Do you remember coming home from school when you were younger and on the table would be a letter addressed to your parents but waiting for you to read? No? Can’t relate? It is a common experience that I never knew was common until I was older. Being the child of immigrants, I often felt alone in the experiences I had. The experience of translating letters being one of those lonely experiences. As long as I could remember, I was my parents’ walking translator, even when I could not understand what I was translating myself. I was tasked with reading legal documents and letters from the government or my school at the age of eight, and I was always expected to know what it all meant simply because I spoke English.
Working in higher education, I often feel like a fraud, like I never fully belong. How can I belong in a college setting when my parents barely made it past middle and high school? I lived two very separate lives for a long time. As student affairs professionals, we all joke about how our families never really “get” our job and how people think we are glorified babysitters for college students, how we never wanted to leave college so we found a job that let us stay, etc. However, most families probably understood some parts of the role like being on call, having staff meetings, supervising and mentoring students, etc.
But for some of us, our families literally could not comprehend any of those aspects of our job. It was quite literally a foreign language to them. Because of this disparity, I made intentional efforts to separate two very important parts of my life: my family and my work. I could not see a world where both could live in harmony, so I never spoke about work with my family. When I tried to in the past, it would be like trying to communicate to my parents in a different language, and I never fully felt understood. I avoided bringing up my family when I was at work because I felt that others around me just did not get it and it felt taxing to explain my relationship with my family to others on the outside.
I want to talk about something I only just recently began to learn more about. I had never heard of immigrant guilt but it was something I felt for a long time. One of the most vivid memories of this feeling was when I was interning. One of my jobs was to answer questions about living on campus and how to apply to live on campus all while sitting at my own desk with a comfortable chair and central air. I was also being paid well and given the flexibility of great hours. I felt like a bad daughter. I was at my internship and enjoying my life while my parents were working long hours on their feet with few or no breaks. When issues came up at home while I was away at this internship, I felt even worse since I could not be there physically to take the burden off my family. It felt like I was cheating the system and I wanted to give the cheat codes to my parents but did not know how to communicate it to them.
Immigrant guilt centers around the idea that children of immigrants grow up constantly aware that our parents gave up their hopes and dreams in order to center their new life around providing for their children. Children of immigrants grow up aware of this tremendous sacrifice and are reminded of it constantly. The thing is my parents never once intentionally made me feel guilty about their sacrifices. They never talked about how they hated working long hours and how they missed a large portion of my siblings’ and my childhood. I just always assumed this guilt on my own. For me it showed up through the subtle intricacies of life growing up such as my parents never being around for dinner because they worked until 11PM or me having to translate for my parents even to this day. All of these experiences shaped the guilt I carry with me.
Something that is also fairly uncommon in minoritized communities is asking for help and seeking therapy. I work in residence life. I have been referring students and colleagues to seek help for as long as I can remember. I tell them it is okay to ask for help and how therapy needs to be normalized. However, I don’t often consider it an option for myself.
In Chinese culture, filial piety and losing face are values intrinsically known from birth. It is considered a shame on the family and an embarrassment in the Chinese community to even admit your family is not perfect. I used to argue with my mother over something I thought was trivial and asked her, “Who cares about this?” but she would always go back to the fact that others in our community would care and talk about it. Even people in the community my mom did not speak to often would care and talk about something I considered trivial. She had to make sure our family saved face. So asking for help and confiding in a stranger about all the issues in your family was out of the question.
Kenna Chick (n.d.) in their article “To Be a Child of an Immigrant” said it best when they lamented how difficult it was to disclose mental health struggles to their parents when their parents worked so hard and gave up everything for them to be happy. It feels like a slap in the face to our families. Like telling our parents that all their sacrifices and working long hours to make sure we were happy were all in vain and they were failures simply because we needed therapy.
Therapy is also costly. Money was always a concern in our family and to this day is a sore point of discussion. My parents spent their whole lives growing up worrying about money and putting food on the table and just as their parents did for them. My parents passed these same concerns to me and as much as I can recognize where my worries about money come from, it is easier said than done to stop the endless cycle of worry. So, to explain to our parents who may not believe therapy to be helpful let alone “worth it” to spend money on it is a difficult conversation to have.
There is also something that often is not discussed but there is a language barrier present even between the child and their family. I know this is the case for me. I can communicate with my parents fine, but when we bring in words like mental health, authenticity, or self-care, it’s like I am speaking gibberish to my parents. Kenna Chick (n.d.) discusses this, saying, “mental illness itself is already difficult to put into words. Describing mental illness in a language that one is unfamiliar with—and where terms for mental health are so stigmatized that they are more so used as casual insults than actual medical terms—makes the conversation nearly impossible and largely unproductive.”
Something else I struggle with in my work is taking time off. I have worked on this throughout the start of my professional career but it is still something difficult for me to do. My parents would work over twelve hours a day and would get one day off, never on the weekends. Throughout the years, my mom and dad would coordinate with their separate jobs to make sure they were both off on the same days. When my parents were off the same day, we would spend the day together, mainly running errands and doing the things my parents had to put off all week. And that is why it is near impossible for me to stop working, even when I take time off. It is something people around me point out all the time. How I can never sit still, how I always have to be working or productive. It was ingrained in my life for as long as I can remember. Now when I take time off, I try hard to do nothing. Some days I am successful, other days I fail.
In a NASPA Blog post, Morgan Rae Glazier (year) talks about how important self-care is in the lives of higher education professionals. It is something we have all heard multiple times. One portion of the blog talks about something I have always been jealous of, which is sharing space with others and how that can be a form of self-care. I have always wanted to share my work with my family, to let them know what I do and share in the good and bad parts of my job. But I know for myself personally, I cannot do that. One reason being that my family does not have the time to hear about my job, they are still working long hours.
Even if time was not a factor, for some immigrant children (myself included) sharing space with our families is not cathartic. As much as I love my family, they are also a huge source of stress and trauma. A conversation with my family is not for checking in or asking how our days were. It almost always centers around a task that I need to help with, a role that I have realized a long time ago will never end for me or a lot of other children of immigrants. Talking to my parents is usually transactional. I am like the cashier ringing up items for someone stopping by to grab something on break before they head back to their own job.
A realization I had recently was that my job became my default excuse to my family. Work was the reason that I gave when I did not have the emotional capacity to take on any more work from my parents. I would tell my parents that I could not speak on the phone for long or sometimes even not pick up at all because I had a meeting. Work was a language my parents understood as to why I could not help them at that moment.
Boundary setting is something I am not perfect with. I learned shortly after my first few years of working in residence life how important boundary setting is to being happy. However, it’s something I constantly struggle with. My family never showed love or affection, love was shown through cooking delicious meals and taking care of others. I took on these values quickly as I had to become a sort of surrogate mother to my brothers since my parents worked a lot. Working in a field that offered me the same “opportunity” to take care of others around me felt safe and familiar.
Working in residential life has made a huge impact on my life in some of the best ways possible. It also helped me realize that I used my job as a surrogate family. I made my job and my students a priority at the expense of myself. It only felt “worth it” when I was focusing on others and not myself. It was like I was trying to mimic my parents’ long work hours in order to prove to them that, like them, I can handle their same sacrifices and it was all worth it.
One last thing I wanted to share are some strategies I have employed to take better care of myself while keeping some core values my parents have instilled in me. For myself, I know it’s not realistic to shun all that my parents have taught me. It is all that they have taught me that has made me the person I am today and I want to honor my parents and their sacrifices as best I can while still prioritizing myself and my wellbeing. I used to think those two goals were on opposite ends of the world, now I know better. Now I have the language to help myself understand how important self-care is.
Be firm but gentle. I struggle setting boundaries with most people in my life, my family being the biggest hurdle. I used to drop everything in my life for my family. Sometimes, I still get the urge to run out of a meeting when my dad calls me just so I can immediately pick up. My dad never calls me to just chat and my anxiety fuels me hypothesizing that he’s calling with bad news when in reality he is just calling to ask about a letter he got in the mail or a phone call he received (usually from telemarketers). My parents now know to voice message me if it’s not an emergency in order to ease my anxiety. It may not seem like a lot to some but setting that boundary with my parents helps me manage the amount of times my stress levels spike and still allows me to be there for them—but on my own terms.
My parents did their best. I remind myself of this often when I find myself frustrated with my parents or asking myself why they couldn’t be the parents who asked about my day or were who I could call for help instead of the other way around. Then I am reminded of something I read in a book that helps me reframe not just my parents but many other individuals in my life. It’s best to assume that everyone is doing their best and one person’s best is different from mine. I said this exact same mantra to my two little brothers recently when our family was struggling. I reminded my brothers that our parents did the best they could with the resources they were given and sometimes, that is all we can ask for.
I am in control of my life. I lived my life for a long time for my family. Some days, I find myself falling back into that role. It’s a comforting and familiar role that I know like the back of my hand. It took moving states away, finding a job I loved, and branching out to really realize that my life needs to be mine first. Spending my young adult life living for those around me left me completely clueless on who I was and what I liked and disliked. I made many decisions based on how they benefited others, leaving myself as an afterthought. Now I know who is a priority in my life. Me. I use this mindset to control what I want my relationship with my family to look like.
Find people that understand parts of you. As mentioned earlier, I still struggle to find a way to connect these two different parts of my life—work and family. I thought that everyone in my two lives needed to understand who I was and my struggles to really be there for me and love me. Now I know that it’s unrealistic for someone to understand all of me. We are complex and so uniquely different that it’s more reasonable to find someone who understands a part of you rather than the whole you. If you have someone who understands the whole you, I applaud you. I am thankful to have people in my life I can go to for work issues and others in my life who can understand family concerns.
One experience helped me realize this. I used to talk to my more westernized friends about taking care of my brothers and they would be shocked when they found out that my parents did not pay me. It was equally a shock to me to even consider that my own mother would pay me to watch my own siblings. That exchange made me feel misunderstood and shameful. Something so common in my life such as caring for my siblings was being judged in a negative light by a peer who I now know was coming from a good place but had their own upbringing that framed their perspective. So find your people who can understand the parts of you that you need to be understood.
Where you work absolutely matters. In our field, we say we are in this helping profession because we love our students and we are not in it for the money. I say yes, that is true but I have learned that where I work matters a great deal as to why I am still in our field. I am lucky to work with people around me who may not always understand my family dynamic (and I theirs) but they understand the parts of me I appreciate: the role my family plays in my life, how important boundary setting has become to me, and how my identity as a child of immigrants shapes who I am as a person and colleague. All these factors and many more help me navigate the field more successfully. When something I have said resonates with another person, I say to them, find a work environment that makes you feel this way—heard, understood, supported. Work is not all we are, but to some of us, work is an important and meaningful part of our lives. We need to invest in that part of our lives and ensure that this part meshes well with other parts of our lives.
It’s odd but writing this reflection has helped me come to terms with this identity I never called out. I always knew I was a child of immigrants. However, I never considered how I would carry this identity with me my entire life. As I continue to grow, I accept that this part of me is crucial to my identity development. From the little lessons I learned from my parents to the larger lessons that impact how I open up to those in my life, it’s all a part of me—now and always. I came to terms with this recently and it has helped me heal more quickly and thus made me happier and more willing to work on a relationship with my parents based on more than being their designated translator. One thing is for certain, this will be lifelong work, it is not one and done. But hey, as we recognize that our students grow throughout their life, so do we as student affairs professionals.
- How can our field better support our peers who are children of immigrants?
- How do you manage setting boundaries with managing relationships with family and their expectations?
Chick, Kenna. (n.d.) To be the child of an immigrant. Mental Health America. https://mhanational.org/blog/be-child-immigrant
Glazier, M. R. (2018, April 14). Why self-care is important. Blog. https://www.naspa.org/blog/why-self-care-is-important
Rathbone, N. (2018, February 20). Why do student affairs educators struggle to set professional boundaries? Medium. https://medium.com/@velocirathbone/why-do-student-affairs-educators-struggle-to-set-professional-boundaries-abb1e6e71d0c
Yip, A. (2020, May 3). To be the child of an immigrant: How I finally learned to let go of guilt and embrace my true self. Linked In. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/child-immigrant-how-i-finally-learned-let-go-guilt-embrace-amy-yip
Xianwen “Wen” Xi is currently a residence director at Pace University in Pleasantville, NY. She has been with Pace since 2018. Prior to Pace, she was working as a graduate assistant in various departments while studying for her master’s degree in Counselor Education at Clemson University. Wen was originally born in China and moved to the United States when she was a little girl where she lived in Georgia and attended the University of Georgia where she graduated with bachelor’s degrees in psychology and sociology. Wen is interested in working with first year students, first generation college students, international students, and students of color in order to effectively support their various pathways to higher education.