Yesterday I had the chance to listen to a Chinese-American lady, B, tell a personal story of how she grew up feeling inadequate because of a simple sentence her father said to her: “You have not done anything that makes me proud yet.” She said she had never managed to stop crying every time that sentence was repeated in her mind. As well, her mother always conveyed the message that nothing she has ever done is “good enough.”
Two things flashed across my mind when I listened to her story. “Joy Luck Club” and myself. Just like the protagonist in the movie and B, nothing I’ve ever done has made my parents proud — yet. And no matter how much I strive, nothing I ever do is “good enough” in my mother’s eyes.
B went to one of the Top 20 universities in the United States. Her father would’ve been proud of her — except that she did not choose an “Asian subject,” such as engineering or architecture. Instead, she chose art and design. Today, she works as a graphic designer for a children’s theater group. And that’s not good enough for her mother. “You should’ve gone to work for Disney or Pixar,” she was told.
In most cases, parents do not mean to hurt their kids, but Chinese parents have this habit or tradition of not showering their kids with praise — lest they become too proud and stop to make improvements. This is exactly the environment in which I grew up. Even though I was always the top student in my class, eventually becoming one of only eight students in a city of 6 million to receive a government scholarship to study in America, I was still “not good enough.” I never heard my parents say “I’m so proud of you, daughter.” Nope. I should’ve chosen an “Asian subject,” I should’ve married a rich guy, bought a house and invited them to live with me. Then my life would have been a great “success,” and their lives would have been “complete.” All these conditions for their love and approval have left me feeling burdened, depressed and defeated.
I actually did compromise by not choosing to study art. Still, journalism wasn’t “Asian” enough, if you know what I mean. Being a writer would never bring in as much money as being a banker would, for example. But I realize that even this compromise was a big mistake as I didn’t follow my heart. I would probably have been so much happier and more successful in pursuing an art-related career. Regardless, my whole life has turned into a big disappointment for my parents, and I have lived under this shadow for too long.
B finally made a breakthrough this past weekend. She was finally able to see the blockages and blinders in her life and remove them. She told a most recent happening in which she managed to redo all the design work she had lost after a computer crash, and managed to print brochures just in time for her clients. Her clients are very happy and she is finally able to see how awesome she really is. She doesn’t have to work for Disney or Pixar in order to feel a sense of achievement. Rather, she celebrates this triumph instead of giving in to that “little voice” in her mind, which previously kept on putting herself down.
I was so touched by her story, that I went up to her and told her how our stories are alike, and how she is lucky that she has resolved this issue in her heart — while her father is still alive. For me, my father has already passed on, and I would never be able to hear him say, “I’m so proud of you, daughter.” All I can remember was that at his death bed, he uttered to me, “Go and do something unique, something that is representative of you in your life.” In the face of this perfect stranger, tears poured out of my eyes.
Rain was pouring down heavily this morning. I went up to my roof and tended my newly built vegetable garden. After some hard work, I was able to sit down and enjoy the presence of the greens. I looked at them with great joy, spending a good amount of time in silence. For those of you who have pets, it is the same feeling of happiness to be surrounded by beings that you love, except that in my case, it is a less “dynamic” kind of happiness. Suddenly, a voice in my head told me, “Dad would be so proud of you for all this!”
Really? Yes, really! Dad is the one who gave me the gift of love for plants. He had a small flower garden outside the windows of our apartment when we were kids. I must have inherited his tender feelings toward plants. Another thing I have inherited from him is the love for beauty and for art, expressed in photography and paintings. This was a moment of epiphany. Yes, why wouldn’t dad be proud of this seemingly minute thing that no one would even put a label of “success” on? He would be so happy to sit there with me in my tiny garden and enjoyed a cup of coffee.
It dawned on me that it doesn’t take a huge external event in our lives to transform how we feel about ourselves. All it takes is a shift in how we see ourselves, and a simple action of dropping the tainted glasses we have been wearing all our lives — for good.