I’m 45 years old, and I am both ecstatic and dismayed that I have one more student loan payment left. I received my graduate degree in 1997. It’s been a while. It also took me a while to understand why my life trajectory was different from my friends’. I didn’t quite grasp that my parents, as immigrants, focused on survival and pushing their children into educations that would provide a better life for us. I didn’t quite understand how not owning property or investments places you on a slightly different track in life. So being practical and driven Chinese people, my sisters and I powered through and did what it took to make my parents’ sacrifices worthy.
Being burdened with student loan payments that for many years were larger than my rent checks didn’t allow for me to join my friends on trips abroad or shopping sprees in New York City. I would instead raid my parents’ pantry for noodles and beans and Chinese oyster sauce when I was home. When I was well into my 20’s. Maybe my early 30’s. Maybe last Christmas. But who’s counting?
I am now facing the prospect of sending my own children to college in a few years, and don’t get me started on today’s ridiculous tuition rates. We are fortunate though that my son has an opportunity to earn college credits that will be honored by our state college system’s universities while he’s still in high school. Because we have already established the fact that I am nothing if not practical, I was hell bent on that child earning the maximum number of credits possible through this program, so that he would graduate with both his high school diploma and 60 college credits. I figured this would give him more options, and a real possibility of saving a lot of money. So practical! So Chinese!
It will take a lot of tight scheduling and strategic planning to fit this all in. But we were all in. Because we are practical. And we are Chinese. He realized he would not be able to fit orchestra into his senior year schedule. He was kinda sorta ok with that. He’s been playing a string instrument since he was four years old. (So Chinese!) But he figured he would continue with private lessons, and earning college credits and saving money would be worth that sacrifice. So practical! So Chinese!
And tonight, I had a very Not-Chinese epiphany as I sat through his orchestra banquet. I’m new to this. This is my first kid in high school, and I was the quietest social outcast in my own high school. I had literally no knowledge about sports or orchestra banquets or senior awards or anything remotely socially appropriate (So Chinese!). So I quickly realize I’m one of the few parents there who did not have a senior, and I silently pledge to do a slow roll next year to drop off a casserole.
As I sat through the evening, I listen to how each senior has impacted the orchestra, his/her/their peers, and the orchestra teacher. I listen to their shared memories and inside jokes. I witness a grown man trying not to cry. I witness friends hug each other for photos. And I realize there is real community in this. I realize this is so Not-Chinese.
Chinese: Not interested in social dynamics. Chinese: It’s all about the grades, saving money, earning money. Chinese: So practical. I realize this is a moment that I do not want to pass on a tradition of my heritage to my children.
Because there isn’t a price tag on finding your tribe. I want to leave space for my son to decide to stick with, or leave, the orchestra when the time comes. He may decide it’s time to leave the orchestra and focus on college credits, but I want him to make that decision on his own, and for his own reasons. I do not want to put pressure on him to make a right or wrong decision.
Because carrying the burden of that is a heavier burden than thousands of dollars in loans. For more years than not, I was paralyzed with seeking perfection. I was taught there is a right decision. And there are many wrong decisions. It led to feeling like I was not enough. It led to anxiety over feeling judged. It led to so much energy into creating a false narrative of who I thought I was supposed to be. Which was a most inauthentic self. It is not hard to lose yourself when you do not know who you are.
I want to teach my children early on that there is value in doing things that resonate; that those decisions are the right ones. That if it’s a really, really hard decision, that means you have a wealth of choices. How fortunate that you have two really good, viable choices. How could you go wrong when both are good contenders?
I want my children to know they are not their worst decision. Or their best decision. I want my children to know that doing what resonates means you are choosing something based on your values. And that is who you are.
I want to teach my children early on that best laid plans…well, they’re best left to unfold in the most unexpected ways. I want to teach them that it feels better to embrace these twists and turns in life than to brace against them. Because it’s in the bracing against the natural unfolding of life where suffering arises. Choosing the impractical path can feel scary and uncertain, and yet resilience is only built during the journey through fears and disappointments.
This epiphany isn’t necessarily about the orchestra, or if they are his tribe. It’s not about how many college credits he can earn in high school. It’s really about holding a safe space for my children to make decisions that honor who they are and what they value. I’m not sure this is practical, and yet we are Chinese. I have no idea what this means, and I have no idea how much money my children will need to borrow. I do however love a good sale (so practical to stock up and save!), so there will always be extra sundries in my pantry for my tribe.