“Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything, it is because we are dangerously close to wanting nothing.”
― Sylvia Plath
Day 3 of my project 14 is about what I want for myself, and until a month ago, how true that quotation was to me.
In my previous post, I wrote a lot about how I knew my childhood was over a month ago, and how my priorities in life shifted around then. However, if you’d asked me a week ago about what I considered my goals and ambitions in life, they would’ve followed my old priorities pretty closely. It wasn’t until I had a loud shouting match with my mom about a week ago, that they snapped into focus as well.
To understand what drove my goals and what I still do in part think, you have to understand what I consider the difference between what we call “Western” and “Eastern” civilization. Now, as a disclaimer, this is not true for every family or every individual in the “Eastern” or “Western” cultures, and I will probably make some generalizations that will annoy some people; however, I am not claiming that any one way or system is better than the other.
Western culture, what we associate with places like Canada, the US and Europe, emphasis the individual: Individual freedoms, individual rights, individual responsibilities, and individual success. The so-called American dream is all about working hard and to the best of your abilities to become wealthy, successful, and upwardly mobile. This seems like a “no-duh” statement to anyone who also grew up in the west, and it’s what we all strive for,
When I was in high school, however, I asked my mom what she’d consider the Chinese dream. She looked absolutely flabbergasted at me, so I explained the idea of the American Dream in the Great Gatsby. Very impatiently, She responded as if I was asking a question that I already should’ve known the answer to: the Chinese dream, to her, was seeing my little sister and I happy with families and steady jobs, having enough money to support her own parents in China, and (since I was nearly eighteen at the time) she mumbled something about grandchildren. And I guess it’s true, I should have known. In most Chinese families, there’s an understanding that a child owes her family the ultimate obedience for them bringing the child into this life, and nurturing her until she was old enough to be independent. In return, parents are expected put their children’s well-being far above their own.
There’s another big difference in “Eastern” and “Western” cultures. While most “Western” parents say words like “I’m proud of you” and “I love you” all the time, most “Eastern” parents do not. It’s not because the Eastern parents love their children less or any less proud of them, they just take it as a matter of course that the child already knows, just like they know that the child loves them even though the child often forgets to say it or show it.
Growing up in both cultures means I grew up with both sets of expectations: become wealthy and successful, reach for the top, become the best, or otherwise I couldn’t support my family. It somehow conflated in my mind to I need to be the best, I need to be perfect, I need to be happy, it’s what my family expectS of me. It’s a pretty laudable sentiment, but it’s a really, really stressful one.
As far back as I remember, my big life goals have been job and education oriented. My family is big on education, as it’s been our ticket out of poverty for as far back as I can remember, so I’ve never considered anything but a top tier university. By nothing short of a miracle, I’ve also never considered a career that hasn’t required a university education, but that might also have something to do with my upbringing (I like to joke that in my family, there are two directions to go in: finance with my dad’s family, or science with my mom’s family. My parents are the black sheep, as they’re both in Computer Science.). When I was younger, I’ve wanted to be a pediatrician, a politician (briefly), a journalist, and a corporate lawyer. What I really wanted was to be able to wield power in the world, to really make a difference in this world, somehow, so my goals followed that. My top goals and ambitions in life were to rise to the top. Get the top grades, get the top extra-curriculars, meet people who were worth spending time with and learning from and who would rise to the top, get scholarships, make the right connections, all so you can make your family proud.
As a person, I’m ambitious, and I refuse to apologize for that. But anyone who’s lived as a perfectionist or with big, big, heavy dreams that don’t quite fit you as a person knows that you build coping mechanisms. My coping mechanism was to make other little things goals so they’d also be important to me, and it made me felt like I was doing something towards my goals, except in reality, I was just procrastinating on my big goals.
In short, I had a goal for everything in life. I had a goal to become successful and wealthy, I had a goal to get top marks, I had a goal to aggressively network, and I had a goal to become more involved in my program and mentorship programs and blahblahblah. I had a goal to be an artist and a goal to sort out my closet, and another goal to read my mile long list of books to read. I had a goal to hang out with my friends more, I had a goal to make some new ones, I had a goal to find a boyfriend and be attractive (god alone knows why), and I had a goal to become “popular”. I had a goal to try a million new things while simultaneously doing the million old things that I was already committed to. And for some reason, I thought they were tied to my future success, so if I failed any of these, I would never succeed in life and I would be a failure.
You can already see how impossible that was, but I didn’t until I imploded from the pressure. My grades sucked, and I wasn’t doing a very good job of taking care of myself or really doing anything, productive or not. My parents were wonderful through it, but they didn’t quite understand it, until I sat down with my mom and my first 70 and she asked me what the hell happened to me, because I’d never gotten less than a 80 in my entire school career.
I yelled at her, that I was under too much pressure, that I was too tired, that I had too many expectations piled on my head, that I’d made mistakes, that they’d never told me I was good enough or that they were proud of me. She sat there open mouthed, and then responded much in kind, and what she said totally changed my worldview.
She told me that my parents had always been proud of me. That she thought the fact I’d gotten into my double math and business degree program with a 93 average was excellent. That she’d been proud of all the crazy extra-curriculars and AP classes that I’d done. That all she and my dad had ever wanted for me was to be financially stable, and have a decent job for the future. That if at any point in my 20 years, I had said “This is the best I can do” or “I don’t want to do any more”, they would’ve supported me. That all they’d ever wanted from me was for me to be normal and healthy, that they’d only supported me in my dreams of wild success because they thought it was what I wanted. That they didn’t want me to have regrets.
Now, I only ever remember my dad being disappointed that I didn’t go to Harvard or some other American Ivy league. That my mom had tsked and told me that if my average was two marks higher, I would’ve qualified for an additional scholarship. That they’d both complained that I should’ve dropped my AP classes to get a higher mark, even though classes had been more fun for me, and that they’d both reminded me that they’d never gotten less than 100 in any math. But then I also remembered that my parents hadn’t said anything when I came back with my first less than stellar mark in any math in first year, or that they’d told me that it was perfectly fine if I went to the local university and became a teacher instead, because I didn’t have the right temperament for business. I used to take that as a reminder that I was failing them somehow, but really, it was as much an expression of concern as I would have listened to.
It was like this massive weight fell off my chest. I could be normal. I didn’t have to excel at everything I did. It was okay to fail every once and a while, so long as it didn’t stop me from doing what was important. And my family would always be there for me, pass or fail, success or mediocrity, stress or not stress. I realized I was so afraid of disappointing them and just being mediocre that it’d paralysed me, because I felt they’d always expected me to be extraordinary, even when the stress of it was too much.
This hasn’t changed a whole lot. I still want to be a power broker when I find a job, but I’m not so worried as to what will happen if I fall flat on my face or if I don’t “make it”, because I know I’ll find somewhere else to make it to. I’m ambitious – that’s part of my personality and that won’t change, but I have fewer goals. Now, my goals are to get a co-op job that really interests and challenges me, to get an A or more in my five classes next term, and to hit the gym at least four times a week, and I can focus all my considerable energy and ambition on these things. Everything else, including exploring kinetic typography, working on a story about zombie geese, finishing those Discworld novels and writing this blog, is a want that I refuse to feel guilty about putting aside. Maybe I’ll even actually get something done, with those goals, instead of starting a million things and never finishing anything.
Project 14 is how I’m going to start my journey of self discovery, to memorialize who I am when I start chronicling my life. Each day, I’ll approach who I am through a different paradigm people use to define themselves. Read more about it at my About page.