Dis.Obedience | Learning to set my own course — and to have more grace for my parents
Growing up, I would’ve said my most contentious relationship was with my mother — and that my even-tempered, patient, and understanding dad was the easier parent.
But in adulthood, it’s switched: the few times I’ve completely lost my sh*t (ie: yelled at the top of my lungs) have been with my dad, from whom I get my ability to synthesize, optimize, and prioritize information. (Oddly, I also get my love of writing, poetry, and sentimental streak from my dad, who still picks roses for my mother to this day and talks about the essay contest he won in 6th grade).
The early rumblings of my dissent started in high school. Here is a short list of things I fought my dad on:
- Eating protein like fried eggs and cheese for breakfast, instead of the carb and sugar-y cereals I saw on TV and at the houses of American friends. (Pop tarts, anyone?!)
- Drinking Ensure for lunch, which he described as “a complete and balanced meal” and I described as “a drink for old people with dentures in nursing homes” (both accurate, to be fair)
- Putting my keys back in the same place each time to avoid losing them & picking out my clothes for the day the prior evening (instead of trying on 2–3 outfits each morning and then being late for school)
In the big scheme of things, none of these disagreements were life-or-death — I generally grumbled but acquiesced. And as an adult, I now do all of these things religiously. (Thanks, Dad!) He knew the importance of sufficient nutrition (consumed efficiently!), the costs of decision fatigue, and the productivity benefits of good time management.
The real differences of opinion with my dad came later in adulthood, in my late 20s and early 30s, as I began to make significant life choices — mostly around career, time and money — that surfaced our different prioritization of values.
Choosing to leave my stable, corporate job
I remember the first time I told my dad I wanted to leave my very stable corporate job when I was 31. Without even a moment’s hesitation, my gentle dad emphatically and forcefully said, “No!”
In later conversations, I tried to articulate the “more” that I was hoping to find and why, despite fear, uncertainty and doubt, I thought it was a risk worth taking. (That’s a separate topic — how I found the courage and conviction to quit, and how to manage my parents through that decision.)
I should note here the first of the many contradictions of being Asian and American. When I told this story to friends from individualist (vs collectivist) cultural backgrounds, they asked, “Why are you even discussing this with your dad? Why does it matter? You’re a grown adult!”
Yes, I make my own decisions — and, in Asian cultures, as an unmarried woman (the youngest of three daughters), my dad still feels financially responsible for me, despite my many protestations that I am more than fine financially. Perhaps he’s thinking also about his future and maybe he’s wondering whether me and my sisters will be able to take care of him and my mom financially in their old age. But mostly, I think he deeply loves me and just wants me to be safe and secure — and a stable financial job provides that. There’s a collective or communal dimension to my decisions that I notice my individualist friends don’t have to factor into their process.
What that stable job wasn’t providing me was the opportunity to take bigger risks, to accelerate my own personal & professional growth, and to experience new frontiers.
There’s a deep irony here: My dad and mom took a massive risk to emigrate to America — and I would say the returns on that decision have been massive! Yet when I wanted to take a much smaller risk (to simply change companies or careers), my dad responded with fear and admonished me to simply stay the course.
For my dad, I had already reached the Promised Land for which he had wandered in the wilderness for forty years*, so that I would have opportunities he never had. I had a high-paying job, I was about to be promoted to Executive Director, and I was working at a Fortune 50 company, with a very recognizable consumer brand. My dad had worked at gas stations, Chinese restaurants, warehouses, and the majority of his career at the US Postal Service.
He couldn’t conceive of why I would want to willingly give up my salary, status, and stability for uncertainty, unclear opportunities, and, perhaps, unequal financial returns. Similarly, I couldn’t understand why he’d prioritize safety or over growth; security over opportunity.
A helpful framework for accepting our different realities and prioritization of values has been psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. My dad anchors strongly on the Basic Needs at bottom of the pyramid, which are the Physiological needs (like food, water, and rest), and the need for Security & Safety, while I’ve spent most of my 20s and 30s trying to unpack the rest of the pyramid: Love and Belonging, Self-esteem and Self-actualization.
In college, I noticed my dad would always ask: “How’s your car running? Do you have enough money in your checking account? Are you eating enough? Sleeping well?” And visits home to see him and my mom were characterized by food, food and more food. And naps.
But as an Americanized adult, I resented that my dad didn’t ever ask if I was happy, whether I was learning or if I was thriving — things I saw parents do on TV or saw the parents of my white & wealthy friends do. I didn’t feel seen or understood, and for a long time, I interpreted the lack of questions around my needs for belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization to be a lack of care — or even, a deficiency in their parenting.
It wasn’t until I was almost 5 years into a decade of therapy that I realized that maybe my parents never had this modeled to them. Maybe their parents were so focused on survival that the higher level needs on the pyramid were ignored because they were, rightly, secondary. Maybe the discontinuity of immigration meant my parents simply didn’t get emotional support from their parents as adults because they were separated by oceans and continents — and phone calls were prohibitively expensive back then. Maybe, in my parents’ own lives, they had to focus on simply surviving. Maybe the choices I get to make — because I was able to start my adult life with my basic needs fully met — is simply uncharted territory for us all.
How do you ask about a place you’ve never gone? What do you say about a place you haven’t experienced?
I did quit my job. From looking at the lives of friends and peers, I knew I wanted more than just covering my basic needs. It worked out remarkably well. I got a Master’s in Management from Stanford’s GSB (one of the best decisions of my adult life), I moved to London for a new job, and I’m generally thriving.
My dad and I continue to see the world from different angles, largely shaped by our life experiences. He thought I should rent out my spare room to maximize rental income; I wanted to have the luxury of a study. He worries I’m not respectful or deferential enough to my superiors; I tell him that western managers expect — and respect! — challenge from their direct reports. He watches every penny he spends and thinks I travel for fun a lot more than I should; I tell him to spend money on himself — and to enjoy life a little bit more.
My parents do have wisdom — especially around how to make sure basic needs are met — they’ve done exceptionally well in providing for me and my two sisters.
And yet, I live in a world they don’t fully understand or have the experience to navigate. Often, their data (and advice) on what to do and how to do it, especially in regards to career, is simply dated.
I am fortunate to have mentors, friends, and a support network that gladly shares their advice, experience, and wisdom.
And when I face a new opportunity or see a new frontier for growth and am tempted to shrink back, I draw my inspiration (and accountability) from my parents’ legacy: They worked exceptionally hard and doggedly so that I would have the stability and safety to thrive in my teens and twenties.
I have the same responsibility for myself and owe it to them to continue to make sure my basic needs are met — and then to bravely set out and explore the uncharted lands beyond.
*The Promised Land imagery came from my dad in a conversation we had. He described his 40 years of working whatever job he could take as his “wilderness years”, a reference to Moses and the Israelites wandering the desert for 40 years before reaching the Promised Land.
This is Part 2 in a 4 part series, titled “Dis.Continuity | On Being Asian and American”, a series of personal reflections about the contradictions, tension, and inter-generational conflict from being bicultural. Each Sunday in May 2021, I’m posting a long form article, reflecting on my own grapplings with one of the classic Asian values, through the lens of my family relationships. And every Thursday at 5 PM EST in May 2021, I’ll jump on Clubhouse (@tteng) for “Tea Time with Tiffany” — mostly to hear your reflections and hold space for this conversation.
I hope you’ll follow along on Medium and join me.