“You want to talk to crazy people?” my parents lamented over a kitchen table in a small condominium in Orange County, California. It had been our home for my entire sentient life of twenty years. My refugee parents, having fled war-torn Vietnam, had no desire to ever move again.
My mother, still beautiful despite dark half circles under her eyes, tensed her petite body; she did not narrowly escape communist Vietnam as a boat person to have her only child talk to crazy people for a living. My balding father frowned as he lasered his gaze at an invisible coordinate, perhaps envisioning supporting me financially indefinitely. It was my senior year at the University of California in Irvine and I had meekly declared my intention to apply to graduate school for clinical psychology. How could I betray them after all they had sacrificed?
“We live in a very racist country! Who would be willing to talk to someone with the color of your skin?” my mother fired off.
“The average income for a psychologist is barely above the poverty line,” my father followed in rapid succession.
My opponents, albeit no taller than 5’5”, were formidable. After having braved the communist takeover of their home country, their daughter’s misguided naiveté would be an unworthy adversary. My mother had endured imprisonment in a squalid cell for almost a year after a failed escape by boat due to a heavy thunderstorm. My father, fueled by his parents’ apprehension about Vietnam’s political unrest, mastered his qualifying exams to abscond to an education abroad program in Japan; the program’s patriotic mission of scholars bringing back home to Vietnam innovations from overseas would be unfulfilled.
They imagined attending parties where they commended others on their children’s accomplishments with strained grins, exclaiming, “Congratulations on your son’s full academic scholarship to medical school at Harvard!” and “Your daughter didn’t even apply, but they selected her for a full ride at Yale Law School?” They could not permit a future where they brooded secretively, while their friends boasted of their children’s successes in lucrative and prestigious careers. And when the conversation turned to their only daughter, they could not envision explaining to fellow war survivors that she had picked a vocation that centered on forcing others to dwell on the past.
I had never failed them before, unless you count failing to surpass either of them in height. They constantly reminded me that I had access to a surplus of literal milk (and honey) that this great American land had to offer, nutrition they never had access to in third-world Vietnam. (For the record, my parents do count this as a failure.)
I understood that their simple demands were minuscule compared to what they’d endured for the future of our family. After the Fall of Saigon in 1975, my father began working for the United Nations in Japan to contribute to the plight of his displaced citizens, while my mother’s fisherman’s boat was rescued and towed to land by a behemoth commercial barge on her second attempt to escape Vietnam. My parents later met at a refugee camp in Japan.
When they created a new life together in Southern California, my mother vowed that no child of hers would ever have to lift a finger on domestic chores, in order to conserve energy for academic pursuits she was never afforded. Meanwhile my father allocated financial resources to academic supplements to public education – or what was left after they sent money to family members in Vietnam (the communists had seized all their wealth and belongings of any value).
But I, at the age of twenty, wanted to waste these opportunities to study Sigmund Freud.
In our household, things were left unspoken. At the age of five, my baby brother died of SIDS. I don’t remember much about it. One moment I was eating mint chocolate chip ice cream when my parents rushed him to the hospital, and then there was stale silence when they returned without the warm bundle. We never talked about it.
From then on, I was the only one who could complete my parents’ refugee voyage towards the American Dream, a destination where Vietnamese refugee parents are compensated for their adversity and traumas by the successes of their offspring. Those offspring may prosper in any one of two acceptable occupations: a medical doctor or attorney-at-law.
In a high school biology class, I foisted the scalpel onto my unsuspecting lab partner to eviscerate the frog corpse, while attempting to hide behind oversized goggles from the pungent eau de formaldehyde that was making me queasy. I didn’t have the tolerance for blood and guts that medical school would take, so I chose attorney.
I graduated high school with a GPA well above a 4.0, taking every honors and advanced placement course offered, and chose a commuter school in consideration of fiscal responsibility. I declared a major in philosophy, based on statistical outcomes that law school applicants well-versed in Plato’s cave and epistemological thought experiments fared well on the LSAT and were accepted at a higher rate than other majors.
I had internalized my parents’ warnings about homelessness and disapproving looks at my childhood what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up musings about art or zoology. I mindlessly pursued an academic path towards law school, while trying to quiet any interests that would thwart this pursuit.
One day, while we walked unhurriedly to class during freshman year of college, my friend Amanda blurted out her plans, “I’m majoring in psychology because it’s interesting to me.”
It was a statement that college freshmen parroted twenty times daily that first quarter of college, but to me it felt as if this self-proclamation was revolutionary. I had always been interested in psychology myself, developing a deep curiosity about others and their personal stories as an only child, frequently chattering away at classmates.
The same tragic circumstance that made me the sole bearer of my parents’ American Dream, the death of my brother, had catalyzed in me a deep curiosity about others. Emboldened by Amanda’s nonchalant decisiveness, I surreptitiously added psychology as a second major in quiet protest. I told myself it wasn’t a big deal, even though I had to spend hours pouring over my required coursework with different guidance counselors from the respective Humanities and Social Sciences departments.
While I may not have absorbed the milk that my parents thought would contribute to a maximal height, I had absorbed the very American ideal of freedom in this choice. When I declared psychology as a major, I exercised this very ideal that my parents had liberated themselves for when their home country was besieged.
When I went to live on my own for the first time to attend graduate school in San Francisco and my parents helped me put together the cheapest furniture available from Ikea, they sighed.
When I passed my dissertation defense in front of a jury of three unblinking professors on the perils of immigrant torture survivors, they pondered what my chosen profession was about with a “Hmmm…”
When I graduated with my doctorate, the highest degree any of my extended family members had attained, they queried, “People really get better by talking to you?”
When I passed both the state and national exams to become a licensed psychologist, they requested I tell them more about my chosen profession: “How do you help people?”
Seven years after declaring my dissent in our family kitchen, I accepted my first paid job as a psychologist at an agency that specializes in the healing of asylum seekers, asylees and refugees who have fled persecution and war trauma – people like my parents. Back around our kitchen table on a visit home, my parents and I discussed the respectable benefits package with generous 401(k) plan options offered by my new job.
“We’re proud of you,” my father said matter-of-factly, while my mother beamed at me.
WE’RE. PROUD. OF. YOU. I savored each and every one of those four words … five, if you elongate the conjunction! They had finally vocalized their pride, but I knew they had been proud of me all along—after all, I had followed in their footsteps of forging one’s own path.
Ann Tran, PhD, is a clinical psychologist residing in San Francisco.