Walking Away from the Asian American Immigrant Dream


ANONYMOUS     |     JAN 25, 2018     |     8 MIN READ


Editor’s note: This article has been published anonymously to protect the identity and mission work of the author


If there were a symbolic picture of achieving the immigrant dream, it would be this scene: We lovingly moved the last piece of furniture into our new home and plopped onto our couch, looking out at the budding trees close to the Potomac River. And we felt the warm, approving glow of parental approval.

After all, our abode was on farmland once owned by George Washington (yes, the father of our nation). We could even drive to Mount Vernon to buy an official plaque to commemorate this fact. As far as we were concerned, the bamboo ceiling was cracked.

So, a few years later, when we announced to our family, friends and neighbors that we were walking away - quitting a well respected medical career, withdrawing our two kids from one of the best public school systems in the country, and moving out of our ivy-covered suburban dream home towards missions and Africa -- questions, confusion, guilt and anger erupted.

A close Vietnamese friend, who had escaped Saigon with her family, summed it up best. She asked quixotically, “We left impoverished, dangerous places. I know what it is like to be hungry and afraid. Why would anyone actively choose to go back to any of that? That would be a slap in the face to my father if I did that.”

Our parents’ worth was dependent on our worth – our social standing equals their social standing.

In the 1970s, both of our own parents had left Korea, a country on the brink of establishing a democracy and recovering from invasions and war. America promised upward mobility, educational opportunity, and stability – the land flowing with milk and honey.

We grew up hearing stories our parents’ suffering so that we children could succeed. “We did this all for you. Your success is our success,” they would say. “When you make it, it makes all those sacrifices we have made and our lives meaningful.” In other words, our parents’ worth was dependent on our worth – our social standing equals their social standing.

Therefore, by being immigrants or children of immigrants, we received a “Get Out Of Jail Free” card, when it came to following the commands of Christ. Despite Jesus’ call to “go and make disciples (Matthew 28:19)” and “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself polluted by the world” (James 1:27), we felt there was an unwritten social acceptance and exemption to this rule for us. Pursuing success, going to prestigious universities, living in a gated community were signs of blessing by God. We looked upon with veiled envy by our parents’ peers and bragged about by grandmothers at the church potluck.

Therefore, if you ask an Asian American Christian to walk away...

It means walking away from family - disentangling from the emotional pull of being the receptacle of hope for your immigrant parents.

It also means that beyond the parent blaming or shaming, we need to own up to our own reality. We can care more about the titles, the salaries and zip codes than we want to admit.

Finally, it means not perpetuating the Asian American immigrant expectation on our own kids.

Because if we are completely honest, for a huge majority of us, our children can become our idols. We also pass on the same cultural expectations to our own children ensnaring them in the same cyclical web.

We have to be able to trust God.

To be more than Asian, more than American, and more than an immigrant, and to be a more intentional Christ-follower, we need to take the step of faith Abraham took when he placed Isaac on the altar. We have to be able to trust God. Our children, their future, and therefore our own feelings of worth as parents have to be placed at God’s altar.

So what does walking away mean?

For us it meant leaving and cleaving, and moving towards a better prize. 

After a certain point, all of us have to grow beyond wanting to be more than the good Asian son or daughter.

After a certain point, college or medical diplomas hanging on walls or the plaque stating your home used to be part of George Washington’s land does not satisfy.

After a certain point, driving your kids to Tae Kwon Do, piano lessons and tutoring sessions, especially in the middle of traffic, feels like you might not be teaching all the spiritual life lessons you want them to know before they grow up.

After a certain point, attending church, meeting in small groups and going on retreats can become mechanical – a routine exercise. You should start asking, “Does God wants more?”

At a certain point, you feel the Holy Spirit burning a longing in your heart.

As we replied to our Vietnamese friend and family, going in His Name makes going back to poor and dangerous places the ultimate Asian American immigrant dream.

The author and family served for six years through medical missions and teaching in Kenya where they got to see God work, miraculously healing people both physically but more importantly eternally. They have returned back to the States but continue to return periodically through Kenya and other countries in Africa, sharing the good news that God loves the oppressed, the poor and the unreached.