How Immigrant Job Woes Shape Parental Expectations
September 2009 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
In this article, I speculate on possible motivations for why so many immigrant parents (especially from Asian countries) want their children to attend a prestigious name-brand university, major in engineering or applied sciences, and work in a technical job within a stable large company or government organization. I claim that these motivations stem from these immigrants' unhappiness with their own jobs.
The archetypal Asian parent
Throughout this article, I will use the following as my example of an archetypal Asian parent (I will use masculine pronouns like he and him, but the same characterizations apply equally to women):
Many of my parents' friends fit this description. However, this description excludes many types of Asian parents, namely those who came from poor backgrounds and work as low-paid manual laborers. But I hope it is inclusive enough to describe the parents of many kids growing up in middle-class suburbs throughout America.
What does the archetypal Asian parent want for his kids?
Above all, the archetypal Asian parent wants for his kids not to have to face the struggles that he did throughout his life and career. Thus, he places an utmost priority on safety and stability with regards to life and career planning. This typically means having a strong desire for his kids to:
The rest of this article will explore possible motivations behind each of these three desires.
1. The desire for their child to attend a prestigious name-brand university
I believe that this desire arises from the archetypal Asian parent's strong belief in credentials. More specifically, his lack of reputable credentials in America has prevented him from reaching his full professional potential, so he doesn't want his kids to suffer with the same handicap. Although he is well-educated, he does not have a name-brand American diploma. It doesn't matter what university he attended back in China, since American companies don't know or care about those schools. He probably wasn't able to get admitted into a name-brand graduate school in America, so instead he ended up attending a relatively obscure graduate school.
Our archetypal Asian parent was an engineering major, which is one of the fields in which far better job opportunities are available for graduates of name-brand universities. Since he is smart and capable, if he had grown up in suburban middle-class America, he would've definitely been able to get into schools more prestigious than where he ended up going. He knows that his children have this opportunity that he never had, and he doesn't want them to squander it.
He probably has friends who were esteemed doctors, professors, or lawyers back in their home countries. His friends wanted to move to America to start a better life for their own children, but as soon as they arrived in America, their old credentials from their home countries now meant nothing. For instance, they couldn't legally practice medicine in America, and they had a far more difficult time finding prestigious academic or law positions on par with their previous posts. To make ends meet, they needed to quickly acquire some technical skills by taking I.T. training certification classes and getting low-status technical jobs that nobody from a name-brand university would need to take out of necessity. They found themselves in the company of earnest but lower-class and less-educated Americans who also took such jobs out of economic necessity. Their co-workers probably had no idea that they used to have prestigious jobs back in their homeland. "I used to be a famous doctor in Ukraine, dammit! And now I'm a lowly Dilbert computer programmer getting ordered around by some 25-year-old punk fresh out of business school!"
I believe it is this feeling of lost opportunity that compels Asian parents to obsess over their children attending a name-brand university. They don't want their children to be short-changed or discriminated against because of where they went to school. They don't want their kids to feel like they are stuck in a job where everyone else is dumber or less cultured than they are.
2. The desire for their child to major in engineering or applied sciences
I believe that this desire arises from the archetypal Asian parent's lack of American cultural literacy. He feels that majoring in a technical field such as engineering or applied sciences maximizes the chances of finding a stable job. In my article, Which college major should I choose?, I highlight some trade-offs between technical and non-technical college majors; I concur that for an archetypal Asian parent, a technical major is far better than a non-technical major. Since he is a foreigner, he does not have the cultural or language skills to be able to compete for American jobs arising from non-technical majors such as sales, advertising, marketing, or business jobs. The only hope he has of finding employment in America is through his technical skills. As long as he can write software, work with electronic parts, or do mechanical design, he can find a job in a big company or government organization. It doesn't matter that he can't crack jokes about celebrities or banter about sports games at the water cooler with the managers; he can still hold a job and get a monthly paycheck to support his family.
However, he doesn't understand that his kids grew up in America, speak perfect English, and are in touch with all of the modern American cultural norms and traditions. Thus, his kids will have a far easier time than he did coming out of college with a non-technical major. As liberal arts majors, they might still have more troubles finding jobs than their engineering friends, but at least they have a fighting chance whereas their parents would have no chance with a liberal arts degree.
Of course, there are still subtle forms of institutional racism—even though his kids speak perfect English and are, for all intents and purposes, completely American, they still look Asian. In the cutthroat world of corporate America, there are still those who harbor prejudices against non-white people, so Asian-American youth are still pressing up against a glass ceiling.
3. The desire for their child to work in a technical job within a stable large company or government organization
Again, I believe that this desire arises from the archetypal Asian parent's lack of American cultural literacy. He wants his kids to take a safe (but perhaps boring) job rather than doing something risky like starting their own business.
Job satisfaction isn't a priority; stability trumps all else. He doesn't mind if his kids get a boring technical job, even if they might be bored out of their minds. He doesn't even think that his own job is remotely fulfilling, but he is thankful that he has a solid-paying job in the first place. He feels that "A job is a job is a job", that work is not supposed to be engaging or exhilarating but rather is merely a means to a steady paycheck.
He has no ability to start a business in America, since he doesn't speak or write English well, and he doesn't have the cultural literacy to be able to deal with business partners and clients face-to-face. Thus, he can't imagine that his children would be able to start their own businesses, even though they grew up as Americans and have just as much of a chance for success as their white peers (modulo the subtle institutional prejudices against Asian-looking people, which will hopefully diminish over time).
If your parents are like what I described in this article, hopefully you now have a better understanding of why they act the way they do. For a more general discussion of how unhappiness at work translates into unhappiness at home, read My plea for a more compassionate work environment.
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Last modified: 2012-04-04