[POI: an invasive mother, dressed in unflattering coral, cornering me for intel on the college application process at a house party]
Two years after I ED’d Columbia, a cloud of skepticism still clung to every Thanksgiving and every birthday. Why didn’t she choose HYP [the gilded acronym of Harvard-Yale-Princeton]? Columbia is always ranked lower than HYP. You have no chance of getting into Yale RD, so why not just EA it? Yale breeds all the men of rich Upper East Side families that you need to bed, then marry ASAP. The mere thought of their daughter not applying to Yale was so frightening, so repulsive to my parents, that I roamed the thick oaks of suburban Maryland for three nights after banging the front door shut, screaming that I wished nothing more than to never have been their child.
All this came flooding back, not stinging and smarting the edges of my brain like it once did, but dull, more numb, like nerve endings that have evaporated into smoke, when yet another Chinese mother interrogated me about her daughter’s college applications.
College acceptance in the Chinese-American immigrant community is a process of fatal importance. While there are no longer Red Guards, public denouncements, “red” and “black” families, or Mao’s personality cult, the “fight-or-flight” mentality adopted by the children of the Cultural Revolution instead impinges itself on the second generation’s GPA, SAT scores, and college applications. They are different heads of the same hydra: for my parents, if they so much as mouthed a word out of line, they could die; for my brother and I, if we don’t get that A, or if we don’t get into “HYP,” or if we don’t win that competition, we could actually die.
And so, when this coral-clad Chinese immigrant mother, who has all the vibrancy of Soylent, asks me no fewer than forty-five minutes of college questions, I answer every single one. In her desperation and fear, I see my parents; my parents’ crippling anxiety over something as inane as a university name is mirrored in this woman. “Your parents are so proud of you,” she gushes.
What do they have to be proud of? I have no intention of becoming a doctor, lawyer, or engineer (another defining trifecta, second only to HYP). I study subjects utterly alien to their community, dismissed as child’s play or useless on the job market. Our family is one of scientists and mathematicians; I haven’t taken a single science course at Columbia and momentarily forgot how to split $72 by 3 the other day at dinner. I’m playing the piano with more passion than ever, when “it has no bearing on your career, and won’t make you any money.” My career interests in artists’ consulting may as well be teaching Arabic out of Khan Academy, it’s so unheard-of to my parents.
And yet, in a stroke of love I do not deserve, they have chosen to embrace it. My parents have made sacrifices that I cannot speak, or write, about without feeling like bursting into gallons of tears. The way they work until their bones break has not changed even when it is starkly clear that I will never study Econ at Princeton, or date a Rockefeller at Yale (shudders). Their expectations for my work ethic, for pursuing what defines me, and for understanding what they have given me, have gently morphed as they, for all intents and purposes, have let me go. They have learned, as I have, that it is not so much their title or salary worth pursuing, but their courage, tenacity, and capacity for love.
It seems that I have not only failed to meet my parents’ expectations, but have also defied them along the way.