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A Chinese immigrant parent on the meaning of success
The very first time I asked my mom this question
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My family immigrated from China to the United States when I was almost four years old.
For most of my life, I took this act of courage for granted. With a couple hundred dollars in their savings and barely a grasp of the English language, my parents took a gamble in pursuit of greater opportunities— for themselves and for me.
Growing up in the suburbs, I had what one might call a “typical” privileged Asian American upbringing: Gifted & Talented classes, after school enrichment activities, taking my first SAT in the seventh grade, spending high school laser focused on an Ivy League acceptance letter.
My parents never strong-armed me to pursue academic excellence; I was self-driven. I could feel in my bones that achievement was why I was here in this country, after generations before me had no such freedom.
Last summer, I gave my mom a StoryWorth for her birthday. She loves to write, and I wanted to capture her wisdom and stories. Every week, I curated questions for her to write about— everything from the significance of her name to her proudest accomplishments and most challenging experiences.
Isn’t it interesting how we can grow up alongside family members, without ever asking them the big questions with same level of curiosity we apply to strangers?
We make assumptions under the illusion that we know them, what they feel and think, like the backs of our hands. We stuff these bulky and significant questions into the basement closet, muffling the potential mess that their answers might introduce to our psyches.
In doing so, we miss out on the opportunity to witness their deep and ever-changing truths.
As a high achiever in junior high, I carried a weighty and unspoken belief that I needed to make my parents proud through increasing levels of accomplishment. I remember a particularly dramatic moment when I yelled, “I just want you to be proud of me!” to my parents after a stressful evening of poring over SAT math section books.
When I started this newsletter, I wondered what my mom would have to say about the topic of success. For the first time, I asked her (with slight trepidation): How do you define success in life? And what does success for me, your child, look like?
Mindy: What does a successful life mean to you?
Mom: My life has been more about fulfilling duties than being successful.
To talk about this topic, it is impossible to leave out the environment I lived in and the era I grew up in. An old woman from the countryside told me how she protected her children and family during the great famine. She told me that with her effort, none died in the family while 40 million people died of hunger in China during that time. She considered her life to be a successful life. During the Cultural Revolution, about 16 million young people between the ages of 15 and 23 were relocated from their homes in urban centers to remote villages and border regions. If you could have found a way to go back to your hometown or other cities and register your Hukou there, you might have been considered as having a successful life. Since we were very young, we had been told that successful lives meant to devote our life to communism. And everyone was encouraged to be a “shining screw” for the needs of the country and communism… In fact, during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, people hardly had their own rights to dream of an individual successful life in China. To seek an individual successful life was definitely criticized in society.
I wasn’t even able to think about [the concept of success] until 1987 when I went to the University of Birmingham for my Ph.D. study (it was my first time going abroad). All of the things that I experienced in England made me rethink what we had been taught and told in China. It was my stay in England that opened my eyes, broadened my views, and enabled me to start thinking independently as an individual. It was then that I began to realize that we should respect our needs as individual persons.
Looking for opportunities to immigrate [was for] a better life, [not] a successful life.
Mindy: How has your definition of success changed throughout the years?
Mom: Oh, it definitely changed a lot throughout the years.
As previously described, born in the 1950s in communist China, we were all educated to devote our lives to communism from a very young age. Individualism was disapproved of. Not until the 1980s, when the government reopened the door to the outside world and I went abroad for my graduate study, did I first have the opportunity to broaden my views and think independently.
External achievement did not motivate me. I declined an invitation to contribute to the book “Who’s Who in Modern Science and Technology in China”. I didn’t want to market myself. I did not desire to put myself in the spotlight. I safeguarded my independence from the market and spotlight.
I believe, maybe, what made me “successful” is my perfectionism. I always wanted to try my best whenever I was doing something. Even when I was doing manual labor work in the countryside, I tried my best, too.
So, it might be credited to my perfectionism that allowed me to get into Peking University after the Cultural Revolution, and of course thanks to God, gave me the gifts and talents, ready for when the government resumed the college entrance exam. After college, I went into graduate school and went abroad. I started teaching new courses and wrote and edited brand new textbooks when I joined the faculty at the Beijing Agriculture University. I initiated an up-to-date new research subject in fungi genetics in China. I received awards and honors for my scientific contributions… But all of these happenings were just external life to me; at the same time, the most significant change was inside — I was thinking what life meant and what I really wanted in my life.
But based on the background and environment in which I grew up, fulfilling my responsibility is still a dominant motivator in my life. As a professor, I was devoted and dedicated to my teaching and research; as a scientist, I was a detail-oriented critical thinker and problem-solver, with a broad view; as a family member, I was the one always taking care of others; as a mother, I dreamed to be excellent and tried my best; and even as a patient, my oncologist told me that I was his best patient.
Faith and religion deepen and broaden my spiritual life as well. Spiritual life is an important part of my life’s enrichment. It helps me reach beyond my life’s limitations. I believe life is giving and inspiring. Each of us is just like an individual drop of water. By giving, life evaporates into the sky and connects with nature. Eternal life belongs to the connection with nature and universe. We are part of the universe through connection.
Mindy: What does a successful life look like for me as your child? What kind of life do you wish for me?
I am so happy that my children, growing up in America, were offered numerous opportunities since they were very young to explore and discover themselves and, at the same time, explore and discover the world. I hope, based on what they learned and discovered, they would be able to find the best connections between themselves and the world to develop their careers. In this way, they would be able to do what they really enjoyed, and contribute their talents and gifts to the world, and have a fulfilled and enriched and joyful lives as well. Ideally, I wish they could find their callings so that they would have not only fulfilled, but also passionate lives to enjoy.
So, you might have noticed that, for my children, I prefer to choose “enriched”, “joyful”, and “passionate” as my words of blessing, instead of “successful”. Because, I consider “enriched”, “joyful”, and “passionate” are more focused on the inside, while “successful” is more external.
The Chinese character, 凡 (fan, in English means “all, every, ordinary”), which was chosen for your name, reflected what I realized and expected at the time. When I saw so many hypocrites under the shining surface and two-faced approaches, I wished myself and my children would live authentically and be able to be ourselves, instead of being hijacked by others’ expectations and misled by deception from the external world.
My dream of life might be embodied in this poem about your name, written by a former student of mine when you were born. Translated from Chinese by your uncle:
I have seen high mountains
and yet utter praises for the vastness of plains
I love the waves lapping the shore
but enjoy more the depths of the ocean
I look up to the loftiness of the pines and poplars
but no less appreciate the yellowing and greening of the leaves of grass
What can storms do about me
if I do not push myself upward
How can fame and wealth affect me
if I do not care to be somebody
How can loneliness bother me
if I prefer to be a lone leaf of grass
Ordinary is not mediocre
It contains unlimited potential
Ordinary is not dull
It has so much yet to bloom
Ordinary is not standing still
It is ready for a journey of a thousand miles
Hail the authentic life of the ordinary—
Complete and free by itself
breathing the air of time and space
against an infinite horizon
In the poem “On Children”, from The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran gave us a moving piece of parenting advice. It helped me further understand the meaning of parenting.
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as he loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.
Gibran draws a beautiful analogy by calling parents “bows” and children “arrows”.
His poem helped me understand — We, as parents, are bows that power our children’s journey, aimed towards the future the children will live in. The more flexible the bow, the more it bends. The stronger the bowstring, the more it can be stretched, and the more power it can pass to the arrow. The steadier the aim, the more accurately the arrow will fly on its journey towards an infinite future. Instead of drawing a blueprint, I prefer to send my children blessings and freedom to fly on their journeys, though it is a poignant process of parenting. In life, I appreciate my parents who were models of this kind of parenting to me.
As parents, the greatest gifts we could give to our children are roots and wings — Roots in faith, which teach our children to know where the truth is; and wings that enable our children to soar into wider worlds of understanding.
Reflection #05: Ask a parent, caregiver, or mentor about how they view success— for their lives and for yours. What do they wish for you?
Love and health,