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When the Overachieving Immigrant Narrative Fails

My dad and I in Southorn Playground
When I was a kid, one of my enduring memories of my dad was lectures he gave my brother and me about his impoverished upbringing. He would regale us with tales of how hard he worked to gain entrance into National Taiwan University, make it to America, obtain a master’s degree, get a job at IBM, become a successful project manager, and then own an expensive home in Almaden Valley. I have not so fond memories of sitting there in guilt and shame as he described to my brother and me the circumstances he overcame because of his diligent work ethic. That was an enduring paternal narrative of my childhood. Unlike his immigrant peers, he didn’t put as much pressure on me or my brother to succeed but he was extremely critical of us and quick to point all the advantages we grow up with that he did not. 

And then when I was around 13 years old, my dad became a follower of Jesus and his narrative gradually began to shift. It didn’t become apparent to me until I was in college that my dad’s view of his migration journey had changed. And now, 30 years later, after visiting his childhood neighborhoods with his grandchildren in Hong Kong last month, I had a fuller sense of how this narrative transformation is now complete. 

When he was 6 years old, my dad’s father died. My paternal grandfather lived in the US and was the family's sole source of income. My dad’s sister, who is 12 years older than him, got married and moved out of their apartment in Mong Kok. Having lost their financial support, my paternal grandmother found work as a cutter in a garment factory and my dad became a latch-key kid. 

Having become the man of the house starting at 6 years old, he learned to cook the hard way, through the incessant ridicule of his flatmates, that is, a group of stay-home moms. When he was 10 years old, they could no longer afford to stay in Mong Kok and so my dad and his mom moved in with his sister, brother-in-law, and their four children to a shared apartment in Wan Chai. It was an abusive household and the Southorn Playground basketball courts were his refuge. This is where he cultivated his lifelong love for basketball. His nickname on the courts was “No Money” because “Mok” means not and he was desperately poor. 

On weekdays, my dad would make the hour long commute on the ferry from Wan Chai to attend high school in Mong Kok. In order to minimize the travel distance, he moved out of his brother-in-law’s apartment and moved in with his cousin and his wife. My dad did his best to take care of his mom throughout high school. My paternal grandmother, whom I never met, passed away in 1980. 

To his surprise, he managed to graduate from high school. He desperately wanted to leave Hong Kong and found his ticket out by gaining entrance into National Taiwan University (NTU). In the 1960s, the United States subsidized Southeast Asian students to attend NTU in order to prop up Chiang Kai Shek’s regime against communist China. In retrospect, my dad recognizes he benefit from a form of affirmative action and only secondarily because of his work ethic. In recent years, he has also divulged that he barely studied in both high school and college. At NTU, he spent most of his time drinking, playing the 3 “B”s - basketball, billiards, and bridge. He was a natural test-taker and even helped his friends by taking exams on their behalf. 

After college, my dad went back to Hong Kong and had a dating relationship go sour. Broken-hearted, he again sought a way out of Hong Kong and applied to a Master’s of Industrial Engineering program at the University of Iowa. But he had no money to attend. Providentially, a relative in the US agreed to sponsor any costs he incurred and paid for his plane ticket. My dad met my mom in Iowa City and through another set of providential set of circumstances involving acquaintances and relatives, eventually found employment with IBM in south San Jose.

My dad is intelligent. 

Despite adversity, he found a way to graduate from high school and the prestigious NTU. Early on, he noticed school came easily for him. He has two master’s degrees from US schools, where English was his second language.

My dad worked hard. 

By his own admission, my dad was not a diligent worker during adolescence. However, once he got to the United States, he learned focus, discipline, and excellence. I have many memories of him coming home gruffly after a long day and not saying a word until he finished dinner because he didn’t eat breakfast and often worked through lunch. 

As we sat in a Taiwan cafe with my mom, my brother, and my kids gathered around, my dad was explicit, that in spite of his intelligence and work ethic, it was the grace of God behind every opportunity he’s ever received. It was the grace of God behind his NTU admission. It was the grace of God behind the network of friends and family supporting him. It was the grace of God to meet my mom and later, meet Jesus. 

During that dinner, he said it was like a victory lap to go back to the home of his cousin and have them meet his wife, sons, and grandchildren. During the visit, his cousin remarked how he wished my dad's mom could have seen how far her no money son had come. 

All is grace. 

I believe the narrative of hard work and insecurity is helpful to immigrants in achieving economic prosperity. It fosters a perspective of never being satisfied, never having arrived, and an attitude of always striving. Insecurity is a form of pride. And that pride can blind those it benefits.

And yet my dad has recognized pride's blind spots and decided to adopt a fuller and more accurate narrative to explain his rags to riches story. Though hard work and insecurity played an important role, my father recognizes the opportunities he received and his extended family's support were the most instrumental factors in his success. I pray God would increasingly grant me this kind of clarity as I honor my earthly and heavenly fathers in all my life endeavors.


Undergirding the overachieving immigrant narrative is the relentless grace of God. 

Comments

  1. Great story. I love your dad!

    One thing I wasn't clear on --- what do you mean that "insecurity is a form of pride"? I'm curious as to your thought process here.

    ReplyDelete

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