As a first-generation Taiwanese-American, I witnessed my fair share of cultural prejudices, ethnocentric judgments, and stereotypes that made me feel like I didn’t belong. I felt like I was obligated to hide in my shell and never speak out against anything for the sake of self-preservation, just for a chance to survive without expecting any genuine connections or understanding from anyone.
It all started at home. My father would constantly talk about the way his peers viewed him as a strange and unwelcome immigrant, how he grew up destitute after immigrating to the US, and how he absolutely needed to work as an engineer in order to escape the brutalities and inhumaneness of poverty.
As a child, I had to endure his yelling about how difficult his life was and how his livelihood was on the line in a cutthroat and unforgiving workplace. He kept repeating his bitter and sad life story over and over again.
At that time, all I knew how to do was run back to my room and hide, usually escaping through reading books about whimsical lands, unwavering heroes, and fantastical creatures. I was deathly afraid of him and even more afraid of not living up to his hopes and expectations for me as a child who had a hundred times more than what he grew up with.
Most of the time, I obeyed the rules. If I broke any rules, I’d blame it on my brother. I tried my absolute best in school and made near-perfect grades. I studied hard, read a lot of books, behaved well, quietly endured any problems I had, and outgrew throwing temper tantrums at toy stores pretty quickly.
As early as 6th grade, I had my entire future mapped out for me – I’d get all A’s in middle school, I’d get all A’s in high school and take all honors and AP courses, I’d go to the closest state university and major in Electrical Engineering. Then I’d work in the defense industry for 40 years until I could retire and be able to afford exorbitantly expensive healthcare well past my 90s.
However, I naturally gravitated towards writing and using my imagination, but I was constantly told I was just a child with a foolish dream and it could never amount to anything more than a hobby.
I thought it was a good idea. I agreed to studying hard and keeping writing as a “silly” hobby. I believed in this formula because of the evidence before my eyes – it has proven to be a foolproof path towards comfort and absolute certainty. I was willing to sell my inner self for a life that he fought for and nearly died from because of brutal life circumstances that the privileged couldn’t even begin to fathom.
For a long time, I thought this was how I had to show appreciation for being able to grow up in a relatively safe neighborhood. I had hundreds of books, hundreds of toys, and three solid meals to eat every day. I had warm coats to wear and shoes on my feet. I got to focus entirely on school and not be forced to work a dangerous minimum-wage job to help out my family. Despite being nerdy, socially awkward, unfashionably dressed, and unable to fit in, I still had it good.
From the perspective of millions of Americans, I was indeed privileged.
But the older I got, I became more frustrated and helpless, to say the least. In college, my studies weren’t making any sense, even when I asked for further clarification. I would pore over 40 pages worth of text and example problems about circuit theory at least ten times and still fail abysmally on an exam. I felt like I was lucky when I barely passed a class with a low C (that was graded on a curve) because that meant I didn’t have to repeat that class all over again. I struggled with programming classes, physics classes, and a slew of practical subjects that I was taught would help me secure my own future, regardless of how much of a miserable failure I felt (because apparently, my personal happiness was the lowest priority when it came to fighting against poverty).
I became disengaged with life, depressed, and entirely doubtful of my chances of success.
I interviewed for two highly prestigious engineering internships. I failed to get them. After bombing the interviews (which was due to my forced answers and lack of genuine interest in the field of engineering), my confidence and grades plunged drastically during junior year. Even when I spent a lot of time taking highly detailed notes, I’d never get anything above a high F.
Now, I’m not telling this story to ruminate over the past. I’m simply explaining how my upbringing has shaped the way I perceive hard work, dreams, and the pursuit of greater opportunities.
I knew deep down that the road ahead of me was a dead end, and I realized that I was failing because hard work didn’t amount to anything if I had no talent or competitive edge or enthusiasm for engineering. I knew I was meant for a more creative career path, but everyone highly discouraged me from pursuing it because I didn’t have the connections or privileges that upper-class people had to obtain highly coveted positions in media. I was just a middle-class, socially awkward Taiwanese girl without much potential to ascend above my limitations.
It was during my college years when my interest in writing only grew stronger and my dreams intensified. I completed a 100,000-word novel. I started a few others. I also thought I had so much potential to become a semi-successful blogger after starting one on WordPress and gaining over 100 followers in a short time. Bloggers who shared their stories about quitting their toxic jobs and pursuing their dreams wrote articles that I read obsessively. I wanted to be like them and not be held back by my circumstances or cultural upbringing.
I ended up quitting Engineering and instead, made a last-minute switch to Mathematics (just to graduate on time). I still struggled and ended up graduating with a C+ average. I didn’t have the skills or the interest to get a prestigious job in a high tech company. I could only work as a barista and math tutor and felt far behind everyone else. A lot of people told me that it was an essential life skill to pretend that I cared about corporate America in order to make myself seem marketable, but that made me feel sick to my stomach because it felt disingenuous and toxic.
But all of these circumstances shaped the way I perceive life today.
To this day, I’m still a new writer that’s trying to find her way. I haven’t gone viral yet and I haven’t gotten a publishing deal. I’ve written a few novels and decided to give up on them because they were no longer relevant to my current goals. I still don’t have many followers. I sometimes wished I’d majored in English. I even read articles from writers who insinuated that people like me didn’t stand a chance in the competitive and subjective field of writing.
The path I took was anything but easy – I’ve felt discouraged. I’ve felt resigned. I thought that if I failed in something I hated, I didn’t deserve to go after what I loved. Many times I’ve felt like giving up after other writers claimed that if you didn’t demonstrate the ability to go viral overnight, you can’t make it.
I worried a lot about how people would judge me if they knew how I quit Engineering and graduated with less-than-stellar grades in Mathematics. I thought I was too entitled by failing to make near-perfect grades in a lucrative field. I felt guilty for abandoning my 40-year plan for a life of uncertainty.
But I’ve had enough of feeling guilty. I’ve had enough of worrying about how others perceived me and judged me for failing Engineering. It wasn’t my choice to fail – it happened because I hated it, I wasn’t good at it, and I only did it out of fear of the future. Three things that hindered me.
I learned that everything I’ve been told was a lie – hard work cannot help you if you aren’t good at something to begin with. Innate talent is necessary for success. There are people who try so hard and give everything their best effort and still fail. There are people who lose their jobs due to incompetence, even after working very hard.
I wasn’t the best at writing, but I’d much rather be a 7/10 writer than a 1/10 engineer.
Though I am a huge advocate of avoiding a career you hate and aren’t naturally good at, my personal experiences of being a first-generation American has also made me skeptical of those who claim that following your bliss is the solution to everything.
I believe that it’s incredibly important to be self-aware and pursue what you’re innately inclined to do.
I think it’s sad how many people never reach their potential out of societal expectations and fear of uncertainty. But I also believe that you can’t expect this journey to be effortless or lacking in challenges.
Your dreams won’t come true overnight. You may think you have nothing to prove if you’re true to yourself, but a lot of opportunities require you to prove that you have what it takes to demonstrate consistency and stand out from the rest of the dreamers.
Regardless of your passion, you’ll still have to work.
Pursuing a path you’ve created yourself will push you to be the best you can be when you face struggles that make you question all that you’ve been raised to believe, but you’ll emerge more enlightened and resilient than ever before. You’ll sharpen your abilities and show that you can do more than just allow your latent potential stagnate within you. You’ll fight for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to express yourself and be a voice to those who have experienced similar setbacks and yearn for connections with people who empathize with their internal conflicts.
So if you want to pursue something creative, you need to strip away all the visions of extrinsically-motivated end results and do it despite what the skeptics say because in the end, it’s genuine connection, not ego-based competition that makes your calling much more meaningful. It doesn’t matter what people say you can’t do because of your race and ethnicity. It doesn’t matter how much people think you’ll fail just because of how much you failed in the past.
Do it because you can’t imagine a life without it. Do it because you have something to share that hasn’t been shared by anyone else in a manner that can’t be replicated. Do it because you still would rather suffer through the valiant fight than live a life full of apathy. Do it because you want to evolve as an individual, not because you want overnight success.
In the end, the more you lift yourself up, the more you’ll inspire others to do the same.
Featured Image Credit: Andrea Vehige