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Our immigrant parents want us to write poetry (they just might not know it yet)

Adapted from Working Jobs. I'll be sending out advance review copies within the next month, so if you'd like to read the book before it's out, sign up for my weekly newsletter

When I was young, I’d spend every third or fourth summer in Shenyang, China, visiting my family. Upon arrival, my mother, father, and brother would gather with two sets of grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins for a feast. And for the duration of the trip, those same loving faces were always available to travel, eat, and play with us. Several weeks later, our bags packed for our return to the U.S., we’d gather again for a final meal, our faces radiating red with joy, tears, and asian glow (as it turns out many Asians are allergic to alcohol and flush bright red with so much as a drop).

I spent my first few trips in blissful ignorance of my Chinese family’s lives outside of our infrequent visits. As far as I could tell, they lived a happy and celebratory life, filled with food, friends, and family. But as I grew older and more proficient in Mandarin, I started to develop a more complete perspective on my family members.

Most of what I learned isn’t special to my family–just a child’s increasing awareness that other people have good days and bad days, challenges and blessings–but one story blew my mind and sticks with me to this day.

My parents grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution, so my grandparents were working adults in a period of intense persecution and violence. Mao Zedong and his party sought to eradicate any capitalist remnants and reinforce communist ideologies across the country. Those associated with capitalist tendencies suffered public humiliation, arbitrary imprisonment, seizure of property and, in the case of my grandfather (on my father’s side), forcible displacement to rural regions.

My grandfather was sent to a farm hundreds of miles away from his family to learn from the peasants and farmers. For years, he spent his time on the farm and would, when permitted, travel for days to visit my father, aunt, and grandmother. This prolonged injustice not only took away years of his life that he could have spent with family and friends, it also impacted his work. At retirement, he would receive a dramatically smaller retirement check because of the shorter length of his career. His previous employment: rocket scientist.

This story surprised me. Growing up, my brother and I thought that all of our family members were superheroes and impervious to any unfavorable conditions. I have one memory of my grandfather visiting us in America. We were waiting at an intersection in Chicago and he pulled out a stack of hundred dollar bills. I’d never seen so much money in my life, so I asked him if he was the Richest Man in the World. He “confirmed” our suspicions, and my father reminded us that he was, after all, a rocket scientist.

It never would have occurred to me that my grandfather was part of what historians consider China’s “lost generation.”

Our family’s tales described each of its members as infallible and successful by adhering to a consistent set of values. My grandfather was the Richest Man in the World because he was smart and hard working. Sacrifice was a primary characteristic ascribed to his success and was often invoked when my brother and I wished to play video games or hang out with friends instead of read or practice. They were storylines designed to prepare us for the future; a future that they knew was full of sacrifice. Through these stories they tried to set our expectations so that we might enjoy an adulthood happier than their own.

Implicit in the construction of their stories was the assumption that our life’s conditions would resemble their own. In their world, one’s working life did not change meaningfully across its duration, and the nature of one’s work was determined by the nature of and level of one’s education. Given that one’s work was a primary form of pride (remember my grandfather was a proud rocket scientist,something my family and our neighbors and friends in China loudly revered in spite of an their own objectively unfavorable economic outcome), competing viciously for the few spots at a top school consumed the attention of students and their families because you had one chance to gain entry into a life of prestigious work, a life that became a reliable part of your identity.

It was also a world where no matter how much you worked, work was still work. One did not expect to become boss and would never dream to become their own boss (of course that has changed today as China has grown more capitalist). Work was a stepping stone to give your next generation better opportunities. Work was a sacrifice to provide for your family. And work was good, honest-to-God paying your dues for the community.

I’m 25 years old as I write this, and the world in which they  they lived and worked and romanticized in stories is not a  world that exists any longer. I am part of  a generation that is overeducated and underemployed, disenchanted with the idea of a consistent career, with eyes far, far bigger than our stomachs.

The conditions have changed, but their stories still impact us. So, when we’re upset with the path previous generations have enabled for us, we experience guilt. Someone further back in our lineage sacrificed and sacrificed to give us the opportunity we have today. Are we really just going to turn up our noses up and search for some elusive, meaningful job that we can’t even describe?

When I asked my friend Dayo Adesokan, a Biomedical Engineering student turned comedy writer, about this, he said:

We’re both children of immigrants, so on some level, sure not everyone in every country at any given time will be able to pursue their passion, but what my grandparents and parents did gave me the opportunity to do so. It could be that at some point in time, future generations of any given family can pursue what they’re passionate about.
I think maybe the older generation measures happiness differently from our own. My dad’s goals in life were to get educated, to get a good job, to have a wife, and to raise a family. He told me he became an accountant because, at the time, accountants made more money than doctors. Otherwise, he would have become a doctor.
Now, that’s not how I’d have gone about choosing a career, but that’s how he measured his happiness.

How can we rationalize the sacrifice of previous generations with our individual pursuit for meaning here and now? These decisions fly in the face of the values of our forefathers.

My senior year of high school, I took a course called Modern Poetry. At the time, Donald Hall sat as the Poet Laureate, so we read some of his books. I only remembered one line from the entire course and it is this:

grandparents toil in the fields to give parents opportunity to go to school, parents toil in the office to give kids chance to work on what they want, kids go and become poets… LifeWork

Every generation in the past has worked to make it easier for the next. Previous generations have made it possible for me to even think about the concept of finding fulfillment in work. Their sacrifices opened up the space for me to begin exploring these problems, and the very process of thinking about these problems makes me feel this complicated sense of guilt. I perceive my environment as disapproving of my generation’s desire to “become poets,” but it’s this very opportunity to love what we do that previous generations had worked so hard to achieve.


Download the first 25 pages of Working Jobs for free. Click here.