Footing the bill


This is Part 1 of an ongoing series tentatively called, “My High School Experience Really F*cked Up My Identity And This Is My Attempt At Unpacking All Of It.” (Will think of a more eloquent and less offensive title in the meantime.)

I called my mom the other day and the subject of conversation somehow turned to this kid in my brother’s year (a high school senior) who had applied to and was accepted by his top choice school — a private, out-of-state engineering college with a cost of attendance somewhere in the neighborhood of $55,000 per year — but ended up going to a public state university instead because his parents couldn’t justify paying that much money for college. My mom found this to be somewhat unfathomable — the kid’s family is fairly well-off and his parents have more than the means to foot the bill, so why not let him attend his dream school if his family has enough money to pay for it?

To some, my mom’s inability to comprehend why a parent might choose to not let their child attend a certain school if it is considered too expensive might sound somewhat foolish, if not outrightly offensive. Facts, of course, are facts: college tuition is ridiculously expensive here in the United States compared to everywhere else in the world, and it’s a tough economy — only the biggest, most privileged dickwad would think that everyone has the means to shell out $60,000 on the spot at the beginning of every school year. But for my Taiwanese mother, the idea that a parent would take a bargain-hunting approach to something as important as their child’s college education was incomprehensible.

This particular conversation with my mom suddenly came to mind today when I saw this article from the New York Times about college students working part-time jobs while in school in order to pay off school loans. In a stroke of brilliant timing, I was also confronted by someone (the “white girl,” if anyone was following my rage-tweeting at the time) who was giving me shit about “not having to work for my education” because my parents paid for all four years of my college tuition in full, save for a (fairly generous) scholarship from Wellesley that is awarded yearly. I will be graduating debt-free come May of 2014, as I was not awarded any loans as a part of my financial aid package.

There’s definitely a lot to be thankful for, and I don’t think I’ll ever really be able to understand exactly how much of a blessing it is to never have to worry about paying off student loans as a post-grad. But it really irks me when people make assumptions about how my family — and in turn, my culture — works based on how my family pays for and prioritizes my education. My family is not particularly wealthy; we’ve lived in the same three-bedroom condominium ever since I was two years old. My brother and I were taught to be frugal at a young age and weren’t afforded many personal luxuries and “unnecessary things” when we were little. My parents immigrated to the United States in the early nineties with very little and had to start from scratch in order to make a life here. We aren’t the kind of family that walks around with hundreds of thousands of dollars in our back pocket, and my brother and I weren’t raised with the mindset that we could just get anything we wanted because mommy and daddy would pay for it.

So it frustrates me when people — white people — comment on how my parents pay for my college tuition and not-so-subtly hint at the fact that I’m somehow spoiled and “overly dependent” on my parents. It angers me that people pass judgment on my character when I say that I’ll be moving back home after graduation and trying to find a job in the area, or that I didn’t already emancipate myself permanently from my parents’ home after going to college, or that my parents aren’t in any rush to boot me out of the house. It angers me when people see me as some entitled brat because I’m “dependent” on my parents to pay for college and that I don’t “work” to put myself through school.

Never mind the fact that my culture is centered around the family and that I am expected to honor my parents for a lifetime rather than find as many ways to cut ties and leave their house as soon as I can. Never mind the fact that my parents have been saving for my and my brother’s college tuition, little by little, ever since we were born just so there would be enough — or in my case, more than enough — to pay for our college educations in full. Never mind the fact that I will be repaying the cost for my “free education” by taking care of my parents in the future. Never mind the fact that, even though my parents tell me not to worry about it, I’m still constantly pressured to do well because it reflects directly on my family and because I owe it to my parents to do well. Never mind the fact that my culture works on completely different rules which means you have no right to criticize me about things you don’t even understand.

These are just microaggressions (of course nothing is ever just a microaggression because racism is never just racism), but it gets to be a real big problem when people start implying that “people like me” are the reason why tuition costs are still so high in the United States, that it’s because people like me and my family keep feeding the system and “encouraging” colleges to raise tuition costs every year. Let’s not even talk about how this logic is completely fallacious, but how dare you pin my culture, my race as the cause of your problems and then give yourself the right to attack my personal character and use me as a scapegoat so that you can vent your own personal dissatisfactions? How dare you turn my experiences into something so unbelievably one-dimensional just so that I can be an easy target for you? How dare you vilify and belittle the values and priorities of my culture because they don’t align with your own? And most of all, how dare you twist my parents’ love for their children as some sort of side effect of the illness that is my “backwards” culture?! (And on Lunar New Year, when I’m homesick and missing my family like crazy. Seriously, screw you.)

Just look at how little you understand and how much you assume about me and my people without even giving me a chance to speak first.

It’s easy enough to write this all off as an issue of “cultural misunderstanding,” but that’s a completely BS excuse when it’s clear that there’s only one culture that’s being misunderstood here, and it’s the culture that will always be misunderstood as long as America continues to glorify whiteness as the norm, and as long as people find it sufficient to just skim the surface of other cultures before casting judgment on its people. Because these judgments will quickly translate into stereotypes and then these stereotypes will turn into unequivocal “truths” that we as POCs have to work to constantly debunk and disprove.

That’s called racism, folks, and if you haven’t already figured out why I’m so angry about this, then there’s your answer.

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  • Forgotpreviousname

    Whoah, let’s take a step back here.

    One girl who happens to be white accuses you of being dependent on your parents/questions why you’re not supporting yourself and it suddenly turns into racism? Do you honestly think that she just singled you out because you’re Asian? I think that it’s important to consider the other person/his/her situation before passing judgment. Perhaps she’s supporting herself and is envious of the fact that other people, not just you or other Asians, are fortunate enough to have financial support. My guess is that she would have made those comments to anyone in that situation, be it someone who’s Asian, Black, white, purple, etc.

    Also, family is highly valued in multiple countries and cultures around the world; it’s not something found primarily in Asia. Second, I think that most people here value education, regardless of where they were born or where they came from. Most parents want their children to succeed and will do whatever they can to ensure that their children are able to do that.

    Having said that though, I’m glad that you’re in a position where you don’t have to worry about paying off student loans. I can imagine that it’s frustrating to talk to people who don’t understand the culture that you identify with. At the same time though, it’s also important to understand that you too don’t know where someone has come from,where he/she has been, and what ethnic group he/she identifies with. Before passing someone off as racist because of his/her skin color*, perhaps consider the judgments, assumptions, and stereotypes that you make and have about other people as well.

    *I’m assuming that you do this because the comment only bothered you/led you to this conclusion because of her skin color

    • Patricia

      i don’t think you understood my point at all.

      look, i sympathize with and take absolutely no issue with people who are earning their own way through college. i can’t imagine having to work my butt off at school over my academics while holding down multiple part-time jobs while having to constantly wrestle with the fact that the only person putting me through college is myself. i am so, so thankful that my parents have the means and the graciousness to shoulder that burden for me, and i know i can never understand and should never cast judgment on other people’s experiences — experiences that i will probably never have to encounter. but that’s not what i’m doing here.

      let’s get one thing straight. the importance of family or education are not strictly asian values. but the idea that asians value family SO much that they don’t move out of their parents’ house or that asians value studying SO much that they don’t do anything except school are both stereotypes that are distinctly tied to asians. i’m sure this is something you already know.

      what i’m talking about here is how people take what they see (asian kids having their parents pay for their college tuition and moving back in with them after graduation) and, without considering WHY this might be, instantly write off this distinctly cultural behavior pattern as something unacceptable. i can see why people might have problems with or would be “envious” of the fact that I and people like myself don’t have to worry about paying for college. that’s not an issue, and it’s a subject that is certainly worth discussing in a civil manner. what IS an issue, though, is when people start preaching at me and casting judgment on my value system without even considering that there’s a whole other side of the story that they’re not even stopping to consider. it’s a little something called filial piety, and it’s an extremely important trait that most people don’t even take into consideration (and when they do, it’s usually misinterpreted wildly) when they start talking about how our “asian values” are so flawed and outdated. this mode of thinking in itself is racist, whether you like it or not.

      but to be honest, it took a lot of deliberation and thinking for me to finally decide to write this post. i wouldn’t have spoken up about this issue at all had it not been for a few conditions. one, i’ve had to deal with this shit for years. YEARS. even now, i have to constantly deal with people guilting me into thinking that i don’t “deserve” my education, or that i should leave my parents’ home as soon as possible. and sure, it’s easy to just tell someone to “ignore it” and “stick to your guns,” but when other people are constantly pushing you to conform to this cultural norm of being as “independent” as possible when it runs contrary to every value you’ve been raised with, then that shit really hurts and it really messes you up. this is certainly not the first time i’ve had this kind of conversation. unless you’re a poc yourself, i don’t think you can ever understand exactly how potent racism can be. (and by the way — if you’re not a poc, it’s certainly not within your rights to tell me, a poc, what’s racist and what isn’t.)

      and two: the particular person i was talking to used a line of argument that a) made no sense, and b) was just extremely racist at its core. she reasoned that you don’t pay for your tuition –> your parents pay for your tuition –> what, are you going to depend on your parents forever? –> colleges love it when parents can shell out money on the spot so they don’t have to feel guilty about students having to earn their own keep –> people LIKE YOU are the reason why colleges don’t realize the “real struggle” that college students have to go through –> maybe you should just accept that your cultural values are inherently flawed and try OUR method of dealing with things.

      like, if you can’t see why i became extremely frustrated and angry after hearing that, then i don’t know what else to tell you.

      and lastly — yeah. this person’s comment bothered me primarily because she was white. because the only reason why she could say the things she said and not feel the need to defend herself was because she had white privilege, and boatloads of it. as ridiculous and nonsensical as her arguments were, she gets the privilege of knowing that her point of view is validated and confirmed everywhere in our white-dominated society: through every news article that talks about how asians are “setting the curve,” through every stereotype that is made about the “collectivist nature” of asians, through every sneer at our “foreignness,” through every mockery that is made of our culture on the daily. she gets the comfort of knowing that people will take her seriously and respect what she has to say because of her whiteness — the same whiteness that sets the norm for our society, the same whiteness that oppresses and kills people of color. if you don’t understand any of what i’m saying and are even thinking about calling me a reverse racist, then stop here and go read up on critical race theory. now.

      on the other hand, once a poc speaks up about these issues, she is told to “calm down” and “take a step back” and “consider the judgments, assumptions, and stereotypes that she is making” because apparently a poc victim of racism isn’t allowed to be as angry or as confrontational as a white person who has to deal with paying college tuition. not a single word of this post was spent casting judgment or making assumptions on the experiences of others. i made sure of it when i was writing it. this entire post is a reflection of my own experiences and undoubtedly the experiences of other asian-americans, and it is my response to the years and years of racism that i’ve had to deal with. it is my response to people who have consistently and systematically tried to destroy and belittle my culture and have tried to force me to conform. and you’re telling me to calm down, to not be so angry about it? please. your tone-policing is not appreciated.

      • meagain

        Perhaps I was misunderstood. I was not trying to belittle your experiencies. It definitely seems to have taken its toll and this one incident pushed you over the edge. I’m also not saying that you shouldn’t be angry by what she said, because to you, it seemed racist. I was merely trying to suggest that what she said COULD have been misinterpreted and that it might benefit you to consider that possibility when these incidents come up in the future. That suggestion has nothing to do with with you not being allowed “to be angry or as confrontational as a white person who has to deal with paying college tuition.” It simply has to do with not ASSUMING that every white person you meet and every comment he/she says is going to be degrading/a personal attack on you or your culture. From what I understand she didn’t specifically attack Asian culture? It seems like she just attacked people who didn’t have to pay for college.

        There’s no doubt that racism is prevalent today and that white people are given an advantage. That doesn’t mean that every white person is racist though.

        Anyway, I appreciate your response/attempt at clarifying where you stand and the reality that you and many other minorities are forced to deal with. You definitely deserve everything that you’ve received and it’s admirable that you’re willing to speak out.

        • meagain

          *By “everything you’ve received,” I meant education-wise, not degradation-wise

  • Isa

    Interesting article and I found that I identified with some of it. Although I am Hispanic, not Asian, I do sometimes come across people who look down on me for living with my parents as I attend school. And although I will eventually have to work to put myself through school, my parents won’t leave me to fend for myself. Working will be a way to help my family help me. It won’t be about independence or me trying to get away from them which seems to be a mindset that a lot of white kids have.