The story of the second-generation overachiever immigrant has been told countless times: the virtuoso violinist, the awarded neurosurgeon, the successful lawyer. Ryan Park, now a lawyer himself, details his own experiences growing up under classically severe, controlling parents, and his current attempts to reverse such parenting styles, starting with his own two daughters in a recent New York Times article.
Unraveling his early childhood, Park describes the reaction of his first grade peers and teachers to what they saw as sheer genius. He recalls, "Like a Navy SEAL thrown into a pool of raw conscripts, at 6, I had spent much of my conscious life training for this moment." Yes, his parents truly had trained him, in all senses of the word — from multiplication table recitations in the snow to newspaper reading sessions at dawn, Park's parents had instilled in him an resistance to grueling tasks, especially in the academic arena. In the eyes of his parents, the endless hours, the constrictive control, was mostly likely worth it all. Their son went on to Amherst College and then to Harvard Law. However, they simultaneously instilled within Park a continuing struggle to map out and understand the deep paradox of his own upbringing.
He continues to search for an explanation — where lies the balance between childhood resentment and professional achievement as an adult, between cultivating grit and determination as opposed to happiness? And does it have to be mutually exclusive?
Nevertheless, the preternatural drive of the children of immigrants to succeed, known as "second-generation advantage," might taper off. Historically, a phenomenon knows as "third-generation decline" might also hit Asian-Americans; families are predicted to absorb what have traditionally been seen as American family and cultural values, refusing or failing to pass on the fervor that had previously dictated their lives. Park and his wife, too, have experienced this transition, planning a firm, yet supportive and warm childhood and home environment. And if this decision does, in fact, bring a "family decline," so be it, he believes. Children are proven to function better under a firm but loving hand, and Park strives to reach that optimal balance, perhaps an impossible task, but one he will never give up on.
He does still have inevitable worries about his parenting style, though. Park remarks, "Every time I snuggle my daughters as they back away from a challenge — when my own father would have screamed and spit and spanked until I prevailed — I wonder if I’m failing them in a very different way than he did me."
With each turn of a generation, new circumstances and beliefs unfold amidst convoluted bursts of acculturation and cultural preservation. Perhaps the secret lies in redefining our terms — not "failure," not "model Asian," and not "decline," but a more compassionate, richer vocabulary to document and guide the great Asian-American story.