What dreams may come—
When I was in middle school, my mom and I got lost trying to get to a Science Olympiad practice at a sister school. We idled in the parking lot, trying not to turn on the A/C in the summer haze. Without warning, my mom bolted upright, rolling down her window, and called out to an Asian man walking through the lot. “Excuse me! Hello?” The man was close enough to hear, but he shook us off and kept walking. Then we were alone again. My mom was indignant. “Why wouldn’t he heed (理) us? He’s Chinese.”
I scoffed, “Just because he’s Asian doesn’t mean he wants to help us.” We found our own way to the practice.
Things like this happened all the time growing up. A few years before that episode, when my parents had just moved to New York City with two toddlers in tow, they were ripped off by Chinese real-estate agents who promised to build them a house, and then disappeared with their down payment. But still my parents time after time choose to trust strangers based on nothing more than what they look like. “There are so few of us. Don’t we all stick up for each other?” They would say. They’re not entirely wrong. My parents helped out many families just after they came to America, driving over on weekends to help them move in, donating our furniture and toys, and showing them around. When they had moved here in 1997, a few young couples who had come from Taiwan did the same for my parents.
I don’t remember much from those days. My mom stayed at home to raise me and my sister for the first few years. I remember her painstakingly teaching us phonics from library books and flash cards. Now I teach her the correct pronunciation of words and wonder, how could she have possibly taught us phonics correctly as children? [Side note: there are videos of me and my sister with thick Chinese accents talking about going to Disney. So maybe we learned accented phonics.]
I used to get annoyed when my mom mispronounced things over and over (“It’s ja-PAN, mom, not JAP-pen!” “Then why is it called JA-panese?” My mom would retort). I was embarrassed whenever my mom talked to other parents at school events. Since we spoke mostly in Mandarin at home, I would only hear her English in public, and it always felt painfully thick when contrasted with her rapid-fire speech at home. I always assumed that other parents would think my mom wasn’t smart. I wondered what my classmates’ parents talked about at home. My classmates came to school knowledgeable about politics. They closely gate-kept the line between funny and offensive, between normal and alien. I felt like they all had access to some rule-book that foreigners didn’t get to read. I wished that my parents could teach me those things. Instead, I had to figure it out on my own, anthropologically studying my friends and hoping they wouldn’t notice my studied mimicry.
Unconsciously full of white-supremacist culture, I grew to resent having to help my parents with the inconveniences of a second language. I grumbled when I had to read their mail, proofread their work, or the worst—call customer service pretending to be them, sounding as American as I could to get better service.
Maybe the resentment came from trauma. I haven’t thought about this in years, but as I was renting my graduation regalia online, complete with silly tam, I suddenly remembered my mom graduating from the same state university on a cloudy May day in the mid-2000’s. I wasn’t very happy that day, because I associated my mom’s master’s degree with torture. While she was in her program, she worked during the day and took classes at night. She spent many hours at the kitchen table painstakingly highlighting her books and looking up translations of difficult words in her electronic Chinese-English dictionary, with its tinny pronunciation of words being the only sounds allowed to punctuate the silence. She read each text three times: once to highlight and annotate the translation of words, and twice more to understand it. I had to read all her assigned texts, too. I remember one, by Schleppegrell, a book on linguistic pedagogy, and another text about the cycle of poverty. Another, a documentary about autistic kids and identifying them in the classroom. I was nine or ten years old when my mom decided that I would write her assignments with her. She would plant me in front of the computer and dictate her essays to me in Chinese, snapping in frustration if I chose a phrase that didn’t match the ideas in her head. I will never understand the pressure she was under: the fog of fatigue, or the fury of seeing clear, beautiful thoughts come out garbled and twice-obfuscated. But to my ten-year-old self, whose world was barely four feet tall, it just felt like my mom was letting out all her anger on me. I often wept silently as we worked in this way, tears and snot seeping into my pajamas. If I made too much sound crying, she would scream at me for giving her a headache. All I could do was keep my head down and write, waiting for absolution.
My dad used to save me. If my dad ever came home from work and saw us at the computer table, the atmosphere of the whole house would grow dark and angry, and I’d run off and hide while they fought. But my dad knew she couldn’t possibly finish her masters curriculum without me. I don’t know what agreement they reached, but eventually our joint writing sessions never seemed to overlap with when my dad was home. He never asked me about them, either. Don’t ask, don’t tell.
She graduated her masters degree with a 4.0.
That alone—a perfect GPA in a masters program in her second language, while working a job, with two young children—should have opened job offers for her, but for the first few months after graduation, my mom couldn’t find a job anywhere. Her American classmates (who were nowhere near as good at math) easily landed high-paying public school positions. No one would refer her. She ended up teaching math at a private school where her salary just pushed us above the poverty line.
At this point I was fiercely proud that my mother could teach in another language, in a country that produced monolinguals so inexorably that it very nearly made me one. Over the years, the ranks of international students of color at my mom’s school swelled while simultaneously almost all the teachers of color at the school left. The school, established before Chinese Americans were granted the right to citizenship, had always felt as vaguely unfriendly to foreigners like us. I was nervous for my mom, constantly correcting her unpalatable Chinese-ness. I nagged about her chewing habits, and how she talked about weight and appearance and race. I tried to make her Chinese flavor more American. Beef-and-broccoli, not chicken feet.
At her school, she sometimes got low evaluations by her superiors despite her students having superior AP scores. Parents of low-scoring students, when their children didn’t get a high enough grade, told her department head that children couldn’t learn well if she had an accent. The sizeable plurality of Chinese international students rose to her defense, but after ten years of teaching there she was quietly let go. Indefatigable, she started her own tutoring business, trusting a Chinese friend who promised her a branch of a successful franchise.
Then the pandemic happened. Without details, the business had to close, and my mom has been strung along for months waiting for that same Chinese friend to return her deposit. Not much has changed since that humid day in an unfamiliar middle school parking lot. The questions are the same. Why would countrymen do that to each other? Are not our struggles for each other?
Now my mother, two pristine masters degrees clawed from America’s unforgiving soil, works every day of the week. She answers phones and tutors on weekends. She has no health insurance.
I went with her one night to get banh mi from a popular new place in town (we never had Asian food around here when I grew up). Every time I went, there was a sizeable line of college students of all ethnicities. [Side note: I love how in the last decade, pickled vegetables and fish sauce “glowed up” from being a source of disgust from white classmates at school to being a trendy, instagrammable meal.]
I ordered first. Nothing out of the ordinary happened. Then my mom ordered. The (Asian American) cashier looked more and more fed up as my mom dallied over the menu and asked him the definition of a summer roll vs a spring roll. He snapped the answers at us pertly. I looked around. No one was behind us in line. When she finally chose her order, he spoke loudly and slowly, like my mom’s accent meant she was dumb. We received our food in steaming baggies. My mom walked back to the car. I stopped outside the door. My hands were shaking. I asked, “Mom, aren’t you mad?”
She shrugged and said, “People are just like that.”
“I have to go back inside,” I said.
I left her in the passenger seat, already starting on the sandwich. The manager, an older Asian woman I had seen before, was at the cash register now. I told her, “You should know your cashier was incredibly disrespectful to my mother. You of all people should know what it means to be treated like garbage for your race or accent. We like to come here. We get food from here often. People like my mom deserve the best service. Her generation is the legacy that your business is built on.”
I don’t even remember her response.
My dad has never bragged about any of his accomplishments, but my mom has always told me his secret strength was English. He was always top of his class and advanced far beyond his peers in English — and it was this ability that landed him a skilled worker visa and the chance to raise a family in America.
He doesn’t speak much about work. Growing up, I didn’t know what he did. What’s a “mid-level manager” to a kid whose understanding of occupations was limited to the different costumes that dolls came in? But I remember in elementary school when the giant dictionary of English idioms appeared. It sat, an imposing black volume, in the bathroom. My dad was trying to learn slang.
A few months before the dictionary appeared, my dad came home and asked me and my sister, “What does greenhorn mean?” I didn’t find out the meaning until years later. “A naïve, inexperienced person. A newcomer to a country, ignorant of local manners and customs.” He had picked up the word when he overheard his coworkers talking about him. He had a suspicion it meant something negative.
In the years to come, my dad would randomly pepper his speech with wildly archaic idioms. I learned so much English from him. I imagine he tried to use it at work, too. He watched his coworkers and subordinates get promoted to higher and higher positions. At the twenty year mark of his service to the company, he got a watch. Then a few years after the recession of 2008, he got relocated to Hong Kong, and after that, laid off in one of the many rounds of dismissals.
He’s a mid level manager again now, this time with a Chinese company. But even in this company, there are disparities. When the pandemic required non essential businesses to run remotely, my dad enjoyed working from home, cooking hot lunches and having no commute. But soon enough, his bosses found a reason for the managers and staff (all Chinese) to return to work at the office. The only ones not required to return? The salespeople — all American.
“You should complain, dad! You can report them! They’re targeting you because they think Chinese people won’t complain!” I urged him. My dad just put his head down and drove to work, N95 on, to sit at his computer. He was required to go to work even when a coworker tested positive. His job didn’t offer affordable health insurance. I prayed for him so much, like prayers could substitute for in network coverage.
My parents are not perfect. My sister and I are still smoothing out our scars. But since the age of 22 or 23, they were forced by their marriage and by children to work, and work hard, at jobs that were just jobs. Jobs that didn’t fulfill an inner passion or satisfy ambition. They worked and saved and endured crisis after crisis. They put me through med school and my sister through nursing school, forgoing their own retirement savings to invest in me and my sister, their biggest nest eggs.
When they were 26, they had two children and had just moved to an unfriendly, unfamiliar country, with no idea whom to trust. I am 26 now, and I, on the verge of moving across the country for residency, staring down the barrel of their financial straits, I begin salaried work for the first time in my life. I will have the best health insurance I’ve ever seen. I will work ethical hours every day in the most fulfilling career I could imagine. I will afford housing that’s walking distance from work. I will easily make friends with my coworkers and neighbors, with American cultural shorthand my inheritance. I will negotiate pay and ask for raises as I was taught by American society to do. I will ask to speak to the manager if I need to. I will get the guacamole with my Chipotle burrito bowl, sometimes, if I feel like it, and pay the extra dollar with ease.
I will worry about my parents, uninsured. I will worry about their financial security. I will worry about their safety — older Asians, accented ones, have been targeted the most for hate crimes. I will worry about whether they’ll make good friends that will stick with them as they age. I will worry about whether they will find all of their sacrifices worth the price.
Everything they did, including the hard lessons, the discipline, the arguments, the rules, unlocked for me a world they could never enter. The American dream was never for them. It was for us.
What do I dream of for my parents’ future? Is it too much for me to think that after a lifetime of working twice as hard for half as much, a lifetime of being scorned by their coworkers and cashiers and even ridiculed by their own children, after being taken advantage of time after time and finding it in themselves to trust again — is it too much for me to think they deserve a retirement in dignity, in safety, living for themselves with no fear of the future?
If that is not the American dream, where does that dream dwell?