I will always bear some kind of guilt.
I am a non-practicing Catholic by infant baptism, and I have guilt. I am the second child of young Vietnamese immigrant parents who entered parenthood far too prematurely, and I have guilt. I am a college student who is carving out spaces for herself in an education system that was not built for her success, and I have guilt. I am a young woman who aspires to earn a doctoral degree in sociology, essentially studying and learning and growing and producing knowledge in the most privileged position, and I have guilt. I am a child who comes from modest resources, and I have guilt. I am a daughter and a sister who will inevitably choose graduate school far away from home in order to further her career and self-fulfilling interests, and I have guilt. I am a first generation Asian American who struggles with balancing her individual self and her family.
I once read somewhere in a psychology textbook that a distinction in “Western” and “Eastern” cultures is this:
Individualists (Westerners) bring honor to their families by first honoring themselves.
Collectivists (Easterners) bring honor to themselves by first honoring their families.
And I feel this. I feel both of these things. Prior to my arrival in college, I did not have the language to articulate these experiences. For the majority of my life thus far, I felt vaguely off-kilter and alone. There exists within me a bifurcation that has gone unnamed.
A few months ago, I had dinner with a friend from high school who is four years my senior. We never spoke about our first generation Vietnamese American guilt. I think that most of us do not name this fear that we have, the fear of disappointing and hurting our parents, the very people who have and continue to make sacrifices for us. The very ones who guide their parenting decisions according to what they believe is best for us, even if we see that those things may not necessarily be the best for us. They protect us. They want to shield us from the world. They want to minimize our responsibilities even if that means that they must carry the splintered load. They do not know otherwise. How can they? This is their reality. And to shatter their reality would be to shatter their hearts.
But at twenty-one years of age, I am at a cusp of creating my own world. And I have to let myself. I have to let myself in order for them to let go of me. Not completely, but just enough. I will come back.
All of this cuts me deeply, actualizing a core tenet of Vietnamese proverbs that essentially say this: for child to hurt is for parent to hurt. And as the child, I emotionally, physically, and nearly completely feel my parents’ hurt… to the extent that only a child can. It is my turn, and I feel it.* But I will not name it before them, because I understand the role that I must continue to perform. The role that I actively choose to perform as daughter.
*Does this mutuality signal my own coming-of-age?
by ELAINE LE