The Hidden Sacrifice of Immigrant Parents

He’d board at Canal and watch the train fill and empty at each stop with an ever-shifting mix of different peoples and ethnicities…the only thing uniting them being their newness to America and their identical expressions of exhaustion, that blend of determination and resignation that only the immigrant possesses.

The other aspect of those weekday-evening trips he loved was the light itself, how it filled the train like something living as the cars rattled across the bridge, how it washed the weariness from his seatmates’ faces and revealed them as they were when they first came to the country, when they were young and America seemed conquerable. He’d watch that kind of light suffuse the car like syrup, watch it smudge furrows from foreheads, slick gray hairs into gold, gentle the aggressive shine from cheap fabrics into something lustrous and fine.

-Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life

A most natural wish for parents is to have their kids live better lives than their own, and for some parents this is their life’s number one objective. But for some parents the very realization of this goal can also create a divide between them and their kids. This cultural divide probably more commonly shows up between immigrants from poorer or strife-torn countries and their kids. The life that I have and the life that my parents have lived differ not just culturally or economically, but the difference goes back to the political and social environment in which we came of age in.

There is more than just a cultural divide between my mom and I, even though that’s the most obvious difference since my mom grew up in China and I grew up in the States. If you compare China today to the United States, the cultural gap is quickly closing due to globalization and the China’s rising economic status. The exploding middle class in China along with the burgeoning group of very wealthy Chinese people are no stranger to consuming all the best in global brands and pop culture. People my parents’ age who have stayed in China instead of immigrated may have enjoyed this hyper-speed rise in their quality of life. My relatives in China all drive, even though they have access to convenient public transport systems and high speed rails; they buy designer items; they take vacations to Disneyland or Europe. They have the best of both worlds: they did not have to assimilate to a new culture through immigration yet their lives have been vastly improved due to China becoming an economic powerhouse in just the last two decades.

People like my parents had the blunt end of the stick. They immigrated from China in the 90’s when there were still no obvious signs that China was going to change as rapidly as it did. At that time, they were still considered one of the few “lucky” ones to be able to go to the United States, not because they were persecuted or lived in poverty in China, but because people thought they will have the opportunity to make it big here.

You see, my dad had a scholarship to go the Yale Law School. Of course, this was no normal prospect but a particularly bright one. In China, my mom had a steady government job in a chemical lab and later in a geological research center. But she gave it all up to follow my dad and help support him by working as a busgirl and later a waitress at a Chinese restaurant. She also left behind a four-year-old me with my grandparents, due to the advice from my dad that it would be better to send for me once he graduates and gets a job and their living situation improves–they were living with two roommates in New Haven back when it was still seedy. As soon as they drove their shabby little hatchback cross-country and dipped their toes in the Pacific Ocean, my mom sent for me and so I landed in LAX with a bowl cut and well-fattened face and began my life in the United States.

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My mom and I were born on the same day and same month 32 years apart. Even if it were not the stars aligning or fate, even if it was just a happy coincidence, I still hold on to this fact as proof of our connection, two INFJ souls against the world. Yet sometimes, or even most of the time, I feel like my mom doesn’t understand me. I grew up watching a lot of American sitcoms. With my parents working long hours, I was home alone most of the time and it’s almost no exaggeration to say that TV raised me. I got the full variety of American family tropes, from the dysfunction Married With Children and The Simpsons, to the more wholesome Family Matters, Fresh Prince, Sister Sister, and eventually Gilmore Girls. I didn’t feel that any of these shows represented my family yet I aspired to have those kind of families. I deduced from these shows that American parents are way more communicative, affectionate, and understanding than my parents, even in the dysfunctional families. They were dysfunctional but cool, not foreign and embarrassing like mine. In high school, I latched on to the idealized relationship between a mother and daughter in Gilmore Girls as proof that my mom is failing me because she can’t be my best friend.

Unfortunately my mom’s stint at the Chinese restaurant in New Haven only led from one low-paying menial job to another over the years. Throughout my childhood, I remember staying with my mom in the large house where she was the nanny for a little girl, feeling jealous of the attention the toddler was getting from my mom. Or of the afternoons and weekends I spent in the stale smelling retirement home where she took care of an old lady who had dementia. Or of her smelling like deep fryer after a long day at the fish’n’chips shop even after showering and changing her clothes, and how the smell made me sick and not want to be near her. I had never realized growing up how degrading these jobs must have been to my mom, who came from a poor but educated family, and who was a college graduate and a chemist. But I have never heard her complain. I never even realized that my mom was educated, and had a passion for reading and poetry. My view of my mom shifted when she went back to school in her forties to get a Masters degree in computer science. But instead of being liberating, her degree just led her from one grinding stone to be yoked to a newer but heavier one. I remember her coming home way after my dad and I had eaten dinner, resting for an hour or two on the couch watching a Chinese soap opera, and then going back to study in front of the computer until way past midnight. This was her exhausting life for most of my middle school and high school years. Yet I blamed her for not being my best friend.

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I finally came around to reality after college, and understood that our family dynamic was one that was based on survival. My mom had given all her energy into making sure that I won’t just survive, but thrive. Our relationship softened over the years, but I yearned for us to be closer and to understand each other better. I realized that it had to start with trying to understand my parent’s past in order to understand why they are who they are today. My parents were born at the time when China was in the throes of revolution. The country was just recovering from the great famine that killed millions of people. My mom remembers being hungry as a kid and spending hours scraping the scabs of burnt rice off the pot just trying to fill her belly. Although my grandparents were doctors–pediatricians–for generations, they were forced to give up their professions and be peasants. To be poor, uneducated, and miserable with hunger was glorified. This was my mom’s childhood.

Then in the prime of their lives, the Cultural Revolution took place. Schools were shut down, books were burned, and high school students like my parents were “sent down” to the countryside with work for the farmers. The few times my mom have told me about her experience doing backbreaking labor from sunrise to sundown sounded so unconnected with my poor but still first world childhood that I’ve absorbed them as fiction, not as real, life-shaping experiences that my mom had gone through. The chasm between my mom and I is not just a cultural chasm but one of extreme differences in privilege. My mom never knew a China like today’s, filled with skyscrapers and affluent middle class families. My mom never knew comfort and security in her life except for what she was able to build for herself by hard work, penny pinching, and never allowing for even one frivolous, pleasurable thing just for herself. Because of her I was able to go to UC Berkeley and not worry about paying my tuition or rent. Because of her I was able to get my degree and my cushy corporate jobs, get a taste for cashmere sweaters, $5 coffees, and wait in long lines for brunch. I had never given much thought as to why my mom only buys discount clothes at Ross or Marshall’s, have no idea how to order a cocktail to save her life, never goes to the movies, and almost never travels outside of the country even though she tells me she yearns to. I was always a bit baffled by how much she holds back enjoying her life, because I never understood that her way of life was her ultimate sacrifice. The privilege chasm between us is enormous, and that’s the price she’d unwittingly paid for me to have a better life. I am beginning to understand that living a privileged life does not make it a better or more worthwhile life, it simply is just living a privileged life, and I strive to understand my mom through the lens of her past because despite our differences we’re cosmically connected.

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