Individualism is a privilege too

Cal in Color

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Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always been shy in social interactions, not wanting to make the first move or reach out to others.

Though I was scared of talking to others, I always loved reading. The library has always felt like a haven to me where I could experience people’s stories and their beautiful worlds without the panic of introducing myself and dealing with basic social skills. As I was transported to different worlds and lived different characters’ lives, I felt like I was connected to the world more than I had ever been.

My love for reading and the humanities in general motivated me to go to the library every week — especially Mondays, obviously, as that’s when they restocked the shelves. My mom would encourage this, taking me right after school to get a new bagful of books while she napped in the corner. I think she was grateful that I was able to become acquainted with and even enjoy the English language while she had struggled with it, since she was forced to learn it in her childhood when she moved here from Taiwan.

Still, as my passion for the humanities began to show up more in schoolwork and in my extracurricular activities, many of my school teachers noticed and began asking me if I wanted to pursue it as a career. While this happened to me a couple times, I would usually be struck with a pang of denial — even fear — as I quickly mentioned that it was just a hobby, and not something that I wanted to pursue.

I was scared, yes. Scared that I could allow myself to pursue a career that was solely just for me.

In many ways, growing up as an Asian American, especially as a second-generation immigrant, has made me believe that my future is not entirely my own. I often feel like everything — my successes, my plans, my goals — directly reflects on my family, and particularly my parents.

Though this mentality corresponds with the pressure to look accomplished and fulfilled on the surface, something that is unfortunately encouraged in both the Asian and American communities, my innate desire to look successful also heavily leans on something that I am very conscious of: my privilege that my parents fought for.

My parents rose from their immigrant student statuses to ultimately both achieving doctorate degrees. Though they’ve never explicitly told me, I know that the accomplishments they pursued were not just for themselves — they worked as hard as they did because they knew that it would tie back to their parents, their siblings and me. So I know that when people ask me what my plans are for the future, my answer, in many ways, ties back to my parents and their fight to pursue any career and life I wanted.

It’s an important privilege, to only be in the same pool of opportunity as many of the students here in America because of sacrifice and familial love. It’s a privilege that I can’t take for granted.

This pressure, and perhaps my Asian-trained preferences, have made me see humanities in a deprecating light; many of my family friends encouraged me to pursue a STEM career — more stable, I often hear, and more pay. While I never disliked the STEM fields, and I even appreciated them, I knew that the path to pursuing a career in the humanities, a big interest of mine, was much more of an individualistic dream.

I think that’s why I’ve never really known how to feel about individualism: I envy those who boast their independent lifestyles, yet I also see it as a luxury, perhaps even a frivolous one. This has also plagued me with the worry that I was being too careless with my own life decisions. I often felt like a career in the humanities was only made possible through my parents’ struggle to gain the privilege I had. I was also haunted with this idea of honor — what would bring my parents honor? How could my career and my goals show that their hard work was not wasted? Their lives seem to tangle with my own, in ways that I can’t separate.

Maybe that’s why I am jealous of those who are so bravely individualistic in their career pursuits. Maybe that’s why I find myself to be so detached from them as well; truthfully, I fancy myself to be different, to be pursuing my career for my family and my honor above my individual dream.

Even in this space of my own life and my own career, I find myself conflicted over my American ideals of individualism and my Asian ideals of familial honor. Still, I’ve slowly allowed myself to believe that my life is my own, and I am able to prioritize which morals I’ve been exposed to.

Though I still feel ashamed sometimes if I prioritize the humanities more in my academic pursuits — especially when I choose my classes and my academic focuses — I remind myself of my mom smiling when I used to read to her in her car, or my dad, who shares my articles every week. To bring them honor, I will try my best at whatever I pursue, and I will remember that my individualistic lifestyle is a privilege.

Bella Chang writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.