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.