Doctor, Lawyer, Engineer
Sunday Letter | #269
Last Friday I wrapped up a week of visits to bilingual schools in Hong Kong, and I’ve been thinking about the questions I was asked there – particularly from the schools with a larger proportion of local students – that I don’t get asked nearly as often at schools in the States. Questions like: Are you able to make a living being a writer? Or: What did your family think about you becoming an author? Or: Were your parents supportive of you wanting to write? Questions all hinting at the “but …” at the end of, My parents are expecting me to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. But …
I suppose I was lucky. When my dad was a kid, he had a creative, rebellious streak of his own. He was smart but disobedient; a keen primary school teacher recognized this and found ways to encourage him through music. He did get that engineering degree, but he’s always picked up instruments with ease. In recent years, he’s been taking voice lessons; he’ll post videos in our family’s WeChat group of himself singing with his choir on Chinese New Year, him singing in a hotel bar in Shenzhen. Dad understands, I think, my artistic impulse. Maybe my being an author is, for him, a bit of vicarious living, too.
But no, that’s the whole story. Dad survived the Cultural Revolution – not only survived it, came out the other end studying his ass off so he could have a chance at college, and then, a chance at coming to America. Some who successfully migrate internalize the lesson that a reliable, well-respected job is the ticket for a better life; for my Dad, the lesson was more that if you work hard enough and take responsibility for yourself, you can change your life’s direction. These beliefs are my direct inheritance, and when my dad sees me apply myself to something I care about, even if that was something different than what I was doing before, I think he understands, viscerally, how I feel.
At breakfast last week I talked with Howard, a Chinese-Canadian author, who said that it wasn’t until he put his first book in his parents’ hands – wasn’t until they could physically hold it, and their friends could read it – that his parents first accepted his wanting to be a writer. Doctor, lawyer, and engineer were respectable, yes, but their respect came from their being known entities. His parents could point to people they knew who were those things; they themselves were those things. He, their son, was the first author they had ever met.
Another conversation comes to mind, one I had with someone at a taco party last year in Detroit. This person had just told his Indian father something along the lines of, “You know, Dad, I wish I would’ve done something else with my life instead of becoming an engineer. I wish I would’ve just kept playing electric guitar in high school and joined a band.” His dad said, “Why didn’t you do that? We would’ve supported you.” And he said, “I didn’t know I could!”
I explain all this to A. over the phone today. He shares his own story, about how his father threatened to stop talking to him after he dropped his pre-med classes and decided he wanted to make movies instead. A. called his father’s bluff, and his parents realized he was serious. Over the years, they’ve become, if not entirely supportive, less unsupportive. “I showed them that short film I made,” A. says, “And my mom was really excited about it. She gushed about how great it was. And my dad, he watched it and didn’t say anything.” There’s a pause on the line. “That’s a lot better than before.”
I told the students as much: Your parents are the people in your life that you know the best, but they’re also the people you might think you know the best. They’re the people most capable of surprising you.
But I also realize that in some cases, their projections aren’t projections; their expectations are indeed reality. So I offer this, as well: writing is something that you can do in your spare time, even if you have another job. That’s how I started. And you can write for yourself, for your own purposes – not just for other people to read. Through your writing you can work through aspects of your life that are too hot to touch, too bright to face. As you write you’ll get better at writing, and one day, you might find that the world around you has changed. Maybe by then, you’ll have changed, too.
It’s not much hope, but it’s honest. It’s what, if I were in their shoes, I would have wanted to hear.