When rare genius comes from humble roots, it feels like this is the will of something bigger than us, like a miracle or a burst of generosity from the heavens. When athletes, movie stars, and political leaders rise from humble beginnings, we take inspiration from their hardship, strength of character, and their ability to reinvent themselves.
Every day in this country, ordinary people move beyond their humble beginnings, in terms of education, career accomplishment, socioeconomic movement, or simply conversation or awareness. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with staying with one’s origins, and celebrating that continuity. I’m talking about people who grew up small and ended up living large – not necessarily in terms of material resources, but rather mental, creative, and imaginative resources.
Growing up small and living large is a change in one’s worldview. Everyone goes through this shift in some degree, as children separate from their parents. For immigrants, this transformation of worldview can be dramatic in the first and second generations, when the confines of available choices open up with education, network, and resources.
My family, first-generation immigrants from Taiwan, moved to the States when I was seven. My father, a self-made businessman and a hypochondriac, lived in fear of danger and disease, despite being perfectly healthy into his eighties. My mother lived to fulfill her duty, and compensated for my father’s neuroses by acquiring new survival skills simply because she had to. They were in their forties when they came to this country, motivated by educational opportunities for their five kids. As I moved through my forties, I came to appreciate the boldness of that move, especially given that neither of them spoke enough English to become part of American life.
Life, to them, was about struggle and subsistence. Life, for me, is about enjoyment and contribution. Their mental framework was to sacrifice for the next generation. My mental framework is to actualize my potential to charter new paths for the next generation. Perhaps my children’s mental framework will be to make breakthroughs that I could not imagine for myself.
My parents’ immigrant status caused them to fade into the background. Before his move to the States, my father was a well-known business leader in Taiwan, tapped to coach and fund new entrepreneurs and to lead civic causes. But unequipped to have the business and social connections he enjoyed in his own country, he lived the last third of his life in obscurity.
I grew up expecting and liking obscurity. Given my different appearance in an all-white community, my rice bowl lunches that seemed exotic next to the sandwiches my peers would bring, my awkward grasp of American norms, I found security in staying hidden.
As a child, I led a double-life – on the outside, a rule-following Chinese girl who spoke English with no accent, who fit in with the most popular cliques in high school; and within the family, a rebellious American girl who wanted to run away from both home and Chinese culture. I couldn’t wait to get out of the family I was born into, the small homogeneously white town I was raised in, and to finish with being a child. After all, I had been performing all the duties of an adult for my non-English-speaking mother since age eleven – making appointments, writing business letters, advocating for her when she was mistreated.
My story is no different from thousands of other immigrant stories. My own journey of growing up small and living large ends with the satisfaction of taking my place in the mainstream, civically, professionally, and socially. Looking back, I can recognize the culture and values of my Asian-American upbringing that shaped me into who I am today. It is the story of a strong work ethic and an optimistic outlook that you can overcome (sometimes seemingly insurmountable) challenges. It is the story of giving voice to the person still cautiously stepping out of obscurity, to set into motion a generational shift that puts every subsequent generation more and more at the center of our society.
I hope that my children’s stories of growing up small and living large take them to far more expansive places and more adventurous dreams. This is the universal aspiration of all families, and the spirit that connects all of us.
On this Independence Day, I celebrate the most humble of immigrant stories. I salute all those who grew up small and are now living large. That is the essence of the American Dream, and that is worth celebrating.
Have a read of this article in this week's Time Magazine - 240 Reasons to Celebrate America: The Immigrant's Fate is Everyone's