Monday, 27 July 2020

The Chinese Cab Driver

He began with: "From the ages one to ten they follow their parents, then from ten to eighteen they begin to gain independence, and then once they're eighteen they're gone." and we all laughed. Then he continued, "But that's only white people. Asian people, we're different. But now, here we are, in this country, and our children are over eighteen and they hate their father." and the mood instantly dropped. "We raise them for eighteen years, and now are left with nothing."

Prior to this my father had overtly expressed his concerns about my sister and I living in a different city, and that we were unhappy to see our parents visit for the second time in three weeks. Due to his tendency to speak in black and white terms, he said "my daughters hate me," which set our immigrant cab driver off into his preaching spiral... a spiral that hit a little too close to home.

Of course our circumstances are different. Our world views are different. My sister and I believed in leaving home and forging our own paths, and our parents were forced into being okay with that. To us, this was reasonable. The Chinese cab driver's university-aged children were living at home with him, and he wouldn't have it any other way. Our parents are thinking of moving to a different city altogether. The Chinese cab driver was a strong advocate for remaining in the same city, even if it meant my parents should upturn their lives to follow us here, for fear of abandonment. To this, my sister responded in her bratty eighteen-year-old manner, "We didn't leave to make new friends. We left because we wanted to get away from you. You coming here would defeat that purpose."

I can say we have a different worldview all I want. I can say that we no longer live in the era of the three-generation household - of children never leaving home, of the same neighbourhood for generations, of no aeroplanes and immigration. The Chinese cab driver was yearning for something that I tragically cannot see being possible given our circumstances, and in a way that makes him right. My sister and I are too far flung, too focused on our own trajectories, and according to Asian values, that makes us selfish. We have no consideration for our parents in our lives. They are always welcome, but they are not considered. The welcome into our homes, the promise that we will support them if they come to us, is the Asian compromise. But the sacrifice I see in the prior generation of uncles and aunties, who designate a child to remain home and deny a life in the developed world, to fulfil the responsibility to take care of their parents, that's gone.

Last night I began reading Min Jin Lee's Free Food for Millionaires. The novel opens with a Korean family sitting around a dinner table in Queens, New York City. There is a fight between the father, Joseph, and his westernised eldest daughter, Casey. The Chinese cab driver was less assimilated than my father; Joseph was less assimilated than my father; and the pain they seemed to feel watching their children - their misunderstanding of Western values, their sadness at the loss of their own values - makes me feel both guilty and angry.

The Chinese cab driver advocated for the simple life. He wished for a world living pay cheque by pay cheque. He wished for a world of always thinking ahead - find a house before it's too late, find a job before it's too late. He understood a world where you must work to get by, and that is all. He will forever live on the third level of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Who cares about finding a job filled with passion? who cares about success and prestige? who cares about enjoyment? Who cares about finding the meaning of life? when the most important thing is family.

Casey in Free Food for Millionaires heads to the roof to smoke after Joseph tells her she must leave the house by morning. She contemplates where she will go - will she follow her rich, white friend to Italy and find a job there for a while; or will she bunk in with her white boyfriend? She thinks of the first time she saw the stars outside of New York and the awe she felt. She looks into windows of the buildings around her and studies the lives of others. She explains to her sister what sex feels like, and her sister studies Casey's impulsive, headstrong, raging personality - one that opposes the safety of Asian values in all their conservative and disciplinary glory.

In the last week I have seemingly exited my quarantine reverie. Suddenly I feel the need to do the chaotic and unexpected. I want to meet new people. I want to go on adventures. I want to try new things. I want drama and excitement and stupidity. Over lunch with a friend I felt suddenly invigorated, and left with a head full of plans. I felt like I was in a new and improved world - like I was a college girl once more, except this time with autonomy.

And then I got in that cab and I could feel my mood crash and burn. My face mask felt too hot and heavy, and my eyes were slowly closing, resolved after attempting to defend my generation to an immigrant man who would never understand. As the first-generation immigrant girl I feel as if it is my right to live the Western life our parents always dreamed of. That's why they moved here, right? They wanted us to assimilate, right? 

And before Joseph slaps Casey at the end of their fight, she thinks "As her father, he deserved respect and obedience - This Confucian crap was bred into her bones." Because it is. These values will forever be a part of me, and it's all so conflicting. I believe it is my right to live my life to the fullest - being one full of the individual, one that implements the selfishness of both the socialist and capitalist views of the West, of looking out for oneself. Meanwhile, the Eastern values of living, which do not fit into this Western way, are sitting in the background. 
And there they may collect my residual guilt.



  1. The push and pull between keeping traditional family values as an immigrant and assimulating to Western culture must be so tough. I am a second generation American. I know my mom had a really hard time when she was growing up because her family had traditional thoughts and beliefs when they left Colombia to come here. Hang in there <3


  2. Great post, thanks for sharing! So well written.

    Camille xo