I’m Spending Lunar New Year Untangling Generational Curses

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Jennifer Li

I don't know how many Lunar New Years I've celebrated with my family, but this definitely isn't the first. It's a day I approach with a sense of anticipation, only for it to arrive, and wonder what the hell I'm supposed to do to celebrate. I can't exactly kowtow—the tradition of kneeling and bowing until your forehead touches the floor as an act of reverence—to my parents when they're not in the country. I don't know how to make the red bean and maple walnut rice cake my mom would make for special occasions. I don't even know if I like Lunar New Year all that much, to be honest.

As I grew older, it became less of a holiday marked by a community celebration and more of a holiday designed to make me feel ashamed about being a "bad" daughter, a daughter who had been so promising as a child before burning out into an aimless wreck of a creative. I'm a wreck of a creative with a career now, but the guilt and shame still make me brood, especially on Lunar New Year. I suppose it's because I never thought about who I was and what this holiday meant to me outside of the context of my parents.

It's hard to step into the autonomy of adulthood when your identity has been defined by your family. Any child of immigrants struggles with guilt, the pressure to exceed their parents' dreams, and the ever-present fear that nothing they do will ever repay their parents for their sacrifices. My parents were children of the Cultural Revolution and uprooted their lives to provide their children with opportunities they never had in their country. Their expectations were clear, and I was desperate to meet them.

It’s hard to step into the autonomy of adulthood when your identity has been defined by your family.

It wasn't unreasonable of them to expect me to work hard, honor their beliefs, and achieve all they wanted for me. I tried and failed to be a good daughter. Despite how unhealthy I knew it was, I defined my self-worth through my academic achievements. I forced myself into a college major that I knew was not right for me but was stable and safe. I didn't date boys that didn't meet my parent's criteria, regardless of how toxic I knew they were. I measured my growing body against my mother's metric of perfection, despite how unrealistic it seemed to expect that my body would never go past 110 pounds for the rest of my life. I pushed myself to be a good daughter, respect their wishes, and bite my tongue and swallow the resentment in my throat. After all, my mother had always said it was better to suffer for a little while and enjoy a long payout. Surely, I would receive a reasonably good payout if I just endured some unhappiness.

It turns out that when you force yourself to make someone else happy at your own expense and expect a payout, you just develop depression and a lot of bitterness. There's a black hole in my life, spanning a few years, where I have no other memories than of a time when I couldn't get out of my bed, eat, or imagine my life past 21. I had no idea how to imagine my future when the future never felt like it could belong to me. Many other emotions start to weigh on you, too: anger, guilt, and resentment. But maybe the most dangerous one is powerlessness. Not because powerlessness feels the worst, but because powerlessness makes you realize you could make choices for yourself but can't because you don't even believe in your power. You've spent so long biting your tongue that you don't realize you've bit it off entirely. You don't know how to believe in yourself.

My parents didn't believe in me. They believed in risk-aversion, well-traversed paths of financial stability, and tradition. That's part of why I still struggle with the guilt of being the daughter doing everything they didn't want for her. Because there's nothing wrong with risk-aversion, well-traversed paths, or tradition. Those are important values in Asian cultures, and for a good reason. Risk aversion keeps immigrant families safe in a foreign and potentially hostile country. Well-traversed paths keep immigrant families fed. Traditions keep holidays like the Lunar New Year alive.

I understand it was the desire to keep me safe and to ensure I would be financially secure for the rest of my life that made them push me the way they did. But I've never stopped wishing my parents hadn't tried to mold me into the perfect daughter and had empowered me instead. There are still so many times I feel powerless, even knowing how much I've accomplished without their fervent support.

I've never stopped wishing my parents hadn't tried to mold me into the perfect daughter and had empowered me instead.

Today, what makes me feel empowered are the women around me. Asian American women in business, defying all preconceived notions and stereotypes. "Bad daughters" who have gone off to create their own paths with bravery and have taken risks despite their fear. Most of all, I find myself empowered by my older sister, who has similarly felt the weight of our parents' expectations and has set the greatest example for me as a "bad daughter." She's unmarried, childless with a dog, a van lifer, fiercely independent, and happy. I think of her whenever I feel powerless and remind myself I'm much less alone than I think.

Both my sister and I welcomed new additions to our families last year: my sister welcomed her first godchild, and I welcomed a niece on my fiance's side of the family. Both of the babies are girls. Part of me is so excited about all the beauty and relationship advice I'll be able to share with them. But, most importantly, I don't want to make the mistake of pushing them so far away from their power out of a misguided need to protect them that they feel like they have no power at all. I want the children in my life to grow up and never question that their future is their birthright and no one else's. So many Asian Americans, like my sister and I, came to that realization far later in life than we should have. I don't want that for the next generation, and I can't think of a better time to start breaking a generational curse than a new year.

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