Permission to Choose
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear
the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself, but not the
enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If
you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in
— Sun Tzu
If you avoid conflict to keep the peace, you start a war inside
— Cheryl Richardson
Throughout my entire life, I have felt torn between two parts of myself. There was the life I hoped to have for myself and the life I believed my parents visualized for me. These were in constant opposition. The hardest part was that my parents’ expectations came with good intentions. Their dreams were rooted in the hope that I would not have to suffer or strive as they did and that my life would be stable and predictable— privileges they lacked when they arrived in the United States. It is difficult to imagine a life where I don’t feel the weight of their hopes and the pain of their losses, especially when they came to the United States chasing better opportunities for my sister and me. Knowing that your parents gave up their dreams in order to give you a better chance at living yours has a strange effect on how you think and feel about your own choices.
It is important to say that the freedom to make choices in our lives as immigrants is related to the privileges, resources, and opportunities available to us. Some children of immigrants witnessed the cost of immigration at too early an age and realized that due to the uprooting of our parents’ lives, their choices were limited. When my parents immigrated to the US, they lost their entire social support network, which meant they were effectively cut off from financial, emotional, and community support. In an environment with few safety nets in place, their sense of control may have been restricted, and with less control comes less choice. Our parents may have felt that the burden of survival prevented them from true freedom of choice in their lives abroad. Even if your family immigrated with more financial resources and social support, the real barriers of racism, discrimination, and limited opportunities may still have restricted their ability to freely choose their careers and paths in life. Instead, their survival instincts prioritized certain values, such as stability over passion, duty over their own career aspirations, self- sacrifice for the common good over their personal fulfillment— different values than we might hold for ourselves as second- or third- generation immigrants. The clash of these different values can put us at odds with our parents and families when we need to make important choices in our lives. As children of immigrants, our ability to make choices is shaped by the survival instincts we may have internalized from our parents. If you must survive alone in a new country with no support or assistance, prioritizing financial stability is the only option, even if it means sacrificing personal fulfillment or passion. If you arrive in this country with nothing, your definitions of success and happiness are fundamentally shaped by your experiences with poverty. The idea of exposing oneself to risk and uncertainty would seem foolish to an immigrant who is trying to make sure there is food on the table and shelter over their family’s heads.
As children of immigrants, we carry these fears and trauma responses sometimes even without realizing their impact. And while many of the cultural and familial values that guide our parents— such as a focus on family well- being, a sense of duty and responsibility toward community, and respecting our elders— may ground us and keep us centered, there may also be values or narratives that are holding us back as we strive to live more authentically and with more freedom of choice.