This piece is personal to me but I thought that it might relate to others, so I decided to share it. I cannot speak for every immigrant’s story and experience and my experience definitely doesn’t represent anyone other person’s experience.
I originally wrote this piece for an anthology collection but it turned out to be way too long. So I submitted an abridged version instead and decided to share the original on Medium.
It might seem like I have my life together because I post guides on interviews and landing jobs. That is far from the case.
All opinions/statements are my own.
You have just turned 18 and have been invited to enter into a competition and all you have to do is prepare a proposal for a lucrative business idea. It’s a mandatory competition so you don’t have a choice to reject the invitation. Multiple winners will be selected and the prize for each winner is not having to worry about retirement. However, the losers are punished severely and their punishment is that they will have to work low-paying jobs until they can no longer work.
Oh? You’ve never done this before? Well, no problem. You’re free to ask your family members for help.
What’s that? Your family doesn’t know any lucrative business ideas and they don’t even know English? Well then, you just have to do it yourself and hope you are selected as a winner. Easy enough.
While that sounds like a dystopia, it is the world that first generation college students live in. My father finished high school in China and took a few months of English classes so that he could become a housekeeper for a hotel. I want to say that my father is a diligent genius who continued to study English on his own, but reality is harsh. He limits his wings by telling himself that he’s too old to learn. Oddly enough, he recently picked up photography and Adobe Photoshop. He also somehow researched camera lenses and bought the ones that he thinks will perform well. But yes, he still claims that he isn’t capable of picking up a few more English words.
My mother barely finished middle school and works as a nail technician. She has quite a personality and loves to think that I am lazy. Whenever she isn’t working at the nail salon, she is doing chores at home because her concept of hardworking is doing manual labor. Most of my mother’s statements are oxymoronic. Allow me to illustrate an example. She thinks I am lazy because I don’t do chores at home. She still thinks I’m lazy even when I have always had a job ever since freshman year of college. Whenever we come across the topic of school, she tells me to just concentrate on studying and worry about nothing else.
My parents are products of their time. Unfortunately for me, they were raised during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. For anyone not familiar with the Cultural Revolution, don’t let the name trick you. The revolution consisted of peasants and farmers overthrowing the “old ways” to promote the “new culture”. And what kind of culture can a bunch of farmers come up with? A culture that promotes manual labor. Despite having immigrated to America, the idea of manual labor was ingrained into my parents’ minds. They believed that people were born with certain capabilities so they are meant to do specific things in life.
When I was in middle school, I wanted to learn how to play the piano and volleyball. My father thought my body proportions weren’t meant to participate in either activity, so I eventually stopped looking for extracurriculars. It was when I saw that people of all shapes and sizes played the piano and volleyball in high school that I began to lose trust for my parents. I didn’t see them as figures of knowledge and wisdom.
Was I supposed to know that I had to join clubs and teams in high school so I would be a more appealing candidate for prestigious colleges? The ones who knew wouldn’t disclose their secrets because it was a competition. Every college has a limited amount of seats available each year, and no one can afford to lose their spot.
I was not aware that each college was “known” for a specific major. All I knew was that dorming is expensive and that would be an additional burden for my family. When I was filling out my college applications, I didn’t have a specific college in mind. The only thought in my mind was that my family does not have a lot of wealth. That was why I ended up choosing a cheap public college within New York. It was beneficial in terms of my family’s financial situation because I was able to commute to school and I didn’t have to borrow any money for the tuition.
What was supposed to happen after I enrolled into college? Everyone was talking about choosing a major but I didn’t even know what I liked. A lot of my peers had already decided by the time they entered college. They later told me that they knew what they wanted to do with their life because their parents explained to them how majors factor into their careers. I tried asking my parents about choosing a major when I was in college. They said, “We’ll be happy with whatever you choose.” That is a rough translation for, “We have no idea how the American education works, so you do you.”
Nursing was my first major because apparently that was what my college was known for. I flunked the Anatomy & Physiology course. Then, I had episodes of depression throughout my first and second year of college. To my parents, my depression represented me not being serious about school. To my parents, my tears represented me not wanting to study. To my parents, mental health isn’t a concept. My thoughts became demons and I started distancing myself from my family.
I eventually gave up on nursing and decided on English Literature. At that point, I didn’t know what I could do with that degree because I was not skilled at Googling. However, it felt right to me because reading is a therapeutic outlet.
When it was near my junior year, my parents asked me, “What can you do with an English degree?” I said, “I want to be an editor.” It was quite late for me to realize that I had to do internships when I was in college but I was not aware of that concept until the junior year of college. My parents told me to get a part-time job and never mentioned any needs for an internship. I naively thought, I have been working since my freshman year, so that’s basically the same thing. It was not.
Without any publishing experience, I couldn’t land an internship after I had finished my junior year. It sounds paradoxical to even say it. Why did I need to have experience to land an internship? Recently, I was scrolling through LinkedIn and saw a post from a Senior Vice President of a private investment firm. The post described how his daughter, his co-worker’s daughter and her friend were wrapping up their internships with that private investment firm. At that moment, I finally understood. I understood that it wasn’t due to my lack of experience that was preventing me from breaking into the publishing industry. I understood that what I needed was nepotism.
Landing the first job right after college is the same idea. For the students who have educated parents, it’s a pretty easy process. All they have to do is ask their parents or their parents’ friends. I couldn’t break into the publishing industry, but one of my father’s old acquaintances knew a branch manager from a bank. And so, I became a part-time teller for that retail bank branch and eventually got promoted to the mortgage team a year after I graduated.
However, I still felt like it wouldn’t be enough to break the dystopian society that is set up for first generations to fail. I wasn’t making good money. There was no upward mobility. I craved for more. I took a leap of faith and quit my job after six months to pursue coding at a bootcamp. My father thought it was one of the dumbest ideas that I’ve ever had. He didn’t think I was smart enough to understand how to code. Where have I heard that before? This time, I wasn’t going to let his doubts stop me. It was so painful to be imprisoned by their chains of conservative assumptions and narrow-minded personalities.
I persevered. I was able to land a job offer, without nepotism, before finishing my coding bootcamp. Of course, it wasn’t easy. I had many moments of doubt and numerous sleepless nights, but I was adamant in breaking free from all the chains. Some people are set up for success but for first generation college students, we have to pave our own path. Our hands will accumulate calluses. There will be an incredulous amount of doubt and fear, but because we have experienced it, we do not want our future generations to go through the same dystopian society.