I Will Never Be Enough For My Toxic Asian Expectations
I want to stop the cycle of prioritizing appearances over mental health
I was reminded time and time again of how big a disappointment and failure I would be if I didn’t go to medical school.
If I had a dollar for every time someone in my family mentioned medical school during Thanksgiving break, I would be a millionaire. My father wasn’t home because he was at work, but he emphasized the importance of medical school and said he didn’t raise me for me not to be a doctor. My mother emphasized the importance of going to medical school as a means of fulfilling my destiny. My grandparents pressed me on what the status was with me going to medical school.
As a first-generation Chinese American, everyone in my family told me I wouldn’t have any financial or job security unless I went to medical school. Everyone told me it would mean everything to the family and their status if I went to medical school.
I was reminded time and time again of how big a disappointment and failure I would be if I didn’t go to medical school. I essentially nodded my head and said “okay” every time my family would give one of those reminders — choosing to ignore it and attend to my own business.
Essentially, what I took away was that I could find the cure to cancer, find water on Mars, or make a billion dollars as an inventor— but I would still be a disappointment since I didn’t go to medical school. I could become President, win a Nobel Prize, or become an Olympic athlete, and it wouldn’t be enough because I didn’t go to medical school.
Let me be clear — I’m not planning on going to medical school. As a Christian, I know God decides where I go, and I’m pretty determined that path isn’t medical school right now. I’m a teacher by day, a writer, an editor, and a graduate student by night. As a special ed teacher as my day job, I make a big difference in educating my students and building relationships with those kids. I have helped raise some students’ reading levels up three years within half a year of instruction. I have been a reliable and steady part of my special education team at both schools I’ve worked in.
My parents don’t care about any of that impact on educational inequality, but I do not plan on stopping that to please the toxic Asian expectations of my family.
To label the expectations based on my race and heritage might seem unfair because there are likely lots of parents and families that pressure children into becoming doctors. For many upwardly mobile, immigrant families like my own, it’s perfectly rational to see why being a doctor is the only choice out there for financial security and prestige.
And I’ve been around the rodeo enough. I know it’s more about prestige than financial security. I know that at parties and on the phone, my parents would love to brag about their promising, successful son who goes to medical school and who will easily make a six-digit salary as a cardiologist. I know my parents want all their investment into my future to pan out in the most secure way possible — medical school.
While the word “investment” is harsh to describe the relationship between myself and my parents, a lot of it is true. I know my parents hold a deep love for me and my brother that transcends cultural expectations. However, I can’t help but feel like an investment when I’m talked about like a pack mule who earns a degree to make the family proud.
I don’t feel compelled to explain why I don’t want to go to medical school — I want to be a teacher. And when I told my dad I wanted to be a teacher, he yelled and screamed at me about how angry he would be. He talked about my grandmother, who was a teacher and said:
“Don’t you see how much your grandmother struggled? Don’t you see how much she suffered? And you want to be like her? The only way you can support this family is if you’re a doctor.”
Of course, I’m always translating from Chinese. But my family doesn’t mince words when they have a high-stakes expectation. I know that approval from my parents isn’t everything, and at the end of the day, it’s my life and I’m going to press forward the way I want. But that’s not how they see it — because my job status and prestige is an extension of their pride, status, and even value as parents. And they’ve made it clear enough to me that the only thing they’ll feel is shame if I don’t go to medical school. The only thing I’ll be is a failure and a disappointment.
And I’m fine with that — it’s difficult, painful, and a gradual process of understanding. But what confuses me is that they’ve been through this rodeo before. They pressured my older brother into going to medical school before, and when that didn’t work out and he suffered a plethora of mental health issues, they tried yelling, fixing, and criticizing him until he did. They would constantly show Facebook pictures of family friends’ sons and daughters who went to medical school, and they would say, “if she can do it, why can’t you?” None of that helped him, and his mental health only deteriorated the more he was forced and pressured into doing something he didn’t want.
My parents are slowly coming to the understanding that it’s wrong to force your dreams and expectations on your children. But the key word is slowly, and they don’t understand yet that it’s my life right now more than it is theirs. And it was my brother’s life a long time ago before it was mine. I realize that my tension with my parents about medical school might seem trivial compared to all the other problems in the world right now, including a pandemic that has killed over 267,000 Americans. But it doesn’t feel so trivial to me.
I don’t want to generalize to all Asian families. But I do want to speak to a sentiment among the Asian families in my community for all children to go to the best colleges possible and go to medical school. I remember what my parents said when I scored 2210 out of 2400 on my SATs — it wasn’t good enough. I only went to Emory University, and a lot of family friends’ kids went to Brown, Harvard, Yale, and top tier Ivy League universities. Never mind the fact that we all reacted viscerally against being compared to each other like we were stocks, or that we rebelled in various ways and very rarely told our parents anything about our personal lives since they would be too judgmental.
It was about my parents’ reputation within that community. To some extent, every family in our community felt like reputation was their whole world. It’s hard to know whether it’s true, but I always felt like their reputation and the reputation of our families were more important than who their kids were — human beings with needs. We have a term, as Americans brought up under the traditional, conservative Asian culture of “saving face,” which means avoiding humiliation or embarrassment to maintain dignity and reputation.
It’s hard not to feel that saving face, sometimes, is everything for families like mine. Of course, I don’t want to extrapolate my own experiences to every Asian family. But I do know that every struggle and failure myself and my brother had was hushed, every family problem led us to be told to “keep it in the house.” And I knew exactly why — when one of my friends’ parents were getting a divorce, my parents wouldn’t shut up about how much their marriage failed for weeks, despite the fact that my own parents’ marriage failed.
According to Jason Hong at the South China Morning Post, many Asian parents’ definition of success is harmful to mental health stressors. As a Hong Kong born Chinese person, he remembers when he first got into the University College of London for graduate school, and his mother’s first response was “why are they not Oxbridge offers?” His parents, like many Asian families, is very results-oriented, and Dr. May Lam said many Asian parents with children with mental health disorders defined success as “getting good jobs, earning money and setting up their families.” Many are concerned by the glory, pride, and money children can bring, as well as bragging rights by children’s accomplishments.
I can’t control my parents. I won’t be good enough. I won’t make them happy. But what I do know is that it’s my life, and their world of reputation-focused appearances is not my world. As an Asian-American, I am well-acquainted by the societal model minority myth. However, I can’t but help that the majority of that myth, as I have experienced it, has been self-imposed by my family much more than it has from people outside my family.
I love my parents. And they were great parents who provided, who loved in the way they best knew how, and who did the very best they could. But I’m not them, nor am I an extension for all their dreams and thirst for reputation. As far as our Chinese-American community, they’re not actually that bad from the stories I’ve heard from my friends. I never had to doubt they sacrificed a lot for me. And it was because of their hard work, hustle, and determination that I grew up in America instead of China. I frankly don’t know where I would be without them, and I thank God every night for them.
They are good people, but these are just the values they’ve known their whole lives. Right now, they’re just pushing me. At some point, they’ll have to confront that, to their world and toxic expectations, I’m a failure. And I know they’ll still love me because they did my brother when he fell short of what they wanted from him, but it’s difficult to be the recipient of that disappointment.
I will never be enough to toxic my Asian expectations. And that’s fine with me — but I’m no fool. It’s going to be hard to go through, for my parents and for myself. I find it hard, to this day, to shake feeling jealous — jealous at my friends who were second or third generation Asian-Americans whose parents supported whatever endeavor they wanted, who never had to internalize their parents thought of them as a failure unless they went through one set path. I don’t want to whine or complain, but I know I’m not living someone else’s life, and that’s just the way it is.
Change won’t come today. But one day, it will. As a future parent, I want to stop the cycle of prioritizing appearances over mental health, of prioritizing status and saving face over human beings. I refuse to give into the toxic Asian expectations myself and my brother were raised with.