I was in the first grade when my teacher told our class to draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up. I drew girls wearing fancy dresses and flashy accessories. At the time, I wanted to be a designer. Of course, my aspirations have changed over the years, but I have always known I wanted to do something creative. I tried out painting and playing the piano, but writing is what eventually stuck. I decided I wanted to be a writer, like Junot Díaz or Scott Westerfeld, and publish my own short stories and poetry.
But being a writer, or pursuing any type of creative career path, didn’t fit the Asian-American mold I have felt pushed to fill as I’ve grown up. I didn’t realize there were certain expectations specific to my Asian-American identity until I got older and began to think about college and my future.
My family would tell me I was expected to strive for excellence academically so I could eventually find a financially stable job. I had to be “successful,” as defined by the standards of the Asian-American community.
This meant becoming a doctor or a lawyer or something along these lines. My family wouldn’t need to know English to realize these jobs would mean I was doing well for myself. These types of jobs are associated with intelligence and hard work, which are qualities highly regarded in the Asian-American community.
I understand this perspective coming from some of my family members. They worked so hard to get to this country. They imagined a better life for their children, and this didn’t include one of them chasing after a dream that didn’t have many guarantees.
My mom, along with her three sisters and two brothers, all came from Hong Kong to Philadelphia at a very early age. They all took on jobs like working as busser at restaurants or chamber maids in hotels to support their family. And they all earned enough of their own money to pay their way through college and to find jobs — jobs that fit the mold. They became accountants, nurses, marketers, software engineers, financial analysts.
Their stories make my passion to write feel more and more like a luxury. But isn’t this luxury part of the better life they envisioned for me?
At a family dinner, I once told my uncle I was thinking about becoming a writer. He looked up at me with a smirk on his face. He thought I was kidding.
“No, you don’t want to be a writer,” he said. “There are more jobs open if you try to do science. I remember you said you liked science, right?”
Well, not quite. I don’t hate science, but I just don’t care all that much about protons and electrons or chemical reactions or memorizing theories. I’d much rather devote my time to writing poems and creating other worlds through my storytelling.
My family members weren’t the only ones forcing the Asian-American mold upon me. I remember how classmates would tease me in school when I didn’t do well in math.
“Come on, you’re Asian, you gotta be good at math,” they’d say.
And I can recall one of my high school teachers showing a video portraying Asian stereotypes where students would only be doing math and science and their parents would scold them if they received any grade lower than an A. Unfortunately, I am still confronted with similar stereotypes.
Sometimes I feel the shame for pursuing something that doesn’t fit the stereotypical mold of being Asian-American. But it’s also incredibly encouraging to see some of my other friends in the Asian-American community exploring vocations like acting, screen writing and graphic design.
Hopefully, the paths we carve out in these creative fields will help reshape the mold of what it means to be Asian-American for others, too.
In the meantime, I’ll continue writing and working to make my family proud so they can see success in the stories I’ve yet to tell.
Samantha Wong can be reached at email@example.com.