Think about it honestly: would you? We ask a doctor and an artist the same question.
Jay Zhu is a physician who grew up in Florida. He was raised in a Chinese American home by two parents who were both chemists. He attended medical school in Los Angeles and is currently completing his surgical residency training in Seattle. He enjoys hiking, swimming, and paying off a quarter million in educational loans.
Sunny Samuel is an artist who was born in India and immigrated with his family to America when he was five years old. He is currently earning his Master of Fine Arts at UC Santa Barbara. He makes drawings, paintings, and sculptures about the interaction between beings and their environments. www.sunnysamuel.com
So… would you support your kid if they wanted to pursue their dreams as an artist?
Doctor. Lawyer. Engineer.
For those who aren’t familiar, this is the holy trifecta. These are the careers toward which many Asian American parents usher their kids. And in the Venn diagram of imagined future happiness, it’s that divine ellipse in the middle where competitive income overlaps with job security. Well, at least that’s what we’re told from an early age.
I think now that I’m here, I’m 30, and I’m still working my way through residency training, maybe my final verdict will be different. But for the most part, I actually love residency. I’m probably one of the few who can say that without choking on sarcasm while also admitting that becoming a doctor is probably more a pilgrimage to purgatory than to any promised land. But it’s still pretty cool. And I’d probably recommend it to my children… with many, many reservations.
I’d say “sweetheart, do you enjoy an honest ass whoopin’ every so often—actually, like really often?” And if she said, “yeah, dad, it kinda makes me feel alive.” Then I’d smile proudly and say “well, like father like daughter.” And I’d give her my blessing to go ahead and pursue medicine.
But what if she wanted to pursue art, or film, or music? Well, honestly, I’d probably ask her the same question. I think some parents expect that reaching the holy trifecta will effectively deliver you from suffering and anxiety. But ask any doctor, lawyer, engineer—or human being, for that matter—and they will tell you: there’s plenty of suffering to go around, and the world isn’t running out anytime soon.
So where does that leave us? Ah yes, art. I feel like I would have to fully support my kids if that were what they wanted to pursue… with many, many caveats. First, they’d have to attend college unless coming out of high school they truly had a mature concept of who they were and what they wanted to accomplish (I sure as hell didn’t at that age, but we all expect more of our children!). Second, they would have to display some reasonable level of talent and achievement. This rules out wanting to become a rock star when you neither play an instrument nor sing outside of the confines of your shower. And lastly, but most importantly, it would have to be something they loved enough to suffer for. You sure, you’re ready to grind it out even if it means getting your ass kicked day after day? Because as it relates to art, I hear starving is not out of the question. But as long as they know that’s on the table (like, literally nothing on their table), then there’s probably not much you can do to stop them.
I think regardless of career or vocation, probably the greatest things you can instill in your children is a passion for something good and the work ethic to pursue it. If it’s art or astrophysics… well, then so be it. Reality television—that’s a hard no.
For the most part, I believe in tiger parenting. I grew up with tiger parents. I survived (though I might forever harbor a kind of seething resentment and bitterness) (seriously though, it wasn’t that bad). Five or ten years down the road, when I become a dad, I can picture myself in that familiar tiger stance. But as the notion of tiger parenting extends to what we expect our kids to do for the rest of their lives – I’ll be a different animal altogether. What prowls and strikes like a tiger, but eventually allows their child to roam free? A wolf. Yeah, I think that’s it. I’ll be a wolf dad.
So much of the angst and drama that comes from being a millennial asian (and perhaps imagining what it’s like to be the parents of a millennial asian) is that we the children (forever children, apparently) may turn out to be epic failures – squandering the opportunities promised by the American dream, spitting in the eye of the immeasurable sacrifices our parents bled for in order to give us a shot at professional prestige and financial security. I am absolutely indebted, in awe, and forever grateful for the sacrifices my parents made in order for me to live the way I do. The fact that I’m sitting in my apartment and writing these thoughts instead of scrubbing the bathrooms of a boarding school hundreds of miles from home (as my mother did while studying in India) is evidence of that. But here’s my answer to our question: it’s up to us, the millennial asian, to loosen the suffocating grip of the “holy trifecta” (lawyer, doctor, engineer) and encourage our children to pursue what they want to do.
What makes the holy trifecta so holy? The belief that if we, or our children, succeed in any one of these fields, we’ll be happy and able to provide for our family (and eventually, our aging tiger parents and grandchildren). This is a fair and reasonable assessment. There are plenty of doctors that are happy and financially secure; but it’s safe to assume there are many who aren’t. If we look at America today (caveat for the impending “Trump’s America”), there are so many more pathways to happiness and stability. Limiting these pathways to the holy trifecta exposes a primary fear we seem to have inherited from our parents: that any path outside of the trifecta is problematic, and if that path is in the arts/athletics, it will most likely result in failure and unredeemable disaster. But if our children pursue their passion and it doesn’t pan out – they won’t be failures! They can’t be. Because it’s up to us to re-think what failure is.
So here’s how I’m going to be a wolf dad. It isn’t that radical. I’ll be the parent that demands an insane work ethic from my child. I’ll push her to give 110% in school, her activities and service in her community. I’ll warn her and prepare her for the pressures of the “real world.” And I’ll be just as brutal about this regimen until the day she completes her undergraduate studies. So by the time she survives all of that, all the tougher, I’ll know that she can go out in the world and tackle whatever she wants to do. If her first mixtape barely musters a hundred plays on soundcloud and she decides to hang up her microphone, she’s not a failure. If she only sells two paintings (one to her aunt and one to her best friend) and I get to hang the rest of them on every wall in my house, she’s not a failure. Because with her education, her work ethic, and (hopefully) some of the wisdom her parents pass down, she’ll be able to take the hard lessons from these roads traveled and go after her next goal all the more determined to succeed. It would only be failure for her to stop, throw her hands up and call it a life. But I can’t imagine this happening, from my children, or any of ours. Because we’ve all fought through tough times only to come back stronger than before.
This is by no means a “cut them off and cut them loose” mentality. I’ll be behind her every step of the way, because fierce loyalty has always been a part of my family. But I’m going to encourage her to forge her own path. I have no doubt, sooner or later, she will find happiness and stability. Hopefully, by then, she won’t harbor any regrets for passing instead of taking a shot at her passion when she had the chance. Yes, we all know the odds are bleak. But who knows: maybe, just maybe, she’ll make it. She’ll be living her dream (whether that be medicine, law, music, arts, etc). And I’ll be howling at the moon.
So what about you? Would you support your child’s dream to become an artist? Please leave your comments below!