Last week, after a phone conversation on what I wanted to do after I graduate ended inconclusively in tabled arguments and passive-aggressive goodbyes, my dad texted me the median income of a political science Ph.D. “About the same payscale as an operator” at the company where he works, he wrote. “You will study hard for LSAT and then we can discuss.”
It hurts knowing it would be literally and metaphorically easier on his heart if I had just gone all-out for law school or had read Cracking the Coding Interview back when I had the chance. Anything would be better than my current trajectory of understably worrisome directionless half-assery.
My father is painfully practical and intensely loving, with the kind of radical sensibility of so many other Asian immigrants in America. After all, Baba already took his risks: He started a revolution and fought for it through a horribly bloody war. On top of that, he left everything to come to America.
There are words that kids of immigrants chew out of habit like bubblegum, cliches we keep handy for constant use. “Left everything” is one. Words like “sacrifice” and “disappointment.” Phrases like “came here with nothing” or “gave up so much.” It’s within these semantic constraints that the immigrant’s kid has a moral obligation to pay back the debt of opportunity or freedom or whatever via pride or economic relief or simple peace of mind.
It’s a heavy and invisible debt, and paying it comes with a maddening opportunity cost. American dreams turn to American heartbreak when the assuredness of stability is married to the constant itch of unpursued passion. That’s the whole paradox of this place, isn’t it? That one generation can work so hard to assure something for the children they love, and their children can so easily screw it up for something as stupid as their fickle dreams? It’s no wonder that studies show US-born children of immigrants are at higher risk of anxiety and other mental health disorders than their parents.
There is a very visceral and enduring pain that comes from being a disappointment, from diverting away from what Sun columnist Narayan Reddy calls “The Path,” where “the intermingling paths of ambition, passion and love…are all closed off.” It’s a pain I’m not sure can otherwise be understood: My white friends often ask why I don’t just pursue X or why I don’t just tell my parents I don’t want to do Y. My brown friends tell me to suck it up, because it’s entitled or ungrateful not to. They say this much more diplomatically, of course, but the expectations are heavy nonetheless.
I guess following dreams is mostly for white kids, and I still have long-term arguments with my parents where we’re all deluded into thinking there has to be a way to compromise, or to let me like a job that is secure and pays well. Getting a job and then later, when you have money, pursuing your crazy dreams is a kind of compromise. Law school is a kind of compromise, or as one of my friends jokingly puts it, “a way to trick parents into letting you do humanities.”
But sloppy pursuits are almost as bad as dreams deferred, and these so-called compromises are just short-term tricks, red herrings to get you to follow The Path, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless it makes you live a life of contempt and anger and resentment. The tradeoff sucks, because if what you love isn’t what’s currently lucrative and nearly riskless, it really is a zero-sum game: You either do what you love, or disappoint the people you love.
It’s this fear of disappointment that brought me to our living room couch in Virginia last month, ugly crying, admitting I have this perverse jealousy for my dad’s tumultuous and feverous young-adulthood, full of risk and excitement and life and passion. I tell him I’m jealous, and I tell him I know it’s a messed up thing to think. I tell him I feel like in 40 years I’ll be living a boring, tired life, never having taken a single leap of faith. I tell him I don’t want to disappoint him. I’d never told him these things before. We’ve only spoken in implications. I’d always assumed he wouldn’t understand.
The politics of his youth fresh in his mind, he tells me that sometimes change and excitement can lead you to make mistakes. I tell him maybe it’s good to make mistakes. “Pegah,” he says, in that calm voice that dads yield when you least expect it, “You’re twenty years old. You have lots of time to make mistakes.”
Our conversation and my evolution into a disappointment are both simultaneously painful, productive and ongoing. I have to call Baba later today. Good luck to both of us.