In the early 1980s, two refugees escaped from the communist rule of Viet Nam and came to America with the vision of raising a family in a free country. They came with nothing. They worked tirelessly and built a life for themselves. They raised two daughters, my sister and me, and always put us first so we never lacked what we needed. After this lifetime of hard work and sacrifice, how was I going to repay them? This question has weighed on me and shaped my decisions for most of my life.
Growing up bicultural in America meant many things for me: living in the land of opportunity, but opportunity limited by strict parents; believing you could be whatever you wanted to be, but facing pressure to make the stable and secure choice; being encouraged to follow your dreams by your peers, but hesitating as you stood before generations of your family who have known only struggle. One of my biggest challenges is something many children of immigrants know all too well: the guilt of pursuing our own happiness.
I was born and raised in the United States, so I have a very ‘Western’ mindset when it comes to happiness. I recognize that if I only base my life decisions on others, I will never truly be happy. I didn’t think I was going to be happy if I stayed in California, where I have lived for most of my life. My heart told me to explore and learn. The only thing holding me back from moving across the country and pursuing my dreams was the idea of upsetting my family. Family is supposed to come first. In the past, my parents have expressed disapproval of exploration—music, travel, volunteering, interracial dating, and other choices that didn’t fit into the ‘right’ mold. While pushing the boundaries on my parents’ expectations in these areas was not new to me, I felt my desired cross-country move would inflict a level of devastation on my parents that was just too great.
The first time I thought about living on the east coast was during my final year of university, in 2011. I was in Washington, D.C. for a conference and I fell head over heels for the city. At the time, I thought to myself, I would love to live here. But I knew it would hurt my parents, so I stayed in California for graduate school. And work. For the foreseeable future. My parents sacrificed everything for my sister and me; the least I could do was live a life of relative convenience and be geographically close to them, as they wished. I feared being a terrible and ungrateful daughter.
For seven years, I closed the door on this dream, deciding that this was in my best interest because it was best for my family. But I kept opening the door to look inside, just for brief moments, time and time again. I eventually realized that if I was still revisiting this idea, after all this time, this desire was never going to go away. Living on the east coast was an ambition that had become part of who I was and wanted to become. My options were to keep standing on the other side of the door, or to finally walk through it.
In February 2018, when I seriously began to consider a cross-country move, I was an intern at a microfinance nonprofit in San Francisco. I had made the decision to go into the social impact sector, and this was my way of gaining experience. When my internship ended in July, I had no impending commitments.
This would be the perfect time to leave, I thought. D.C. would be the perfect place to go and work in a nonprofit. I treasured this thought and kept it to myself for another couple of months. I was beginning to entertain the idea that I could allow myself to be happy, but I was not ready to face the conflict and stress that this decision would put on my family. I knew it was going to be difficult, and eventually, I could no longer deny where I wanted to go and keep living my life for someone else.
When I told my parents I wanted to move to Washington, D.C. to work in the nonprofit sector, their reaction was everything I had feared it would be.
“Why does it make you happy to be far away from your family?”
“Why doesn’t your family matter to you?”
“Your father and I are going to be arguing about this.”
“Why would you do this to your family?”
Shortly after sharing the news with my parents, the chest pain and difficulty breathing began to set in. When anxiety attacks began interfering with my work and my life, I was referred to a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with panic disorder. My body had depleted itself of serotonin and was running on empty. According to my psychiatrist, people with panic disorder often feel “trapped.” To this, I could attest.
The struggle of my parents - and many parents who came to the U.S. as refugees and immigrants—was to secure everything at the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy: food, shelter, and the basic needs to survive. My parents sacrificed their self-interest to give my sister and me a house to grow up in, food, education, clothes, and the security of never having to worry about being homeless or hungry. Self-actualization was never a concern for them (or at least, not one they vocalized). I sometimes wonder if it’s a concept that resonates with them. Something that a lot of my friends, who are also children of immigrants, are now realizing is that their parents gave them the ultimate privilege of pursuing self-actualization because our parents gave us everything we needed. This, in my opinion, providing children with the opportunity to lead a life they’re passionate about—to do more than survive—is the ultimate ‘American dream’, and I wish so badly that my parents could understand that. I am so grateful for everything my parents have done, and I just want them to be happy and at peace after all they've been through. They just want me to be safe and to not struggle like they did. I want to say, "Ma, Ba, YOU DID IT!" But despite my efforts to explain, they are unsatisfied because, to them, I still look like I am struggling.
My mother asks me why I keep making life hard for myself—pursuing work that doesn't pay much, traveling and volunteering in undesirable conditions, and regularly uprooting my life and changing careers. For me, the changes and challenges help me grow, but for her, these are barriers to what she believes is success—a husband, house, and job with the 401(k). While this isn't untrue, it is not a barrier to what I consider happiness and success for myself.
When I told my parents I wanted to move to D.C., my mother said, with disdain, “Moving away from parents is what American kids do.” By that, she meant white. Good Asian children are supposed to do what is expected of them and live close to their parents. Being close to your parents means being close to your culture and your identity. I understand that many immigrant parents are afraid of the ‘Americanization’ of their children—that they will forget their language, their country, their values...and their family. Through this tunnel of logic, doing things outside of tradition means you don’t care about your family. That you only care about yourself.
I wrestled with these competing priorities for months. As summer came to an end and I progressed with therapy and medication, I came to realize: pursuing your own happiness and honoring your family are not mutually exclusive. I will always want my parents to be happy, but the price I pay should not be my well-being and mental health. It should not mean struggling with depression and anxiety, and believing that I don’t deserve to be happy. With this thought, I felt the beginning of a change, of opening myself to a new kind of happiness. I was no longer blaming myself for my parents’ proclaimed misery. No longer believing that I am a bad person. I was drawing boundaries. Letting myself breathe. And setting up my life to become the person I have always wanted to be.
And then I turned to the act that was of the longest time coming: letting go of resentment. My parents have said hurtful words to me, they have blamed me for stress, they have ridiculed my life decisions, but they do this out of their own fear. They fear that they have failed me as parents, that I will struggle financially, that despite all the work they have done, I will be unsuccessful. They want me to be successful—otherwise, how could I be happy? Parents naturally want their children to struggle less than they did. From my parents’ standpoint, criticizing their children and comparing them to others is a means to encourage self improvement. While I don’t agree that that is a healthy way to engage with your children, this was how they were raised—they’re using the best tools they have. Understanding this about my parents has helped me significantly with accepting our relationship and my own desires. I know they really want me to be happy. I trust they will see and acknowledge, perhaps in several years, what matters for me to feel happy.
Years of guilt don’t not go away overnight—I know I’ll likely struggle with this feeling for a long time, possibly for the rest of my life. In October 2018, I moved to D.C., and although it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, I am happy. Now that I am here, I can’t believe I waited all these years. I breathe more easily here, and I feel like this is the right place for me. I am doing things that make me happy and no longer shaping my decisions around the fear of upsetting someone. I have been exploring museums and national monuments, getting to know people behind the nonprofits that I greatly admire, and drinking coffee at book exchanges featuring literature written by activists and people of color. For the first time, I got to take in the scent of trees during an east coast fall, and watch my breath as I walked through the snow in an east coast winter. I am looking forward to spring when the cherry blossoms bloom all over Tidal Basin.
One of the greatest joys—and affirmations that this was the right choice—has been meeting people who are just like me: people who have moved from afar to the nation’s capital to pursue their passions in social justice, people who are ready to dedicate their lives to creating positive change, and people who understand that pursuing our true selves is worth the challenges and risks that we put ourselves through. I can accept that I am not selfish or a bad person for doing this.
My parents have been slowly showing signs of acceptance, too. I know they are upset that I am gone, but I have been keeping them updated on how I am doing, and it seems to be helping. I think even they cannot deny how much happier and healthier I sound on the phone. With time, they will understand that with this move I am still capable of loving my family. In turn, I am learning that I am capable of loving myself.
“Americans don’t value family like we do,” my mother once said, with pride. But I am American, and I do value my family. I was born here, my parents gave me freedom and opportunity here, and I am making a path for myself to be happy.
Catherine Vo currently works in marketing and communications in downtown Washington, D.C. Before moving to Columbia Heights, she spent her days treating patients as a physical therapist, running her own baking business, and planning educational events and fundraisers in the San Francisco Bay Area. In her spare time, Catherine volunteers in natural disaster relief, women's health and empowerment, and refugee resettlement; she hopes to work in these areas in the future. On occasion, she also writes and performs as a singer songwriter. Her music can be found on Spotify and other streaming services.