Widgets Magazine


A message to immigrant parents

Last week, I had the privilege of attending a community conversation about mental health in Stanford’s Asian American community. One of the motifs that came up again and again during this conversation was how difficult it was to communicate to our parents the struggles we face when they have made the ultimate sacrifice of uprooting their entire lives for the sake of our well-being and our futures. And yet, it also seemed like something that has gone unsaid for too long, whether it is to our parents, to our community or to the world.

The words that follow are not mine, but I thought they would be relevant to share in light of the issues and struggles Chinese-Americans – and, more broadly, most Asian-Americans (including those of us at Stanford) – face. They were originally written by an anonymous poster on a Chinese forum in Chinese. The following is a somewhat looser translation of that text, with some abridgments for the sake of length.

For many years now, immigrating to America has been the dream of many Chinese parents. These parents think that America has less polluted air, higher standards of living, higher wages and, most importantly, a better future for their children. So, they don’t hesitate to bring their kids over to America at any cost and as early as possible. If their kids can be born here, so much the better, since that way, the kids would, from the moment of their birth, be bestowed that coveted title of “American citizen.” Parents think that kids, by virtue of their young age, are infinitely adaptable, and so growing up in America will afford them myriad opportunities when they grow up. Ask first-generation Chinese immigrants why they came, and you’ll hear a whole lot of “for my kids’ futures.”

But, after many years of thinking, pondering and contemplation, I realized that these parents understand very little about how detrimental it is for their kids to grow up Chinese-American when it comes to their sense of belonging, their identity, their ability to socialize and build networks and their future career trajectories. They are blinded by what’s immediately visible: the admittedly numerous problems facing Chinese society today. But where they fail is that they buy into the narrative that America is somehow perfect enough that their kids will simply – as if by magic – live happily ever after. Of course, the reality is far more complex and tragic than many well-intentioned immigrant parents understand.

Most of these parents – like most immigrants, really – don’t truly understand America or how it treats minorities like Chinese-Americans. What they can see clearly is China: the pollution in the air they breathe, the pressure in the education system they know and went through, the regional discrimination they see, the negative aspects of society and culture they experience. What they don’t have is a similarly objective view of America, which is composed of tidbits of information from friends, the Internet and TV – all of which are by no means objective. And what they tend not to hear about is the Chinese-American experience and the discrimination we face on a daily basis.

I’ve seldom seen Chinese-Americans tell their immigrant parents about their own experiences growing up in America. It’s partly because a lot of us can’t even speak our parents’ language, having grown up in environments where there isn’t much opportunity to speak it beyond the Chinese school we attend for a few hours on weekends. We aren’t able to communicate fully with our parents, and we certainly aren’t able to honestly convey the realities of being Chinese-Americans to them. So our parents, not hearing anything to the contrary, assume that we are perfectly happy, and they take our silence to mean that we have indeed become Americans, like they had hoped.

But, of course, this is not the case. For starters, we are placed in a state of perpetual cultural alienation from the American majority – something which many first-generation immigrant parents think is unique to their experience and are often unable to comprehend. Even though we speak English as well as anyone else, we look different, and we are always seen as the “other” because of it. Parents would be mistaken if they think this is something that could simply be remedied through hard work. We are stereotyped as hard-working nerds without leadership abilities, without personality, without verbal skills. Many in this country – including much of media – would rather make stereotyped jokes about how we are weak, or how our eyes are small, how we are unattractive and so on. In school, we might be bullied for these things. In society, these prejudices will manifest in other, more hidden ways. All of these things, of course, have a profoundly negative impact in the mental health of Chinese-American kids.

But while we are never accepted as fully “American,” we are also never accepted as fully Chinese. I’ve seen international students from China mock us for the fact that despite what we look like, we can’t produce a single coherent sentence in our ancestral language. We are essentially placed in a bizarre cultural crevice where we are neither accepted by people who look like us, nor people who sound like us. We are unable to be fully immersed in the society in which we are supposed to belong, and we are also severed from whatever support or connection China might have given us. We are cleaved from our Chinese identities because of our disconnect with China’s language and culture, and this is something that even our first-generation parents cannot understand. They chose to come here, and they potentially have the choice to go back if it really came down to it. Chinese-Americans do not have that choice. We are essentially doomed, despite having the appearance of a Chinese person, to only be able to live in the West, where we will always be second-class citizens. Everyone needs a home, but Chinese-Americans do not. We’re not fully accepted by China, and we are not accepted by America. It’s an unspeakable, incomprehensible loneliness.

The point of all this is that there is a balance to be struck here. Parents are eager to bring their children to the U.S. for a better life, but what they don’t quite understand is that, for these kids, survival is an uphill battle that can often do significant damage to their mental health. We are strangers in two lands, losing our birthright connections to China but also being a second-class citizen in a country that does not value yellow faces, and, in the end, I wonder if it is all worth it. Maybe if God made us Chinese, we should be proud of that, and proudly be who we are, rather than try to force ourselves into the mold of the “Westerner” that we will never be.



Contact Terence Zhao at zhaoy ‘at’ stanford.edu.