Advice for Artists Whose Parents Want Them to Be Engineers

Viet Thanh Nguyen shares advice on how to pursue art against your parents’ wishes in this op-ed for the New York Times.

María Medem

When I give lectures on college campuses, the most difficult question I am asked is this: “I want to pursue my dream, but my parents want me to do something different. What should I do?”

I can relate. What would have made me happy as a young person was to be a writer and study literature. What would have made my parents happy was for me to become a doctor like my brother, who went to Harvard and Stanford. How could I come home to my refugee parents, who worked seven days a week in their grocery store, and tell them that I wanted to read Jane Austen and the Romantic poets, and major in English, a language they didn’t speak in their own home?

Eventually I did tell my parents I was majoring in English, but I wasn’t ready at first to tell them that I wanted to be a writer. That would have been going too far. My day job was being a professor, and my dream job was being a writer, which consumed my nights, weekends and summers. It was exhausting, but so were the sacrifices that my parents made for us.

I did not expect my parents to read my books. Their acceptance of my choice to become a professor was enough for me. And then one day I presented them with what they had not been expecting: a novel. Surprise!

What happens when our parents’ definition of happiness makes our happiness impossible? On college campuses, the young people who ask me this question are often Asian American, as I am, but when I posed it on Facebook, people of various backgrounds, many of them successful and creative, responded with their experiences and advice.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Circumstances, resources and opportunities vary widely, as do the motivations of parents in trying to steer their kids toward or away from particular careers.

Beyond concern for their children’s livelihood, parents may be trying to protect them from the pain of failure. If so, they’re right — failure (and penury) is always a risk. Many of us believe that pursuing our dreams will bring happiness. But perhaps it won’t. It took me over 20 years of struggle to become a writer, but it might have been 20 years of struggle to discover that I was not a writer. Isn’t this just part of the lottery of life?

Once we decide to pursue our passion, how best to proceed? Here are some strategies gleaned from my friends and acquaintances:

Just go for it.

Yuko Shimizu’s parents wanted a conventional life for her, so she went to college in Tokyo for a degree in advertising. Then at 33 she quit her job in corporate public relations, left her native Japan and moved to the United States to become an artist. She explained her decision this way: “Your parents will pass away eventually, and you have to live your life for yourself.”

Getting your parents to tolerate your choices may be enough.

The parents of Adriana Ramírez are “still not fine and will never be fine” with her life as a poet, she told me. But “they simply tolerate my choices because they love me.”

Truthfulness is overrated.

Then there’s the strategy that Zia Haider Rahman, a writer, advises: “Lie.”

Sometimes that’s the only way to avoid a pointless confrontation. I have lied often to my parents, in words or by omission. For example: My father is a devout Catholic who goes to church every day, and I am an atheist, but when I come home to visit, I take him to church and say nothing about what I believe. (Our parents have probably lied to us, too.)

The belt-and-suspenders approach.

Pursue your dreams, but prepare a backup plan — a double major for example (one major for your parents, one for yourself). This is also good preparation generally for a creative life. That’s what I did by pursuing academia for my day job, in the hope that one day I could call myself a writer.

Be patient.

While young people often want immediate answers, the road to acceptance from parents might be a long one. We may have to gradually wear down our parents, as Matty Huynh did. “Instead of declaring I was going to be an artist, I made art,” he said. By the time he left law school, his parents had gotten used to climbing around frames and boxes of books in their garage. “Continuing to make art had become mundane, an inconvenience,” he said, but eventually it became an “inevitability.”

Assert your independence, respectfully.

Parents, especially immigrant parents, have often worked incredibly hard to create opportunities for their children. Still, some parents have to learn that their children’s lives are not theirs, no matter what they sacrificed. Respect is the key, says Kavita Das, a writer: “It comes down to helping them understand that we are not throwing away all their hard work but honoring their hard work, because it allowed us to pursue our dreams.”

Mr. Huynh suggests putting less weight upon your parents’ approval: “It might sound aggressive to say one shouldn’t ask for permission, but it’s kinder not to expect a blessing from people who have no experience and only anxieties about your moonshot dreams.”

Now that I am a parent myself, I like to think I would allow my son to be anything he wants, such as a writer, artist or musician.

“What about professional video game player?” my wife asked.

Reader — I hesitated. I still do.

But I know I will have to let him go and trust that he will make the right choices for himself, if we have properly prepared him.

My parents, too, accepted me, and I hope that they would have accepted me even if I had failed in the pursuit of my dreams. After all, they themselves had taken huge risks, as refugees — leaving families behind, becoming their own bosses instead of accepting the jobs they were expected to take. This country benefited from their work and sacrifice.

Doctors, lawyers and engineers make great societal contributions, too. Still, we will always need our poets and artists, our teachers and storytellers, our misfits and dreamers, contrarians and risk-takers.

Category: Essays


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