The fear of failure in an immigrant family

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When I was 16, I asked my father if he liked his career. An incredibly successful engineer and businessman, my father has built a life in America that could make him the poster child for the American Dream. One would assume, then, that my father followed his passions in life and built a life that reflects what he truly enjoys doing. But his answer to my simple question — whether or not he liked his career — was: “Do I like my career? Oh … well, no one’s ever asked me that before.”

25 years in the workforce and not a single time had anyone asked him that question. A classic rags-to-riches story, my father never let my brother or me forget that the ultimate goal in life was to be successful. Happiness, of course, was equally as important, but to him it seemed obvious that success and happiness would go hand-in-hand. It was a result of who we were and what we looked like. His brown skin and strange accent labeled him an outsider — it internalized the thought that the only way to be respected by Americans was to emulate them. This was especially true when he first came to America, since he immigrated to the United States in 2001 — which was really not a good year for South Asian people in America due to the aftermath of 9/11.

So the key words were money and success. To him, these two things were the tickets to happiness in this country. And it’s not like he was particularly wrong. On the surface, it seems that all you need to live a comfortable, happy life in this country are those two things. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that it’s a lot more than that.

Because you see, much of the time, you can’t have money and success unless you’re born into money and success — at least that was my father’s experience with corporate America. There’s not a lot of diversity in the corporate world, and the snide remarks about his accent cut deep. 

Learning that there is a glass ceiling was one of the worst moments of my life. Financially, being a billionaire is nearly impossible. Wealth is often just a fantasy dream. But that’s not something we just realize when we wake up in the morning. We realize it slowly over time, and it sinks into our minds and weighs us down with every realization. Money and class are generational things, and the harder we work, the more we realize how unfairly the world is built. When you’re an immigrant who spends your entire life working to be wealthy, oftentimes you work to the detriment of your health. And when you have children, this unhealthy approach to work can rub off on them.

When you have nothing, every sliver of knowledge is worth millions. You learn to covet every moment and to never squander opportunity, no matter how stressed you are. My dad always said that “opportunity is a gift from heaven — who are we to work against the will of the divine?” If opportunity is thrown in our lap, we don’t pass on it, even if we’re working 120-hour workweeks. Being a first-generation American means learning that even 120-hour workweeks won’t necessarily give you the American Dream that white elites advertise.

The problem with having immigrant parents is that they rarely talk about themselves. Their lives are rooted in working hard and making sure that this work ethic is reflected in their children. My parents show their love through their actions. They never display any vulnerabilities. Crying is a weakness to them. Any uncontrollable emotion is a weakness. This has forced them to bottle up their emotions and refuse to discuss their feelings. But it’s incredibly unhealthy. Not only are they under an immense amount of stress, but they also pass on this outlook on life to their children.

A lot of my friends who have met my dad tell me, “There’s no grind like the Muthukumar grind.” And they’re right. My dad has worked 20-hour days for as long as I can remember. From working nights and weekends as an H1 Visa holder to the full-fledged U.S. Citizen he proudly is today, my dad has never stopped working.

My brother and I have mimicked my father’s work standards, waking up early in the morning to study and going on until late at night. Studying hard often meant putting our own health at risk. The idea was, if we weren’t drop-dead exhausted by studying, were we even studying at all? In high school I would often have nervous breakdowns, fearing that my parents would never be proud of me — that I would become unsuccessful and worthless in their eyes. My parents worked so hard that I felt like even a second of relaxation would result in terrible things happening. This ongoing fear of failure meant living in a constant state of anxiety with no end in sight. And it hasn’t gotten any better in college, where messing up feels like I’m putting my entire career in jeopardy. 

Learning to manage anxiety has always been one of my biggest challenges. Most days, managing stress and anxiety takes up a lot of energy — energy that I don’t always have. But I’m learning to recognize the things that make me happy, and I’ve been slowly incorporating them into my life. Everyone’s approach to success is going to be different, but life is about being in tune with your emotions and recognizing when you need to take a break and simply focus on appreciating life.

No matter how hard I work, the pressure of being successful by my parents’ standards is never going to disappear. But that’s not something I’m worried about. I will have the fortune of being able to say that I love my career. And that’s all that matters.

Aarthi Muthukumar is the head of illustrations and infographics. Contact her at [email protected].