A Commentary on “The Asian American Quarter-Life Crisis”

I found Liz Lin’s post, “The Asian American Quarter-Life Crisis“, while scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed one day senior year. Her article is heavily related to my last post on failure, and the consequences of avoiding it.

When I first read this blog post, I thought it was a brilliant summary of everything I experienced in my high school and college years. The cut-throat competitive academic culture of my large, public high school just outside of Princeton, NJ, was pervasive and toxic in every sense of the word: friends would judge each other’s worth based on their SAT scores, glance over each other’s shoulders when a test was handed back, and joke that getting a B for one round of report cards meant they were “not getting into college” (since, in their minds, only the Ivy Leagues and other top-tier institutions counted as “college”). Liz effectively drives this point about Asian-American culture home, writing, “It starts with math workbooks. Gifted summer camps. Endless SAT prep. All for the sake of fabulous college applications, which lead us to the best universities. The best internships. The best (read: most lucrative, most prestigious, most stable) careers, which usually fall somewhere in the vicinity of medicine, law, engineering, and (corporate) business.”

I’m going to add an aside here that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with pursuing any of the above-mentioned careers. The problem arises when the desire for that career is accompanied by a fear of insecurity, a cutthroat competitive outlook on life, and disdain for those earning less income, as opposed to passion, internal fulfillment, or a desire to benefit other people.

My high school was 40% Asian American, and most of my friends went to big schools and did major in engineering, business, and medicine because they wanted to earn a lot of money. I went to a tiny liberal arts college and majored in Spanish. It sounds like a simple decision when I describe it, but I remember feeling an intense internal conflict, both when it came time to choose a college that was right for me, and also when it came time to choose a field of study that would honestly make me happy. I’ll openly admit that I struggled with following what I knew would make me happy because of the culture I was unconsciously identifying with.

To me, the most defining characteristic of Asian American culture is the fervent and narrow focus on money. Liz explains this well, using the term “risk-averse” to describe Asian cultures. Risk-averse, meaning averse to any possibility of failure entirely, which, unfortunately, means averse to possibility at all and attached to certainty. Here, I’ll also add that I’ve experienced Asian American culture to be inherently pessimistic. Here’s the mentality with venturing outside of secure boundaries: you could pursue a career in fine arts, or music, or journalism, or history, but unless you were really really REALLY good at what you did, you probably wouldn’t make enough to live comfortably and provide for your family. And since you probably won’t be exceptional enough to achieve that level of success, you might as well just go with one of the other stereotypical options.

I’m happy to say that my parents are fairly progressive for immigrants, but I would still say that I was conditioned to think this way from a fairly young age (and then that thinking was compounded by my peers in middle and high school). The risk-averse mentality towards career choices gives rise to the epidemic Liz says she has noticed, asking her Asian American friends if they enjoy their jobs, with the resounding answer being “No” or “It’s ok I guess” and followed by “I don’t know what else I would do.”

Trust me, I’ve been there. My entire sophomore year centered around the thought of “Well, I don’t want to major in biology, but if I didn’t do science, I don’t know what else I would do with my life, so I’ll major in Spanish (because I enjoyed it) and do pre-med.” It took many conversations with doctors and the friends who knew me best, a lot of rethinking my decision to take up pre-med in the first place, and an entire semester away from Haverford and my family to realize that I was chasing security for the worst reasons: because I wanted to make money, because I didn’t know what else I would do, and because I wanted people to think highly of me. I am lucky to have been that honest with myself early on in the game, before I was wrought with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt for a degree that did little for my internal life.

Opening myself to a future of possibility (and uncertainty) was definitely, as Liz says, “like stepping onto a tightrope without a 5-year plan to catch me.” It was terrifying and exciting at the same time, and it still is, even as I look back on all the decisions and successes that have led me to this crazy adventure in San Francisco, teaching and learning and writing as I go. But I contend that I wouldn’t trade this for the world, because I’m learning how to question myself and how to think for myself, instead of think the way that others expect me to. I can’t imagine living without real independence, which resides in the mind.

Towards the end of Liz’s post, she writes, “In a sharp contrast to my previous way of living, I have no idea what my life will look like in 5 years–but I’m content and fulfilled right now, and that feels like a good trade-off.” Yes, it’s a good trade-off indeed, because time is volatile and elusive and you never know when yours will run out. I think, looking back to my high school years and how fraught with anxiety I was about my future career, only to veer completely off the path I’d planned for myself, I’ve learned a crucial lesson:

Don’t do things because you think it’ll matter to someone else later. Do them because they mean something to you now.

That is the only way to guarantee the best use of the one thing money can never buy you: your time.