I Never Wanted To Hang Out With My "Dumb Immigrant Parents" — Until Tragedy Struck
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  • Post published:15/11/2021
  • Post last modified:15/11/2021

Independence. Space. Freedom.

These are the desires of many teenagers everywhere. Teenagers take steps to ensure space from their parents such as locking the door to their rooms, going out with friends, or disappearing into their video games. 

Space between them and their parents is inevitable. I know I wanted it — space from my own parents. My parents worked long hours, but when they were home, my brothers and I usually disappeared upstairs into our video games or homework for hours.

It’s not to say my parents weren’t engaged with our upbringing. They were busy trying to keep a roof over our heads, but when they were available, they were quite engaged. But the relationship between parent and child wasn’t like the ones I had seen with my friends growing up.

There was love, but a different kind of love that I was accustomed to seeing from the relationships I saw between my friends and their parents. My relationship with my parents was more about respect and making sure I didn’t disappoint them.

I was always intrigued by people with close relationships with their parents. I’m referring to the people that can call their mom or dad on their daily, chit-chat as if they were best friends. Call me jealous or envious, but I didn’t get it.

The thought of being best friends with my parents grossed me out. Still does. As far as I knew, my parents were my mentors in life, not my best friends.

Most of my reasoning for the need to distance myself from my parents was because of my refusal to accept my cultural heritage while growing up in America — I’m a first-generation Vietnamese-American.

Growing up, I was split between the culture I experienced at home with my family and the culture I experienced around my friends and community.

Heritage

My parents fled their homeland after the Vietnam War in the early 1980s. After a harrowing journey as one of the millions of boat people, they eventually landed on American shores where they eventually met each other. They got married and had kids — 3 boys to be exact, with me being the oldest.

Like many immigrant families, my parents made America their new home, hoping for a better world than the world they came from. They had three objectives: Create a life for themselves in a strange new world, create a better life for their kids, and survive.

As a young man in America, my dad put himself through as much college as he could afford. He worked as hard as possible to help put a roof over our heads. My mother, while raising 3 young boys, went to beauty school and eventually became a nail technician.

Eventually, she chased her entrepreneurial dreams and opened her own nail salon. They mastered English over the years and were able to eventually put all three boys through college with the help of some school loans. My parents were the classic definition of the American Dream success.

They had high expectations for my brothers and me. They made sure that we had to work harder than the rest of the kids at our school. We had to study harder.

They taught us that failure wasn’t an option for us, especially since they didn’t know what failure was.

If they had failed in their endeavors when they arrived in America, we would have starved. If they had failed in their endeavors to escape Vietnam, they would have been thrown in prison. Or died.

Like many other Asian immigrant parents, my parents believed that education was the path out of poverty and to success. Additionally, they also had their sights narrowed on a few career paths for us. My brothers and I were never short of opinions around what we should or shouldn’t do in life.

“You should be a lawyer after school,” Dad once told me.

“You’re going to have to learn this one way or another. Let me show you how,” Dad said as he watched me struggle with learning something new.

“Why don’t you eat this instead? You’re getting a bit fat,” Mom would fret at me, despite insisting I eat when I wasn’t hungry at other times.

They meant well. Many parents do. A parent’s job is to guide their child to be a productive and moral member of society.

For those of us that are lucky to have engaged parents, many of us consider our parents to be ideal role models. Usually, it’s not until years later that kids realize that parents are imperfect people, too.

Teenager

My teenage rebellion years were probably different from some of the other kids at school.

Over the years, I grew increasingly embarrassed by the Vietnamese side of my life. Some of my white friends lamented about how lame their parents could be while I lamented about my “dumb” immigrant parents, who were ignorant of the ways of American life.

“They just don’t get it,” we would all say to each other, nodding vigorously in agreement.

I remember explaining the concept of “prom” to my parents and the need to cough up money for a tuxedo and limousine. We argued hard about the money needed to go. My mom only finally agreed when she saw the opportunity to take pictures of me in a nice tuxedo.

My mom also harped on me about hanging out with my friends too much and not having enough time with the family.

She would always say repeatedly, “You’ll always have family there for you. You won’t always have your friends.” I rolled my eyes and told her that my friends were always going to be there for me.

I took measures to suppress my heritage and publicly showed my disdain for it. I ended up shedding my Vietnamese identity over time, piece by piece. I was raised in a poor neighborhood when I was a child, but as a teenager, we moved to a more affluent part of Houston with more white Americans around.

I tried hard to blend in. To fit. It didn’t help that I already had a foreign-sounding name.

I stopped speaking Vietnamese at home, eventually forgetting how to speak it.

Having been raised in Texas, my accent eventually developed into its own bastardized form of English — a combination of folksy Texan and ESL (English Second Language).

I rejected every opportunity to go to Asia if there was a family trip. I surrounded myself with non-Asian friends.

College

When the opportunity to go to college came around, I chose a university where I didn’t have to stay or live at home, but close enough to visit my parents when convenient.

My father disagreed with my choice. “You should go to the University of Houston,” he said to me. “You can live at home and save money.”

I quickly refused. I wanted as much space as possible between myself and my parents. I wanted to learn to be free and independent. College was that start. My dad could see he wouldn’t be able to change my mind. “Come home anytime you want, son.”

I rarely took him up on that offer. While in college, I visited home once a month. As I entered my later years of college, my visits became more infrequent.

As soon as I got my degree and a full-time job, I was living either on my own or with a partner, even if it wasn’t economically feasible for me.

I rarely called home — only once every few months. My visits had turned from once a month in college to once a year after college, despite living in the same city.

It wasn’t because I didn’t want to — not always, at least. On the times I did make contact with my family, I was always scolded, mothered, or lectured about one thing or another. It’s just how my parents are hardwired.

They meant well for me but were quite overbearing with their fretting. It’s as if they forgot I was an adult, capable of taking care of myself.

“Son, when are you going to go back to school and get an MBA?” Dad asked me after I told him I got my first full-time job.

“Child, you’re getting fat. Why don’t you eat this?” Mom fretted over me, feeding me something that wouldn’t help my weight problems.

“You need to take care of yourself better. Tut tut, when are you going to learn?” Mom said when she didn’t like the way I was doing something.

I’d always be annoyed. There they go again, I would think to myself. I have a full-time job. I’m with someone I love. Can’t they see that I’m doing well for myself? Why can’t they be happy for me? They just don’t know any better, I thought to myself.

My brothers validated some of my annoyance. They weren’t as disengaged from family life as I was, but both of my brothers ended up living at home when they went to university.

I was the only one that flew off. When my brothers caught up with me, they’d tell me how suffocating it would be to live with them or talk to them. They couldn’t stand it. “I’m glad I moved out,” I’d say.

For the next decade, my parents became empty nesters and were free to focus on themselves.

They traveled the world, visiting places like Europe and Japan. My parents also went back to their homeland, Vietnam.

After their first visit to Vietnam, where my parents were terrified of being arrested as soon as they landed and were relieved that it didn’t happen, they made a conscious effort to revisit Vietnam once a year.

They invited my brothers and me to come with them to Vietnam several times.

My brothers happily took up the opportunity when they could. To them, a free trip was a free trip. I always declined. “I’m too busy,” I would say. “I don’t have enough vacation days.” The excuses from me, while not false, were endless.

My dad always shook his head and said, “You need to see your family in Vietnam. You need to see where you came from — your roots. It’s important. Your mother wants that too.”

“I know, Dad. I want to, I’m just super busy. I’ve got big projects at work and I’m looking to make a big impact,” I told him that my career and work took precedence.

“Okay, son,” he replied. He smiled at me. I was every bit his son, the hard-working hustler. “Just don’t work yourself too hard. Maybe next time, yeah?”

“Maybe,” I replied. I didn’t tell him that the thought of being around him and mom, both bickering the entire time while lecturing me for 10 days in a foreign nation, didn’t sound appealing to me.

I valued my freedom. I valued my space from my parents. The space widened when I took up a new job in a different state. It was a big move for me and my career. I called my dad one day and told him the good news. “Very nice, son,” he said. “So you’ll be moving away?”

His words didn’t reveal his emotions or thoughts on the matter of his first-born son moving away to a different state.

He seemed happy for me. I took his silence as a sign of tacit approval and moved to Utah to take the job. For the next few years, I was able to build up my experience and move my career forward. However, it was during this time that tragedy hit home.

Alzheimer’s

My mom experienced problems with her memory back in 2016. The early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis came the same year I moved to a different state.

After a series of visits to different doctors, who sometimes had trouble communicating with my mom due to the cultural barriers, it was determined that she had early-onset Alzheimer’s. 

Fortunately, my brothers still lived in the same city as my parents and were able to help out where they could. I increased my calls to my parents, inquiring about updates and asking what the doctors said could be done.

However, I could only visit a few times a year, having only so many vacation days.

Since my mom’s diagnosis, I visit home about 4–5 times a year. It’s sad to say that the number of visits, while my mom was sick annually, was more than any other year before.

I was doing my best to make up for the past. I was trying to close the gap — reduce the space between us, despite being further physically than ever before.

The irony is not lost on me. Time is the one resource we can never get back.

Every second that passes us by is a second we will never see again — and I had squandered much of that precious time.

I took things for granted. I took my parents for granted. And I took my identity for granted.

And as a result, I lost precious time that I could have spent with my parents as they aged. I was oblivious to the changes that were happening.

As a result, the space that I had created between my parents and I had become too big. I sought to create space between myself and my parents, who I had tied to an identity that I didn’t want to be a part of.

And when I did want to be a part of it, I always created excuses and delayed the opportunities. “Maybe next time,” I’d tell my parents. If karma is truly a thing, I would say this is it.

I’m doing my best to make amends now.

My brothers and I have committed to helping out our aging father, who has become the primary caretaker for mom. We are communicating more than ever before. My brothers are taking turns, visiting my parents every other weekend.

I actually have a reminder on my phone, telling me to call my dad once a week to check-in.

I book flights once every 4 months to see them. We have dinner together as a family when we’re all in town, something that we haven’t done in a decade, despite living in the same city for years prior.

A few months ago, my dad told me that it had been so long since he’s been to the beach. 

The young and selfish version of me would have said, “Well, maybe next time.” Instead, the older me said, “Well dad, if you want to see the beach, let’s book a beach house together.

Next month. I’ll come back home and we can all go.” He smiled slightly and said, “That would be nice, son.”

It’s time to close the gap. It’s time to make space, but not for myself. It’s time to make space for the things we care about and love.

Quy Ma grows brands, businesses, and people for a living in Silicon Valley. He is the founder of About Me Stories.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.

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