The Burden of Carrying Generational Dreams



“I’m in favor of immigrants who come to America to not do anything remarkable, who just hang out & sometimes spend time with their friends and family, who are flawed, regular people. I’m in favor of immigrants who don’t have to be superheroic or economic martyrs to justify access.”

– Anil Dash

Being 1st generation is a double-edged sword; you have exhilarating drive yet a crippling sense of responsibility.  I’ve always been ambitious; I felt like I had to make up for lost time and bring to fruition the dreams of generations before me that lacked opportunity. My mom’s mantra was always “Go to school” “Be a doctor” “Buy a house”. None of which seemed particularly intriguing to me. I learned how to bullshit in school and paid $60k for a framed piece of paper. I failed chemistry for asking “why” too much and I hate blood. I think buying a house is a dumb financial decision and I have commitment issues so a 30-year mortgage terrifies me.

I think every 1st gen feels pressure to be exceptional in a cookie-cutter-way as if it were collateral for their parents’ sacrifices. We’re constantly reminded about the trials and relatives back home; how we made it to America by the luck of the lottery or by the Grace of God. Not being great would be letting everyone down and a waste of coveted opportunity. This egotistical way of thinking actually hurts us – by seeking and proclaiming greatness we become blind sided to just how average and irrelevant we really are.

There was a Chris Rock special on Netflix where he was saying black kids need their own new school orientations because the “you can be whatever you want to be” rhetoric wasn’t accurate. He stated that the biggest disservice you can do is tell black children they’re special because once they leave the home the world could care less about them. The sooner parents set realistic expectations the sooner the child builds resilience.

Although I am a supporter of positive affirmation, I do think sometimes parents ingrain unrealistic expectations into their children’s heads. Unintentionally, the end goal is over-indexed without any attention to the tools or steps needed to get the child there. I don’t think parents understand there’s nothing more detrimental to an ambitious first gen’s ego than being unable to compete in the classroom or workforce due to their socioeconomic status.

This creates a conundrum of 1st gens not only being pressured by external factors but internally at home as the parents can’t fathom why their child isn’t succeeding. There’s a generational clash between parents and their kids. Parents don’t understand why the kids aren’t motivated, yet the kid was never encouraged to explore the field they wanted (whether directly or indirectly) because they felt they had to sacrifice their own dreams to fulfill their parents desires. Now, they’re getting reprimanded for not successfully wearing this mask and playing the role.

First gens face a daily dilemma of juggling their family’s’ expectations, society’s biases’ and their own aspirations; yet all of these weights are buried under the guise of “opportunity”.

My parents were tasked with the job of survival and I with self-actualization. The immigrant generational gap is real. What a luxury it is to search for purpose, meaning and fulfillment.  – Bo Ren

I’ll never forget the conversation I had with my academic counselor in college when I told him I wanted to be a doctor. He asked me, “Why?” to which I responded, “I’ve always wanted to be a doctor, I like helping people.”  He then asked, “Why do you think being a doctor is the only way to help people?”. This led to more prying and I left the conversation realizing I wanted to be a doctor because I’ve been conditioned to want to be a doctor. My Mamaiay always supported the narrative of me being a doctor, and I wanted to become one to make her happy – but I knew that wasn’t going to make me happy, and realistically, I wasn’t going to be good at it. So, I quit my job at the hospital, and went on to change my major five times in pursuit of my interests. Six years later, and having spent my last dollar of Financial Aid, I graduated in American Ethnic Studies and minored in Education, African Studies and Diversity.

I often stay up at night trying to figure out how and if I’ll be able to repay my Mamaiay for her sacrifices. Whether it’s going to be a nice car, a big house *grimmace*, a year to travel the world etc. Before my conversation with my academic counselor, I thought that in order to honor her sacrifices, in the interim, I had to sacrifice my own dreams to make her happy. Looking back now, I realize I was perpetuating a cycle that I did not want to pass down to my children: Sacrifices do not have to be synonymous with love. I don’t have to sacrifice my happiness to balance out her sacrifice; rather, the best way to honor her sacrifice was by my own self-actualization. By finding exactly what it was that made me happy, I would be good at it, and more importantly, consistent at it. This would set me up for success in the long-run without causing emotional and mental drainage of being my parent’s token of the American Dream.

In psychology there is a theory, called the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need, that suggests there are five levels of needs that must be met in a certain sequence that influence human behavior. These needs are physiological, safety, love/belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization. Our parents’ generation were in such dire straits they were unable to explore their needs of self-esteem and self-actualization. Whereas, the 1st gen now has those core needs met they can focus on self-esteem and self-actualization. This is where I think the greatest rift is between generations: the elders don’t understand why youth stress over purpose when they have the luxury of not stressing over bombs.

When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game. – Toni Morrison

I think our generation would be so much happier, and our families better off if we embraced self-actualization as a repayment for sacrifice and not a form of selfishness or betrayal. If this became a thing, we could encourage the next generation of youth to be comfortable exploring their interests and being/cultivating their true selves. We’ll start to see more artists, musicians, entrepreneurs mentoring the next group of aspiring youth break that cycle and old school way of thinking. Our parent’s measures of success just aren’t transferable to actual success now. A college degree doesn’t guarantee a job, and a job doesn’t guarantee good pay or a house.

As a 1st gen, it’s vital to unlearn what we’ve been told to want and then gather the resources to do what it is we do want. Our parents might not understand now, or ever but that’s okay – they come from a different time.

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