Growing up implies growing apart. Now that I have stepped into adulthood, this lesson rings the most true. The newfound freedoms I have away from home carry an underlying tint of blue: the dichotomy of feeling bad for doing great.
I picture my immigrant guilt like an umbilical cord that was never fully cut. It keeps me tied to my parents, no matter how much I grow or how far away I stray. For children of immigrants, guilt may be a particularly familiar feeling. For me, it wasn’t something I became acutely aware of until my high school graduation loomed closer, until my daydreams of branching away from home became tangible reality.
My parents showed their worry for and attachments to my sister and me in the form of high expectations, strictness (though it’s loosening now), and constant comparisons to others. In return, I worried too. I worried that for us to grow up well, my parents had missed out on opportunities to grow themselves too.
My guilt of a life unlived — more specifically, my parents’ lives unlived — is something I will always carry with me. For second-generation immigrants, growing up is a constant balancing act between honoring our parents and honoring our own desires and needs.
Lately, instead of trying to repress that guilt or hoping it’ll go away on its own, I’ve been trying to internalize that it’s okay to always live with this feeling. It’s a matter of reframing perspectives.
An “American Dream Tax”
My parents moved to America at the end of 1999 once my sister was born, after spending several years working in Singapore. I came into the picture in 2002. After my mom and her siblings had moved away, my mom’s parents moved from China in 2012 to live with my aunt’s family in San Jose, California. Every year, we drive eight hours north from Irvine to visit them. The only way my dad can see his parents is by calling or going to China, which feels near impossible nowadays. The first time we visited China, I was too young to remember. The second time was about 10 years ago. Plans to go back a third time as a family fell through when the pandemic hit, although our plans seem to have been falling through for years even before that.
The pervasive idea in my mind is that, in coming to America for their children, my parents ended up severing ties to their homelands and even their own families. It clings stubbornly even when I try to shake it away. As children of immigrants, we go through our lives constantly asking ourselves questions like, “Was it worth leaving for a country that may not love us back? Are we, by extension, worth it?”
So I find solace in fellow third culture kids who grew up like I did. We all come from different backgrounds but share this common guilt. After everything our parents did to raise us, we are constantly “waiting for the other shoe to drop,” waiting for the realization that we have taken them for granted and for the regret that follows.
One place I find recognition particularly bluntly is in Hasan Minhaj’s show, “Homecoming King.” In this special, he talks about the complicated relationship immigrants share with America. Our parents pay what he calls the “American Dream tax,” the idea that to assimilate into American society, we inevitably have to endure a few struggles. If it doesn’t kill us, then we’ve made it. (In asterisks, small-print terms and conditions read: The struggles could be anything! Violence, separation, racism, glass in the bottom of your feet, loss of a place to call home.)
I often wonder what my parents’ American Dream tax was. I’m still not sure how to ask them without making it sound like a “gotcha!” question. “Was coming here worth the price?” is a leading question to a self-serving answer, one that begs for my own validation rather than one that considers their feelings.
Getting Acquainted with Guilt
Dealing with our guilt is an ongoing journey, but it starts with figuring out where it comes from, which is not as simple as a single origin.
Sahaj Kaur Kohli, founder of Brown Girl Therapy, said in a TED interview that guilt can come from generational conflicts or the internalization of beliefs that children must act a certain way for their parents’ sake. “Thriver’s guilt” is another kind, the growing pains that come with getting opportunities our parents did not have.
Kohli also points out that guilt can be healthy or unhealthy. Healthy guilt guides our behaviors, a signal that tells us when we should accept responsibility for our actions. Unhealthy guilt is a lot harder to deal with — the pervasive feeling that comes from people thinking we are someone who we are not, from adopting values and perspectives that don’t align with what we want for ourselves.
My guilt is the unhealthy kind. I internalize the idea that I should be in a permanent state of debt to my parents no matter what they say. I absorb the thought that I can never pay them back. That seems to be the expected narrative for immigrant families, particularly in America, that children and their parents are in a constant hurtful loop of giving and taking. It’s the value that I’ve unintentionally written into myself.
There are a few ways to deal with this kind of guilt.
Kohli says that one way is by questioning ourselves. If we think of our parents and ourselves as Venn diagrams, then we can find the small place where we overlap, while also detangling our values from other influences in our lives.
More importantly, though, is the matter of reframing the narrative. Guilt is a warning sign, Kohli says, and we should listen to what it’s telling us. Labeling guilt as “bad” and “horrible” only strips it of its complexity.
I have been condemning my guilt because it’s a whole complicated mix of “I feel this way, but I shouldn’t, but I still do.” When I condemn my guilt in this endless cycle, I am also condemning myself. But when I listen to it, my guilt is telling me that maybe I am writing this sort of pain into myself out of the expectation that because I am a second-generation immigrant, I should feel bad. Instead, the narrative should be: Stop putting yourself down. Cross the gaps between yourself and your parents instead of avoiding them.
Through My Parents’ Eyes
Asking my family about their immigrant journeys is not a conversation I’ve been brave enough to start until recently. Writing about my identity both in school and stories led to conversations, particularly with my mom. I asked about what her life was like before she became a mother.
I wrote her story into my own story as a final project for a class I took in the spring, about my worries that she would confirm the solidity of my guilt by regretting the decisions she’d made in coming here.
To my surprise, she didn’t feel many regrets. Her pain was bearable to her.
The discovery did not ease my guilt at first. I kept asking myself why I still felt like this, instead of feeling reassured. My relief was bittersweet when I still felt like I was fumbling through the path my parents had created for me, swallowing every mistake I made as another indication that I was doing something wrong to them.
When I showed my mom the first draft of my project, one of the questions she asked me was, “Do you feel like we put pressure on you?”
I squirmed around a response, honesty evading me at the most inconvenient times, but she only went on to say, “I don’t want you to feel like we’re pressuring you. That’s not what we wanted.”
Kohli said that to take care of our guilt, we should treat it and ourselves with compassion. We should understand that our parents did their best with what they knew. In that moment, finally, I felt a part of that weight lessen.
There is no magical solution to not feeling bad or guilty, and it may just be something we always have to navigate. My guilt may have been born out of the unique crossroads I find myself in as a third culture child, but it’s not a curse my family has put upon me.
What my parents want for me is to grow and to live. They don’t want me to feel bad. And I want the same for them.
“We came for you, but we came for ourselves too,” my mom told me. “You weren’t even born yet!”
Photos courtesy of: Katie Liu
Last modified: August 24, 2022