For #APIAHeritageMonth, Considering my Fil Am Immigrant Family History

It feels more than appropriate to begin this #APIAHeritageMonth post by saying, “Yes, my parents were right.” Of course they were right. I was too young and stubborn to listen to them, until I wasn’t.

By “right,” this is what I mean. When I was in college, I was floundering. UC Berkeley was challenging, and though I was as academically prepared as I could be, having been on the honors and AP track in my private high school, I wasn’t emotionally ready, and I wasn’t mature enough yet to be self-motivated, and I wasn’t disciplined enough yet to be on my own.

I resented my parents for stressing their hard work ethic, their grind, and their ideas of success. I was a dreamer and a rebel. I saw what my American classmates had, conversational, casual, chummy relationships with their apparently easy-going and permissive parents. My classmates seemed to have what I saw as leisure time and super chill parents who would ask them how they were doing.

I had a perpetually stressed out mother, who worked full time and managed to raise four of us, and a father so uptight, I thought he’d bust an aneurysm when he was in his 40s. They didn’t seem to want to understand “American” ways, all the things I thought were cool about how my friends could behave and speak in their parents’ homes. They talked about their feelings; my parents didn’t have time for that. My father would get so indignant at our uses of American slang/idiom when directly addressing him. When I was young, I could never imagine ever telling him to chill out, or not to have a cow. Answering back always erupted into WWIII; he wasn’t into my American sass mouth one bit.

I felt like nothing I ever did was good enough. They always wanted me to do more. I hated this. Sometimes I rebelled. Sometimes I tried. I failed a lot. I hated this. I always thought American parents were more understanding of failure. That they would just say, it’s OK, honey. Just try again.

And when I was in college, living far enough away from my parents for the first time ever, I was a freak out in a skinny girl’s body. I couldn’t discipline myself to get to an 11 am class on time. I got a D in calculus (why the hell was I even taking calculus anyway). I had the worst GPA ever. I stopped showing up to class altogether. I wasted a ton of time and money. I couch surfed a lot, having no desire to move back home, nor the means to pay rent. I wrote poetry. And some of my friends thought I was pretty bad ass. It was romantic. And it was unsustainable.

My parents finally left me alone, and it was cool, because then I could just work my crappy part time job, write, party, smoke, and drink. And I thought it was such an edgy, rebellious life of struggling to pay rent, being an artist, and scraping up nickels with my friends to afford to split $2 nachos in the student union. And my parents let me be, until they could no longer bear it.

They wanted to know what the hell I was doing with my life. I evaded them, wouldn’t come home for weeks at a time. When I did see them, I could see the disappointment in their body language. I was kind of a failure to them. I was always broke. I was a dropout. But I was writing poems! And I was so cool on the mic! And I was living according to my own rules! Fuck the Man! Fuck the Establishment! This life of glorified, self-imposed artist poverty, screwing the system!

And I thought they were so rude, so rigid, so old school, for thinking I was a failure, for thinking my ass should go back to college. I wanted to yell at them; I was following my dream! What the fuck did they know about dreams and romance!

Well.

Here’s where the gift of age, experience, and hindsight kick in.

What did my parents know about dreaming and romance? Didn’t they leave everything behind, when they were in their early 20s. Didn’t they get on an airplane, to come and live in a foreign country, on another continent. Didn’t they know there were no guarantees. Didn’t they know coming here to work, and to raise their children was a gamble, probably the riskiest thing they had ever done, weren’t they throwing caution to the wind as they did. Didn’t all they have was an idea, a dream of what it might be like.

I am thinking of this old photograph, not the one above, but a colored photo of my young parents, with me and my older sister. I must have been about four. My sister would have been six. My parents would have been in their mid-20s. We are in Reno, at a motel, posed by the motel swimming pool. We are on a road trip. We are on a family vacation. This would have been two years after my sister and I immigrated. My parents had already come before us, found employment, saved money, and so by the time my sister and I were here, we moved from a Daly City one room apartment into our first home in Fremont, and my sister was enrolled in a private school.

Imagine the kind of grind that takes. My mother used to tell us that we had to work twice as hard as American kids did. I resented this; I also knew it was true.

My younger sister, who is now an executive in a media company that turns these homemade snapshots into enormous, lasting historical documents, tells it like this (though she wasn’t born yet), when she presents this image to company shareholders and clients: this image is important and historical because it documents the persistence of these two young immigrants, to make something out of nothing. To make a life here, for themselves and their children. How precious is this kind of vacation time. It’s almost like a celebration of their “making it” here.

So then, yes, my parents did dream. They dreamed of a life. They made it happen. And here we are.

I thought about this a lot, during my father’s last days. What kind of life did he lead here. Was it a meaningful life. Did he accomplish what he meant to accomplish in his life. A life full of travel, and art, always surrounded by friends and loved ones, always sharing what you had, always celebrating something in the most lively manner possible — this kind of wealth. While I miss him like crazy, what keeps me going is that, while our family has never been perfect, while we’ve all had our share of disappointments, and while we fought like hell, almost everything he and my mother wanted for us, we got, and we have.

At his wake, people I didn’t know well at all, were coming up to me and my sisters, nodding with approval. To me, they would say, “Ah, so you’re the professor,” or “Ah, so you’re the poet.” This is how my father talked about us to his friends and relatives. And rather than make this about status (which I know some of you will want to do), let me just say that this is how proud he was of us. This is how he talked about us; he approved highly of the people we became after each of us found our own way — this was so important to him, that everybody knew it.

All of this to say — I have something in my eye — what my parents gave us transcend material things. My sisters and I work our asses off because this is the wealth we inherited from them. Most of all though, I think the best part of all of this is thinking about change, and malleability. That it happens in ways you can’t always detect, but before you know it, you are doing things your way, and your traditional parents aren’t so traditional anymore, and not having a cow about you being a poet, about being tattooed, about being a smart mouth. Or maybe they are still traditional, but now, because you are determined, doing things your way, the resulting successes, and the fact that you are happy with your work and your life — these are what become most important to your traditional parents.

My first Invocation to Daughters event will take place on his two-year death anniversary, and it’s bittersweet as all hell. Because this book is exactly what I wanted, and exactly what I worked for. And because of this, he would have approved. And I also didn’t know that his approval meant as much to me as it does.

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