter. What I hope to one day tell them is that the daughter that I want to be is the one they taught more than a decade ago to be impractical, to be foolish enough to believe in anything and bold enough to fail.