I am the last born from a family of Asian Americans brought up in the Southern United States. My parents, having immigrated to America, upheld the values of their native culture while maintaining an open mind to the culture of their children’s birthplace. Meaning, while my parent’s strove to bring us up in their own image, they were cautious not to mark us as unacceptable to the country we were born into. They were aware of the stigma their kids would face growing up as “that strange immigrant family” way before the liberal media would “champion” our cause for the improvement of our society as a whole.
I am the last born to parents who migrated to America from Asia. My parents adhered to the traditional values of their culture while trying not to interfere with my developing identity as an American. They didn’t want me or any of my siblings to be marked awkward or to struggle needlessly while attempting to build a life for ourselves in America. Generally speaking, Asian culture’s place a great deal of importance on family; & more specifically, loyalty to one’s parent’s. What I’m about to say will be unpopular in our current liberal age, but the fact is in Asian culture’s, father’s are the absolute heads of household.
Now that I’m in my forties, I find myself discouraged that I don’t have a better relationship with my parents. At first glance, it will appear as if I I am the one at fault. My father, being the brilliant propagandist that he is, surely promotes this ideal while playing the role of the poor dutiful father whose spoiled son won’t even visit now that his time on earth is limited.
For the longest time, I believed that I had been unworthy for birth into my family. My parents were accomplished doctors in a small, rural community. They were involved in their church & always compliant with the law. Growing up, my siblings & I never experienced an empty Christmas tree. We traveled to cities as children that many adults from small towns would never see; we all had cars as teenagers; we all graduated from college without having to sweat out the finances of it all. My siblings were all phenomenal. To put it into perspective, I am the only one of the four to not graduate at least as salutatorian from high school; I am the only one of four to only have one undergraduate degree. One brother is an MD, my sister is a PhD, & my other brother is an IT professional with multiple bachelor degrees. Growing up, I encountered no shortage of reminders as to how lucky I was. I got the message that I would be worthless had it done been for my last name; that I had no importance whatsoever outside of my relationship to my parents. Even my own parents, noble though they were, would often make statements like: “You only got that job because of me;” or, “That girl only pretends to like you because she wants to be part of our family.”
Message received: I would be nothing had it not been for my parents &, since I couldn’t be successful like my older siblings, at the very least I could remain dutiful to my parents throughout their lives. For the longest time, I strove to uphold the burden of my worthlessness by serving my parents & striving to meet their standard; especially my father’s. Something happened to me as a youth that proved to me that my Mom’s love was unconditional while my father’s love had to be earned. I had observed him disown me for committing what now seems like a routine young adult mistake. I learned that, while I was eternally indebted to him, the bind that connected my father to me was as fragile as his passing whim. I knew I had to be more like my siblings to earn my place in the family.
About a decade ago, my brother who is the doctor got married. He had been a doctor for a good ten years or so, so he was financially set. My parent’s didn’t have to contribute a penny to the ceremony or lavish celebration. This brother had done it right. He never made any “routine young adult mistakes.” He had put studies before his social life & now, finally, he had placed his stamp on a well deserved life that was as complete as the life of my father’s. This brother, above all others, was the brother I had struggled to be like. As much as a disappointment to my father as I had been, I would have to pull off a miracle impersonation of this lone flawless sibling to win my father’s acceptance. But instead of being proud, my Dad was furiously jealous. He went out of his way to sabotage the wedding my commandeering the microphone from the MC at every opportunity & making loud obnoxious jokes. I even observed him going table to table introducing himself to guests to whom he had no connection, stating: “You come to my birthday party in July. It will be better than this one.”
I should have run away then. But, programmed to duty as I was, I continued to stay close to my father. Although I moved away to pursue a brighter career path, I would come home numerous times a year as my father’s whim. Once, he fell ill & I took FMLA from work to spend a summer with him. I was his daily companion, driving him to his doctor’s appointments, to the barber shot, or what have you. I would encourage him when he got down & would plan daily activities to exercise his mind & body. Once he got better, he would throw lavish parties about three to five times a year. Any time I couldn’t make it, my Dad acted as if it were such an act of ingratitude. Every time I did make it, I would perform the duties of hired held more than I would perform the duties of a son. But it was fine; I didn’t complain. I was the son who never became anything. I was the child who would never repay my parent’s for the kindness & support they had shown me; I was the dead investment.
But two years ago, I had underwent a major health crisis. Something went wrong following the surgery, and, if not for the actions of an unassigned nurse who just happened to look in on me, I would have bled out. It’s what we call in the medical profession “a near miss;” meaning, a serious safety event was averted but largely because of chance rather than process. Everything felt wrong leading up to the procedure anyway. It all came as a shock. My Mom, who had not yet retired at the time,, didn’t even take off work to be there for my surgery. I thought nothing of it. I came to the realization long ago that, no matter how many people we surround ourselves with, we all walk our own paths alone. But when the head nurse in the surgical bay exclaimed, “Doesn’t this man have any family? Well, don’t they know he’s about to go into surgery?” I felt deeply alone.
Five days later, when I was finally ready for discharge, nurses & various hospital employees kept looking in on me, showing concern that no one had come for me yet. “Aren’t you supposed to be discharged today?” It was 2 pm when I received a call from my Mom telling me they were on their way. It was close to 4 pm by the time we pulled away from the hospital. It wasn’t till later that night that I discovered my parent’s had been late because he chose to play golf that morning.
Around 11pm that night, I finally confronted my parent’s about the lack of attention they had shown in preparing for my recovery at home. Some of the details in question I haven’t mentioned here to save time but suffice it to say that my Dad’s choice to play golf the morning of my discharge qualified as one of my minor concerns. My father reacted with anger & indignation. He yelled at me for being an ungrateful child. He burst into a litany of all the things he had done for me that his father had never done for him; most of which involved spending money on a gift. Then he stormed out of the house.
After that experience, I concluded that I had performed every last obligation that a son should owe his father. Without any change on his part, any expenditure of energy to bridge the gap between us would be a waste. At this time, it’s more a formula of economics than it is a question of morality. I still owe my Mother & intend to be there for her in anyway I can until she recognizes the efforts this she’s poured into supporting me have been worthwhile. She deserves to see her investment turn profitable. But I feel as though I have completed the terms of my unspoken contract to my father. It’s not my fault the end result of my life long efforts look so ugly. I suspend all further efforts to honor him as my father not out of spite; but out of the recognition that nothing I do will ever be enough. Like a tyrant with an insatiable appetite for tribute, no matter what I do, my father will always demand more. So I have given all I can give.