This isn’t about my internship; it’s about my mom and dad.
I’m going to be honest with myself. It’s impossible to truly hash out my experience in the Western Balkans without taking the time to write about a part of my life back in Muskegon. My parents actually have no idea what I’m doing in Sarajevo, and I’ve felt strangely guilty leaving them in the dark. I spent three days back home after my finals before flying across the Atlantic. There are two main reasons that they wouldn’t understand. First, I have no clue how to describe post-conflict research in my elementary-Taishanese. And secondly, they never went to college after high school.
In Ann Arbor, there’s always been a slight disconnect between myself and a majority of Asian American students because of this. I remember sitting in my Orgo structured study group freshman year as we shared our “most prized possession” during an icebreaker. I remember my silent disbelief when I heard one of my friends say that his most prized possession was his father’s Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering. Even though I’m very proud of what my parents do for a living, it was the first of many moments at Michigan where I felt so small. To be honest, before coming to college, I didn’t even know that there was such thing as non-medical “doctors.” It sounds crazy, and yes, it still does. Most people I told my first year would laugh thinking I was joking or was playing dumb, and for a while, I felt really out of place. I just felt really stupid. Was I supposed to just know? Are high schoolers already thinking about Ph.D.’s? When you’ve never met someone with a doctoral degree, who is suppose to explain it to you? My parents never did.
As a first generation college student with limited Chinese vocabulary, I’ve never been able to truly talk about my dreams with my parents. We discuss simple things: how to live a healthier life, shenanigans that my older brother keeps getting into, and whether I’m eating enough in college. When I’m tired of conversations over how to cook juk or men fun, I attempt to struggle through a conversation over my future after school. To have some understanding, I tell them I want to be a teacher (老师). My mom tells me, “Being a teacher is a good career for a soft heart like yours.” I always agree.
I actually want to be a policymaker in the field of international migration and am also considering a career in the foreign service.
My parents are by no means the stereotypical “tiger parents.” They’ve never put any pressure on me to study a particular field, nor have they offered any advice on which fields I should pursue. It’s not because they want me to follow my passions; it’s because they just don’t know what to say. According to my dad, whatever I will be in the United States – even if I was a waitress like my mom, now – would be better than anything back in rural Taishan. When I told them that I would be working in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the summer, they had never heard of the country. “I’m helping my teacher over the summer,” I said to them. They replied that it’s great that my teacher likes me.
Nevertheless, I have so much respect for my parents, and our relationship has always been rooted in trust. I trust that they are working hard in our restaurant to support the family while they trust that I am maximizing the opportunities available to me in the United States. Although I am chasing my dreams while doing so, I want to do well in college to honor my parents. We quietly acknowledge each other’s contributions: just as I smile to a refrigerator full of food, my mom smiles at a letter celebrating my academic performance. This is the immigrant bargain at play. One of the greatest opportunities of being a citizen of the United States is the fact that I can take for granted the ease in which I cross international borders. Beyond merging the worlds of academia and work together, international internships are valuable simply because we can do them.
I’m half-kidding but if anyone can describe post-conflict research and the sociology of irregular migration in Taishanese, please help me.