My father is a smart man. He is meticulous, attentive, intuitive, dedicated and every other possible synonym under the sun. He does so much for our family, taking pride in learning and achieving laborious tasks on his own. He is our family’s handyman, our electrician, gardener, mechanic, engineer and so on. Although my father struggled to learn English, he worked hard to acquire skills most people spend a lifetime honing. As a child, I remember the hours we’d spend in used book stores where my dad would closely examine pictures in manuals because he was unable to read the instructions. Other times, we’d be driving down the neighborhood and my dad would stop at construction sites in order to observe what the workers were doing; if his confidence would permit, he’d brave through language barriers, asking for help in his broken English. I used to dread these detours from home, mostly because they meant that my afternoon naps were being cut short or lunch was getting cold. However, looking back, I’ve developed an admiration for my father: His creative thinking and efficient problem solving skills are the result of hard work and determination to learn. I often wonder sometimes the heights his potential could have taken him if he had the opportunity to attend college and receive a degree instead of spending years trying to make a living. Most of the time, this looming sadness over such realization morphs into a kind of guilt.
As a child, I remember the hours we’d spend in used book stores where my dad would closely examine pictures in manuals because he was unable to read the instructions. Other times, we’d be driving down the neighborhood and my dad would stop at construction sites in order to observe what the workers were doing; if his confidence would permit, he’d brave through language barriers, asking for help in his broken English.
These guilt-ridden feelings seep and permeate within the fibers of my daily life, intruding on my most content moments: my peaceful walks through campus, my experiences of mere high-school fascination of finally sitting in a university lecture hall, my long, meaningful talks over coffee with new friends, my explorations of the picturesque, ever-touristy destination of a now familiar San Francisco and even the luxury of indulging in convenient dining hall fares — these seemingly trivial but ardently stark realizations of being in college.
Throughout my entire education, my dad never forgot to remind me of his lifelong desire to attend college. Most of the time I took these comments with a grain of salt, knowing that this was just an immigrant-parent tactic to ensure I maintained a hard-working attitude. However, since starting college, my father’s desire for higher education has become more opaque in moments when I realize that I am living his dream. My nose becomes tense, in the manner it does to signal the start of a quiet stream. In these moments, I always feel oddly childish; as a kid, my first resort to any overwhelming emotion was to cry. But these days, some adultlike mentality prevents my eyes from fully flooding. In that same mature capacity, I take a deep breath and continue, pulling myself from this wondering haze.
As much as I don’t like to admit it — knowing my parents wouldn’t want me to overthink these things — I think about the fact that my parents never got to go to college all the time. The guilt of enjoying this privileged education while simultaneously thinking about what my mom and dad sacrificed to get me here. Moments when I feel that I have left them behind to follow dreams I am unsure of definitively accomplishing, the fear of wondering if an English degree is truly the course I want to pursue. But mostly, I feel guilty for my parents’ wasted potential. I understand fully that this loss is not my fault, but moments of being here serve as a reminder of the sacrifice that my parents continually endure to put me in college. I visualize the moments I’ve seen my mom at work in her food service restaurant, constantly on her feet, scrambling to tame an ever-growing out-the-door line; or times I’ve seen my dad, body deep in dirt fixing plumbing pipes or scaling on tall ladders to paint rusted window panes, remodeling used homes for some new resident to comfortably live in. Throughout my life, their sacrifice always made it home, embedded within stained, ripped shirts, calloused hands and sore eyes.
Throughout my life, their sacrifice always made it home, embedded within stained, ripped shirts, calloused hands and sore eyes.
Although my parents undertake their respective occupations with determination and honesty, my guilt is fueled by sad realities.
I will always viscerally know the grasp of the immense pride my parents hold of having their sacrifice come to fruition. Knowing that their years of hard work have amounted to some end: the pinnacle desire of the immigrant parent’s dream of having their children pursue higher education. Although one may define this as an extension of the so-called American Dream, there lies some repressed, some stolen aspirations. The pipe dreams we hold as kids to be some imaginary being — doctors, scientists, teachers, astronauts. Even though these childhood fantasies often remain as such, I was gifted with the very space to imagine, to dream such lofty dreams, without the knowledge, nor the childhood recollection of sacrificial struggles, the ones taking place behind the scenes. My ability to hold these aspirations continues into the college realm where I was given not the choice of whether to go to college, but deciding which one. I was given options to pursue my own dreams — something my parents never had the chance to explore, rather to even consider. But this guilt is unexplainable. It doesn’t account for pride or gratitude but the ever present feeling of stealing something that isn’t mine, of knowing I have in my pocket something I never paid for.
The pipe dreams we hold as kids to be some imaginary being — doctors, scientists, teachers, astronauts. Even though these childhood fantasies often remain as such, I was gifted with the very space to imagine, to dream such lofty dreams, without the knowledge, nor the childhood recollection of sacrificial struggles, the ones taking place behind the scenes.
I create montages in my head sometimes, like the ones in movies that do a good job of illustrating how the character’s life will play out. Mine aren’t as good. I vaguely imagine the shoes my parents could be walking in one day, the paths they could blaze, the genuine dreams they would be pursuing. But the details are often excluded. It’s hard to imagine something that won’t ever exist.
These alternate universes I find myself envisioning remind me that that is all they will ever be. My parents often say that I “wonder” too much. I know that they wouldn’t want me to burden myself with these thoughts, but it’s difficult when this kind of reflective thinking is part of my nature. So as I sit here in my college dorm, I ask myself: Will I ever be able to atone for my guilt? Is it selfish to even feel such a thing, let alone write about it?
I know that you would do it all over again for me, Mẹ and Ba, but I’m sorry. I can’t help wondering.