Chen: Children shouldn’t always learn from parents’ mistakes

Brandon Chen, Op-Ed Contributor

This essay is part of The Spectrum, a weekly forum in our Opinion section for marginalized voices to share their perspectives. To submit a piece for The Spectrum or discuss story ideas, please email [email protected].

The professor for my public speaking class had just told us to improvise a story with two conditions: it had to be decently humorous and autobiographical. I should’ve been overjoyed; I had written fiction in high school and before. Instead, I panicked – my mind was blank. What stories I did recall were either neutral or pessimistic or those of friends. How had I gotten to this point?

Heading into Northwestern, I saw a brave new world. I’d most likely stumble a bit at first, but would thrive at the end of the day just as in high school.

Three years later, I’m unable to recall what that confidence felt like. In quick succession I joined and lost several groups of friends, feeling worse with each disruption. Though I enjoy my field of study here, at times it feels forced, and most times I feel incompetent. Uncomfortable trends have arisen, including frequent nightmares of abandonment. Still, college has helped me in one manner: I’m a four-hour flight from home, and it’s allowed me to reflect on how I got to this point.

Only after leaving home did I understand just how much my upbringing defined me and how little my conscious choices have been my own. Our parents have an outsized influence on our lives. They influence the religion we practice, the political ideology we hold and, of course, our ethnicity and financial situation. And, sometimes, their past shadows us.

Since I can remember, my mother has told the story of her brothers. However “egalitarian” Mao Zedong’s China was, my mother’s parents placed preferential treatment on her two brothers, as was tradition. The household chores, academic expectations and smallest food portions would go to her and her sister. Much later, one brother was dead of stomach cancer at a young age, and the other has a destructive gambling addiction and a broken family of his own. My mother links her brothers’ fates to their pampered upbringing.

So she projected her past onto me. She blocked my attempts to go outside or play games with friends. Moderate purchases — clothes not on sale or fiction books — became leverage for good grades and better behavior. When I became a rebellious teenager, she took every opportunity to remind me of my broken commitments: I was an ungrateful son, I must not have any friends with that attitude, my grades would get me nowhere, I should model myself after a family friend’s child, I did not deserve to live under her roof. Tutoring school and test preparation became the only activities free of criticism and “productive toward my success.” I became what my mother’s brothers should have been.

In turn, I grew up with an overwhelming sense of shame and an inability to develop interests. When I transferred schools in sixth grade, I failed to fit in. I tried but couldn’t relate to peers. In subsequent years, friends and classmates avoided being in my project groups, and my academics became tied to my troubles with relationships. My mother’s influence spared nothing. Isolated and criticized, I turned inward and internalized guilt.

My fear of isolation controls my life. The closer I get to friends, the more I fear losing them. When my first friends at NU began disregarding messages and plans, I bottled up my stress until I ended up bedridden for a week. I silence my thoughts, scared they can be used against me and I stomach blame, even if excessive, to preserve my relationships. When someone I trusted discussed with a recent group of friends how I did not deserve a relationship based on my faults, I believed it. I have to exaggerate what common interests I do have, like my field of study. And with each lost friend, I have no choice but to counteract a growing distrust of people with a growing fear of isolation, starting the cycle anew.

I watch my friends bear the pasts of their parents. One suffers from occasional breakdowns, as his parents keep wondering what they did wrong concerning his sexual orientation. Another marches toward ambition and orderly working life to patch memories of a parent’s divorce that unraveled family life. Yet another is driven by the hope of financial independence, seeking to cut off his father. Their childhoods persist with them.

I also hear of those who admire their parents. One dreams of deeper immersion in her culture and serving at her synagogue, as her mother does. Another teaches to “serve others” just as his parents, both doctors, did. Their childhoods, too, persist with them.

I don’t know if I can, or should, ever break out of the shadow of my mother. Even if I do, her past so deeply defines me that I wonder what would be left. I’m unsure if I should despise or sympathize with her or how to explain my discomfort of going home during breaks to well-meaning colleagues.

For all that’s happened, relationships have also kept me going. At the beginning of this quarter, I saw many familiar faces in class, at work and at the activities fair. And, they surprised me: hugs, reminiscences about old times, exasperation that three years had gone by, encyclopedic fill-ins about the summer and smiles. They were glad to see me, and I them. At that moment I felt like a human being, like I belonged at NU. They reminded me that I can still cherish the relationships I have, that negotiating the shadows of parents does not have to be a solitary journey.

Brandon Chen is a McCormick senior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.