“Stay immigrant, man. Stay immigrant.”
-My big brother
Someone the other day told me that I was a “secretly a birthday diva”, since I turned 29 in mid-January, yet I am still celebrating into February. My explanation is that I have different groups of people with whom I want to celebrate, and it is difficult to get them all together, so I end up having to do multiple celebrations.
At least, that is my excuse. Perhaps I really am a birthday diva inside ;)
One of the celebrations I had was with my two brothers. I have an older brother and a younger brother, and they treated me for my birthday to F1 racing! I was supposed to go to an F1 racing event a couple of months ago, but I had to miss it due to a physical therapy appointment. I apparently kvetched a lot to my family about missing the trip, because my brothers surprised me by taking me there. I was very touched by how sweet and thoughtful that was!
Full disclosure: I am actually afraid of even regular driving due to driving very little since moving to Boston (there’s no need to have a car here), so even though I was excited to do it, F1 racing was pretty scary to me. As a result, during my first lap I was extra-cautious and took some pretty leisurely laps. Check out the results below:
As you can see, I placed dead last, and everyone else completed 15 laps, while I was only able to complete 10. I also finished more then four minutes behind the person in front of me, when most people had at most an 18 second difference, haha. At least I improved my second and third time and during the third race, finishing a somewhat respectable sixth out of eight.
After F1 racing, my brothers took me to Shojo, an Asian fusion place in Chinatown. The food there is excellent (though very bad for the waistline), and I highly recommend a visit. We caught up over a dinner of chicken and waffles, Chinese-style Bolognese noodles, and fried calamari. It was delicious, and as usual, my brothers provided some thought-provoking conversation.
My brothers are very smart and thoughtful people. They are both jokesters and always keep me laughing, but they are not the type of people with whom I only have light conversation – more often than not, they say things that really make me think. Since they are family, sometimes they say things that are hard to hear, but at least they are always things which cause me to take a good look at my life and beliefs.
I studied Chinese Language and Literature in college, and was led to this major in great part because of my ethnicity. I am Chinese-American, but both of my parents were born in Vietnam. They left during the war and came here to the United States under very difficult circumstances. For months they transferred between several refugee camps in Southeast Asia before making it to the United States, and after arriving, they moved around in different states on the West Coast before finally settling in Atlanta. My older brother was born in Vietnam (he is 12 years older than I am), and his upbringing was very different from mine. I sometimes joke about being an immigrant, but that’s not true – I am pretty apple pie American in a lot of ways. I am really just riding off of the immigrant experiences my parents and older brother had. Whatever difficulties I had growing as a working class Asian-American in a all-white suburb of Atlanta, I was always an American, not an immigrant, and I never encountered the sorts of transition difficulties my parents and brother did.
We talked a little about this when I updated my brothers on my career and where I hoped to go. I told them that while I was ambitious and eager to take my career to the next stage, I was still content with where I was at the moment. (Trying to strike a balance between contentment and ambition is always a struggle for me…that is a much longer post for another time.) I told them that I thought it was funny how I knew people who were in similar places in their careers who did not seem as content. To be fair, a lot of my contentedness has to do with the fact that I basically had to start over from the bottom of a new ladder. At least I know that I had chosen the right wall this time.
My older brother pointed out that I should see things from their perspective – things were easier for us in some ways than it was for our friends. Since we had started at the very bottom as the children of struggling immigrants, everything we did was an easy win, as it was automatically an improvement on what the generation before us could accomplish. This is in stark contrast to our wealthy friends who were the children of successful doctors and lawyers – in contrast to their parents, everything they accomplished did not seem good enough in comparison.
Obviously, this gave us an enormous advantage in terms of being content with life. When you start from the bottom, you have nowhere to go but up. But it brings with it some challenges as well.
For instance, I was a huge brat when I was a kid. I’m not going to gloss over that fact. I think I continued to be a brat well into my early twenties, and I’m going to hedge on the fact that perhaps I still am one in a lot of ways. I believe that I can attribute part of this to my childhood economic situation. As a teen, I developed a kind of defensiveness that some people in difficult situations choose to develop, and I was envious of and slow to empathize with people who I believed had more than me. Whenever someone who I believed was privileged complained about something, I always brushed it off. I always thought, “You don’t have any idea of what suffering is. Try growing up as a poor Asian in the deep South.”
I’m glad to say that by the time I was an adult, I realized how deeply flawed this thinking was. Part of this was the natural result of growing up, but some of this was cemented even more firmly when I eventually found myself unexpectedly on the other side of the line. I remember the day in college when one of my friends told me, “You know, when we first met, I was always so envious of you. I thought you had everything.” I remember feeling incredulous when I heard this, and while I chose not to say anything to it, I thought, “All you see is the surface. You have no idea how much effort goes on behind the scenes.” A few years later after we had graduated from college, and I decided to leave my job, this same friend, who was struggling with employment issues of her own, angrily lashed out when I told her about my decision to quit and said, “It really makes me very angry to hear this. Here I am, struggling to get a job I want, and you just leave your comfortable job for no reason. Things always come so easy to you, and you take it for granted. It is so unfair.” I was stunned and then angry at her statement at the time, and wondered what I did to warrant such venom. But as someone who grew up thinking of herself as a “have-not”, I realized that I used to thoughtlessly assume exactly the same of other people whom I deemed the “have’s”. I assumed many things about these people, the same way my friend did that day with me. (On my part, I also should have been more sensitive to her mindset at the time, and probably should not have gone into too much detail with my career change at that time knowing how much she was struggling. Live and learn.)
I read a quote once that said, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about”, and this quote hit home and represents what I now know: you don’t know what everyone you meet has experienced or been through, so always give them the benefit of the doubt. You can’t assume anything about anyone. This applies both to people who seem to have it all and people who seem to be struggling. Whenever I see someone who at first elicits the “Why are you like that, why can’t you try harder” knee jerk reaction from me, I try to stop and remember this sentence. I can never know what it’s like to be in that person’s shoes and shouldn’t judge.
The other challenge to being the children of immigrants is that we (and I generalize by we, I realize that my experiences cannot speak for all children of immigrants) constantly fear failure. We know what poverty feels like and know what it means to fight and struggle. There are benefits to this: this fear gives me a good work ethic. But the downside is that I chronically feel as if the bottom will drop out from under me at any moment. I’ve always disliked how my friends call me “very intense”, though I know very well that they mean well. I’ve tried to tame that part of myself over the years, but I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that I feel as if I can’t relax, or I might lose traction. I WANT to relax and be less intense, yet I fear it, since I fear becoming complacent. My brother sees this grittiness as an asset: he used to have a saying that he would say to his friends: “Stay immigrant, man, stay immigrant.” What he meant was, “Don’t forget where you came from. Keep working and never take anything for granted. Nothing is ever free.” That’s part of what keeps me going – I can’t take anything for granted, and nothing is ever free.
This applies to everything in my life: just as I can’t assume anything of other people’s feelings or experiences, I can’t assume that anything will be handed to me. I can’t assume that anything is easy: my relationships, my health, my career, anything. Nothing is ever free.
When I lived in China, sometimes I would call my mom and complain about culture shock I experienced which baffled and annoyed me. My mom would listen and say, “There are a lot of good things about Chinese culture, just like there are a lot of good things about American culture. You should observe everything and take in the good and forget about the bad.” I try to do the same about the experiences I have growing up as the child of immigrants. Despite the challenges, there are a lot of good things that came as a result of it.