Strung Along: How We Separated Our Dreams from Our Families’

At the end of my first day of kindergarten, my mother had to drag me out as I kicked and screamed. I soon calmed down and agreed to leave when she told me I could return the next day.

My first great love might not have been what I expected, but it was one that lasted. I’ve been in a relationship with education since I was five; I’m now 20, and our relationship has yet to fizzle. Even the pursuit of collegiate education can’t dim our flame in the slightest.

I’ve always wanted to go to college, thanks to movies like The House Bunny and Pitch Perfect. There, I imagined, I could construct my own identity. College would be my ticket to self-expression, something I felt like I couldn’t really explore from the confinement of my childhood home. There, I was limited to my childhood bedroom—walls dotted in Christmas lights, plentiful pop-punk posters, names written in Sharpie on the side of my closet. In a lot of ways, my room was my safe haven, free of any public judgment. But I knew I had to step out of it.

The first step happened over dinner during my junior year of high school, I casually announced to my family my desire to study journalism and new media. I even offered a list of schools in Europe and on the East Coast. This news happened to coincide with my older cousins receiving their acceptances to top universities in Taiwan for law and medical programs. Needless to say, I was scoffed at by most of my extended family. I was being unrealistic and ungrateful, doing the unthinkable. Wanting to become a journalist already screamed unemployment to them, but studying new media? What did that even mean? I was aiming for something unprecedented, launching myself into uncertainty. 

I constantly felt pressured to succeed academically and see others as competitors. To my loved ones, only good grades and a good job would bring honor to the family. Thanks to this, I felt like I was working toward someone else’s goals—not my own. I was very headstrong in high school (and still am) and ultimately stuck with my own goals, but I still found myself often feeling guilty for following my passion. Before I left for college, I had countless conversations with my parents about all the complicated feelings I was experiencing. Fortunately, they gave me their full and unconditional support; I was told if I stayed grounded and worked hard, it would all be worth it in the end. 

Neither of my parents went to college, so I had very little guidance on where to apply. Although they weren’t particularly fond of my chosen path, they were glad I’d found something I was passionate about; they made a point to tell me I should take advantage of the opportunities and privileges I’d been given. To the rest of my family, though, my choice was a waste of resources and something that could have just been a hobby. I had endless debates on my major and whether I should even go to college. Despite these hour-long conversations, I ultimately decided it was my dream—not anyone else’s. Even though my extended family might have had my best interest in mind, it was still my future. I was determined to become a writer, and nothing anyone could say would change that. I ended up committing to the University of Amsterdam to study Media and Information, and I also chose to keep up with my journalistic practices with Lithium.

I grew up feeling like a puppet being strung along to live out someone else’s expectations. Growing up as the youngest out of 11 grandkids, I’ve always had big shoes to fill. We weren't encouraged to chase after big, empty dreams, but concrete, realistic goals. While other kids aimed to become astronauts and rock stars, I simply wanted a 9-5. I wanted what my father had, showing up every day to do my part, steadily rise up the corporate ladder, arriving home at 7 pm every night and a family waiting for me,  a stabled routine engrained. I felt like I could have it all with a 9-5.

So when I got to college, I felt lost. I’d never had so much freedom in my hands—I felt free, but I also realized my expectations had been quixotic. I actually felt cheated by my made-up idea of the college experience, as I was expecting what I’d watched countless college YouTubers praising—an eye-opening first year filled with self-exploration. Instead, I repeatedly found myself stumbling. I was embarrassed by my incompetence and felt crushed by my inability, but I managed to learn from it. By openly talking and writing down my experiences, I could pick it apart to see what went wrong and what could be down differently, and I adapt these to make my college experience better.

Separating your dream from your family’s is terrifying. There is no way around it. Especially if you come from a big family, it often feels like you’re carrying generations of expectations, hope, and the consequent disappointment on your back. I spent so much time walking on eggshells, avoiding being honest and direct with them because I was scared of what they would say. In the end, if I never broke free of that shell with the little courage I had, my dream would stay just a dream, and could never become a reality. As of now, I am studying at a school of my dreams, in an academically renowned program and actively working towards a career prospect. It may be different that what others and I have expected, but it is exactly where I wanted to end up.
I was raised with both Korean and American influences. I was Americanized, but not without Asian values. I grew up watching American movies, but I didn’t get to experience anything like a typical high school party until I went to college. While other kids my age snuck out of their homes and stayed out late partying, my parents made me come home by 9.

Still, compared to a lot of other Asian families, I was lucky in that my parents never forced me to live out their dreams and become a doctor or lawyer. (That more so came from my grandparents.)

Even now, when I tell my grandparents I’m studying education, they urge me to go to law school. I spent a long time trying to convince myself that I could pursue medical school, but it didn’t last—my love for art became even stronger.

I struggle between satisfying my family’s desires and pursuing my own. They’ve sacrificed a lot for me to have reached this point, so at the very least, I owe it to them to do my best and succeed academically. But at what point do I stop living my life for them and instead do it for myself?

At this point, I’m just grateful that my parents support me in my endeavors. I still get pushback from time to time, but in the end, they really advocate for my education. And I know I’m very privileged to have that.

By Wen Hsiao
Illustrated by Hannah Kang

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