When Your Culture Clashes With Your Career Choices

Kristin Wong
Nov 5, 2020 · 6 min read
Illustration: Draden Ferguson

Early in my career, I got a job offer so good, I thought it was a mistake. The work was interesting, my boss was awesome, and best of all, it paid more than I’d ever earned in my minimum wage life. On the way home from the interview, I called my mother with the good news. “I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe you shouldn’t risk what you already have. We’re lucky to have any job.” I was deflated. I sighed and stopped mentally shopping for all the new stuff I’d buy with my upgraded salary — namely, I was looking forward to moving out of my 200-square-foot apartment. But the next day, my mom called back. “I’m always so worried about what I might lose that I don’t think about what’s possible,” she said. “But you should.”

In Western culture, which values ambition and career climbing, the answer seems obvious: of course you take the job! But for a Chinese immigrant, this was a big deal. My mom, like a lot of immigrants, moved to the States because her family needed money, food, and shelter. Growing up, I figured her life was uniquely traumatic. But then I met other second-generation kids from different backgrounds with parents who had similar experiences. As we swapped our families’ immigrant stories, I realized my mom’s fears and traumas weren’t unique.

These kids and I had similar experiences around money, career, and success. Lots of immigrant parents aggressively urge their kids to play it safe: Get a good education, keep your head down, find a secure job. It’s a mindset rooted in scarcity and self-preservation, and when you grow up with these values, work and money are trickier to navigate. For example, I’ve often prioritized money over creativity or joy in my career as a writer — sometimes out of necessity, but mostly out of anxiety. Similarly, many other second-gen kids I know have chosen careers that pay well, even if those careers make them unhappy. We avoid negotiating promotions or raises. We feel guilty when we indulge. We don’t speak up at work. And if we do choose an unconventional career path, most of us feel a little weird about it.

“My parents have sacrificed so much, I felt obligated to become successful. This made me associate my self-worth with my accomplishments, which is not healthy.”

To be clear, most everyone has a complicated relationship with money and career. It’s hard for anyone to negotiate or switch jobs. But for some racial and ethnic minority groups, there are added obstacles making our careers difficult and frequently frustrating. “My parents have sacrificed so much and I felt obligated to become successful to make them proud,” says Celina Lee, a career coach and author. “This made me associate my self-worth with my accomplishments, which is not healthy.”

Your parents (rightfully) worry about discrimination.

You’ve heard the stereotype of Asian parents forcing their kids to become lawyers or doctors, and in many families, it rings true. As sociologist and researcher Jennifer Lee asks, “Why do Chinese and other Asian immigrant parents frame success so narrowly?”

In her work, Lee found it’s partly to avoid discrimination. “Asian immigrant parents fear that their children will experience discrimination in their careers,” she writes. “So parents shepherd their children into conservative, high-status professions in which they may be most shielded from potential discrimination by employers, customers, and clients.” In other words, our parents urge us to uphold the myth of the model minority in order to avoid discrimination or racism.

When your career is linked to your racial or ethnic identity in this way, it can lead to racial alienation, according to Lee.

There are loads of problems with this mentality, but other racial minority groups similarly prepare their children for discrimination. Researchers call it racial socialization, and it can impact your career and finances. You avoid negotiating, for example, and for good reason. A 2016 study found that Black workers earn less when they negotiate.

Put simply, the rules for building wealth and success in America don’t apply to everyone, so some minority groups encourage their kids to be submissive in the workplace or push them into specific career paths.

But when your career is linked to your racial or ethnic identity in this way, it can lead to racial alienation, according to Lee. In her research, Chinese kids who veered from the traditional career path said they “don’t feel really Chinese,” and “aren’t like other Asians.” They end up feeling like outsiders in their own families because “they haven’t met what they perceive to be the expected levels of achievement for Chinese Americans.” It’s hard to make fulfilling career and money decisions when such a key part of your identity is on the line.

Defining success when you’re stuck between two cultures.

In America, which itself is stuck between fully embracing capitalism while simultaneously denouncing it, being a creative worker often feels like a damned if you do, damned if you don’t paradox. If you make money, you’re a sellout. If you don’t make enough money, your work is not valuable. It’s hard enough to define personal success under capitalism, but when you’re a creative worker and a minority, you’ve been taught that money is a way to get power and avoid discrimination, so selling out is even more complicated.

“There’s a sense of responsibility to help achieve what they weren’t able to achieve, but at the same time, it’s balancing that with what you want as well.”

As more second-generation kids grow up and find themselves at crossroads in their careers, this conversation is becoming more mainstream. It’s what prompted entrepreneur Lucia Liu to launch her podcast, Rock The Boat. “I wanted to figure out how to reconcile families’ expectations of what success is and what your own personal expectations of what success can be,” Liu says. “There’s a sense of responsibility to help achieve what they weren’t able to achieve, but at the same time, it’s balancing that with what you want as well.”

There are a handful of reasons our immigrant parents view success differently than we do. A big part of it comes down to the hierarchy of needs, Liu says. “We grew up in an environment where we had all of our basic survival needs met, so we are on that rung where we want to self-actualize.” And the luxury of being able to self-actualize changes our definition of success — instead of survival, we’re focused on fulfillment.

Some differences are cultural, though. As Americans, we’re raised to be self-reliant, but a lot of American minorities were raised in more collectivist cultures, which might explain why they value high-paying jobs that are also service-oriented, such as pharmacists or doctors.

As American as I feel, I’ve come to realize there are added challenges to upward mobility when your family hasn’t been in this country for very long.

We have more choices than our parents did.

At the end of the day, our parents are like any other parents. They worry about us. They want to protect us. They hope we’re successful. And to them, success is avoiding the hardships they had to endure. Lee says she came to terms with this when her mom apologized for discouraging her from publishing a book. “She said, ‘I really thought you couldn’t do it, so I was trying to protect you from getting hurt.’ My mom was trying to keep me safe because that was her way of loving me,” Lee says.

Like my own mother, Lee’s seemed to understand that while she didn’t have the power of choice, her children do, and that’s an entirely different version of success — one our parents didn’t have the luxury of defining. But it’s also the reason they packed up to look for a better life: to ensure their children would have more choices.

As American as I feel, I’ve come to realize there are added challenges to upward mobility when your family hasn’t been in this country for very long. As Science Daily puts it (citing a 2015 study), “a growing population of less-advantaged minority backgrounds will increasingly be looking to enter the job market…they may be at a disadvantage to those who have lived within Western social constructs and hierarchies for generations.”

For a long time, I denied that my background could play a part in my own opportunity — a very American approach — but the more I grow in my career, the more I realize how much my second-generation status influences my career and my choices. It’s also why I have enormous respect for people like my mom, who urge their kids to take risks and do what makes them happy even when, in their minds, the stakes are devastating.

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Kristin Wong

Written by

Kristin Wong has written for the New York Times, The Cut, ELLE, Travel + Leisure, and Glamour magazine.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +800K followers.

Kristin Wong

Written by

Kristin Wong has written for the New York Times, The Cut, ELLE, Travel + Leisure, and Glamour magazine.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +800K followers.

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