The Litany of Education
by Raymond Chou
"You are going to college!" These words echo repeatedly in my earliest childhood memories. My instant rebellious reply was "No, no - I won’t go! I won’t!" (Mommy, what’s college?)
I soon discovered the meaning of college, along with important words like education and Ph.D. Growing up as a Chinese-American, I was continually told that education was the key to success. Of course my parents were aware of the few rare cases (success stories) such as Einstein but they did not consider their children to be such "rare" cases.
My parents had both come to this country on scholarships. Neither had been very rich, but they were able to obtain advanced degrees in science fields from very prestigious schools. My father went on to become a full professor in Physics. Through hard work and years of study, my parents achieved an above average standard of living and became homeowners, proud parents of two, and a shining example of why America is known as the "Land of Opportunity."
They were by no means the only education success stories in the family. Each of father’s six siblings also came to America on a scholarship and today each family has at least one Ph.D. to its name. My family has gone on to have the proud distinction of having two Ph.D.’s – my father and my sister, who graduated from Harvard, works with Nobel Prize winners and is a genius in her highly specialized field in Mathematics. The other cousins of the family aren’t doing badly either – one is an orchestra director, another one a doctor and the rest attend Ivy League schools and maintain high GPAs.
So what happened to me? Well, I did finally go to college but unlike everyone else, I did not like science, math or music, and could not decide what my interests were. I wandered through four colleges and three majors and generally drove my parents crazy. I did not attend any Ivy League schools, thus my mother was always nagging me to study more, though I was making mostly all As.She felt that this was a result of the low quality of the college I was attending – not due to my own intelligence or efforts.
One incident stands out significantly, even today, over twelve years later. My mother was once again lamenting my lack of "studiousness" and saying “Why can’t you study more? How do you ever expect to get anywhere?!” My reply was that I studied more than everyone else I knew and besides, no one I know enjoys "studying." She immediately replied that that is because they are Americans! I immediately replied, "I’m American too!" (After all I was born and raised in America.) Immediately my mother started yelling to my father - "Did you hear him – he said he’s an American, how could he – did you hear – did you hear?!" Needless to say, I never pointed out that fact again!
Upon finally graduating from college with my third non-science major – International Finance (to my parent’s command, "This is your last change in major!"), I managed to graduate with honors, a high GPA, and a few awards of distinction. My parents were temporarily appeased by this though they still felt that I did not study enough and only did so well due to the low quality of the college I attended.
Of course before graduation, my parents already had me take the GMAT in preparation for entrance into a Master’s degree program. When I graduated and informed them that I did not wish to get a Master’s degree at this time, they sadly shook their heads and my mother said, "Well it seems you will never make much of your life since you are so against education, but you seem to have a knack for making money so I guess you will survive!" Of course, they kept hoping that after a two year break I would go back to school. Even after I moved to California they would "remind" me at every opportunity that I should now apply for school and there was still hope if I would just do it soon. I almost buckled to the pressure once, but since then I have found that I’m perfectly happy without any more degrees. A few professional classes is fine, but I feel no need to spend more years striving for a few more letters behind my name.
Today I find that most of the things I needed for my career were not taught in school. I learned the most through real life experiences. That is not to say that I don’t think I can gain from returning to school nor am I against the concept. I have many friends who are working on Ph.D., enjoying the research, learning opportunities, and even the "studying."
I have an Asian-American friend whose parents were so focused on the Ph.D. that they almost disowned their son when he decided to enter an MBA program after already obtaining a Masters in Engineering. The father felt that anything that was not a Ph.D. in a science field was a total waste of time.
Fortunately for me my parents did know when to accept reality. After a few firm discussions on the direction I wanted to take my life and a "please stop ‘reminding’ me about school," they dropped the subject and now try very hard to support all of my decisions whether they be career-oriented or personal.
I am grateful to my parents for their support throughout the years. Though I was a thoroughly confused child, they never disowned me. Though the pressure to study and go to school was at times a heavy burden, my parents did leave the choice to me and live with my choice. Some day I may return to school but my parents have accepted the fact that this will be my decision and not theirs. I feel if I followed their direction in my life I would not have learned as much as I have about myself, and probably would not have done very well in school. A goal set by others and not by yourself is never as meaningful as your own. In this Land of Opportunity, I think opportunity is many different things to different people and everyone needs to find their own direction.
The guidance of parents is very important but they must trust that they have instilled the right values in their children and then trust in their children’s decision-making skills. Children will make mistakes but they have to learn some things on their own and parents cannot protect their children forever by making all their decisions for them.
As an Asian-American son I only ask for acceptance, understanding and support from my parents. I may never achieve their ideas of success, win that Nobel Prize my father has always wanted for one of us, or make this a three Ph.D. family, but I am satisfied with the direction my life is going. With the continued love and support of my parents, I am confident that I will live a productive and well-satisfying life, which is after all the ultimate goal my parents always wanted for me in the first place.
This is part of our continuing series, Bridging the Cultural Gap: The Overseas-Asian Experience. If you have an Overseas-Asian experience you would like to share, please feel free to send it in! firstname.lastname@example.org
Bridge illustration by Duke Windsor.
Part one in our continuing series: What is "Field Trip" in Chinese? (February 1998)
Part two: The Cultural Hyphen (March 1998)
Part three: Escape from VietNam (April 1998)
Part four: The Challenge of Intercultural Parenting (May 1998)