From rebellion to respect

Alhambra Source and real estate developers Sam and Jackie Wong organized a scholarship in May that asked college and high school students from Alhambra to answer questions about their name, heritage, and growing up a child of immigrants in the San Gabriel Valley. The selected essays will be published once a week. The piece below is written by Syracuse University student Yvonne Lee. The 20 year old won second place for her essay about rebelling against her immigrant parents and Asian American culture as a child and growing to appreciating her parents' sacrifice and hard work. Read Lee's essay below and check out the other winning essays we've published so far.

I was born and raised in Alhambra, a suburb east of Los Angeles, until I left for college on the east coast. When I told my college classmates I was from L.A., I imagined that it conjured up images of Hollywood opulence and palm-tree lined beaches. Although my hometown is only 10 miles east of downtown L.A., the aforementioned associations with Southern California do not accurately represent where I came from.

My hometown is known for the abundance of boba tea parlors and Hong Kong-style cafes. The main streets of Alhambra that were once occupied by all-American establishments are now replaced by Chinese restaurants, Asian supermarkets, and Eastern apothecary shops. It was a comfortable place for my parents to settle in when they first immigrated to California from France in the 1980s, and it was a comfortable place for me to grow up.

I attended school with friends I knew since kindergarten. It was easy to relate to friends who came from similar backgrounds. Many of us were first-generation Asian Americans who grappled with the clash between our parents’ conservative immigrant ideals and our own interpretation of assimilation into mainstream American culture. We bonded over our families’ traditional outlooks, which we rendered to be outdated, superstitious nonsense from the old country. I always aspired to be more “American,” more Western, which I thought to be more modern and civilized. I shunned the herbal oils and remedies given to me when I was sick. I insisted on Tylenol. My parents wanted to me to take Chinese as my foreign language in high school. I opted for Spanish instead. 

I committed slight rebellions growing up, sneaking in past my curfew and wearing too tight skirts. I think it must have been particularly alarming to my mother, who grew up in a conservative small town in Indonesia in the 1960s. By the time I was 16 years old, my mom and I rarely saw eye-to-eye about anything, especially my low-rise jeans, the hairstyle I preferred that covered half my face, my tongue that seemed too quick and too eager to talk back to my parents. My parents wished I was more introverted and obedient. I think they were worried that being too social and too fun-loving would shift my focus away from school. They didn’t realize that they had permanently instilled values of hard work and determination in me.

Yvonne Lee (center) with her parents | Photo courtesy of Yvonne Lee

Last year, I watched a TV interview with Yale law professor Amy Chua, who had popularized the notion of a “tiger mom.” Chua was criticized for her aggressive and strict parenting tactics. I remember thinking about how much time Chua spent micromanaging her daughters’ lives and how these kinds of parents must exist to some extent in my community.  But many of my peers and I felt a different type of parental pressure to succeed. 

Largely from working class backgrounds, my friends and I didn’t have parents who had the time to hover over our shoulders and check our homework. Instead, we had parents who came home too exhausted to care. My parents worked hard their entire lives to give my brothers and I the kind of opportunities they were never afforded.

My birth in 1993 signaled the end of my parents’ ill-fated Chinese take-out restaurant in Inglewood. I did not have a lot of memories with my mother growing up. She was always stationed in front of her large Juki sewing machine in the living room. Surrounded by huge mounds of clothes, my mother sat with her fingers positioned, tapping her foot on the pedal. The low hum and following clicks of the sewing machine went on long into the night when everyone else went to bed.

It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned that while my mom was sewing clothes for mere cents per garment, she was simultaneously putting herself through nursing school, raising a family, and fighting cancer in 2001. If my childhood memories with my mother are scarce, those with my father are practically nonexistent. For as long as I can remember, my father worked six days a week. He started work before I came home from school and didn’t come home until the early hours of the morning. It seems sad to say but for most of our lives, he felt like a stranger whose name appeared in the mail and who visited on Sundays. From a very early age, I understood the pressure of achieving the "American Dream"—a hard-earned education that would eventually result in a respected profession with medical insurance and a lavish home. More importantly, I understood that it was my responsibility to ensure that my parents had lifelong financial security along with bragging rights, for their sacrifice.

At 18, the familiarity of Alhambra had become stifling, and I decided to attend Syracuse University in New York. Although my parents didn’t understand it, they supported my decision to study out of state. College exposed me to a lot of new people from different, more privileged backgrounds. They mentioned private boarding school educations, multiple vacation homes in New England, horseback riding lessons, and other things I didn’t comprehend.

The Lee family and their relatives | Yvonne Lee (bottom center) with her family | Photo courtesy of Yvonne Lee

I realized that for so long, I had been trying to emulate this version of “American.” I thought in order to be successful I needed to move away from my modest, first-generation upbringing. It wasn’t until I was in New York that I began to embrace where I come from. I had worked very hard to leave home, but I realized that my parents had made these opportunities possible for me and that it was important to recognize that. I realized that no matter where I went, I would always be a product of my parents’ traditionalism and would forever recognize the Asian foot massage parlors and dim sum restaurants of the San Gabriel Valley as home. 

Essay was edited and condensed.

Read the other winning essays:

"Stages of shame: A young Chinese American's story" by Shannon Ho

1 thought on “From rebellion to respect”

  1. Started from the bottom now we’re here!

    Kudos to the immigrant families who, one way or another (Tiger Mom or not), figured out a way to build a good life for themselves in America. It’s not easy.

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