This Is How 10 First-Generation Women Handle Their Immigrant Parents’ Career Expectations

by Alyssa James

Immigrant parent guilt might be the worst kind of parental guilt. When your parents are quick to tell you that they left a life back home to give you a chance at a better one, what can you say to that? For many children of immigrants, choosing to resist traditional career paths can be fraught with guilt — and the feeling that you’re doing the wrong thing.

“I don’t think my peers, who don’t come from immigrant families, fully understand the weight and burden of disappointing your parents,” Cynthia Salim, an ethical fashion entrepreneur, tells Bustle. “It’s incredibly difficult to keep walking down a road that you know your parents don’t approve of.”

The expectation of excellence in school and taking on a career that would provide stability were common themes among adult children of parents who immigrated to the U.S. For many millennial women, first-generation or not, so-called traditional careers are becoming less common as creative fields and entrepreneurship offer different kinds of career paths, as well as flexibility, self-determination, and fulfillment.

“I don’t get active pushback anymore but it’s kind of like, ‘Why are you taking a road that seems harder? Why not do something safer?’” Georgene Huang, CEO & Co-Founder of Fairygodboss, tells Bustle. “It’s not that they don’t think I can anymore, it’s more, why?”

Bustle spoke with 10 first-generation, millennial women who are defying their immigrant parents’ expectations, and carving out careers beyond what their parents ever imagined.

Cynthia Salim, ethical fashion entrepreneur, 30

My parents were entrepreneurs by necessity in Indonesia where I was born. They won the green card lottery and we came to the U.S. when I was 11. I did well in school and won a prestigious award to study a master’s in London, but my parents didn’t understand my interest in public policy and social change.

When I returned to LA after the master’s, I started applying for dream jobs with the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, and I had a tough time finding one. It was completely normal, but my mom — and I remember this moment so vividly — looked at me very seriously and said, “You know, it’s not too late to become a doctor.” I started laughing and then burst into tears because I realized she was completely serious.

I eventually got incredible internships in Geneva and started working in management consulting, but I still had this itch to do human rights and social change work. I started Citizen’s Mark, a clothing brand for professional, socially conscious women, in 2013. It was so well-received, and I was named as one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 this year. I was at home when I found out. I was excited, my sister was excited, and my mom didn’t know what it was — I had to explain it’s the leading business magazine. She’s a cashier at Target and she says, “Oh, it’s not at Target,” and just moved on with her day.

“I remember my mom saying, ‘Why are you doing business? Business is uneducated work … You had a job at a desk!’”

I don’t think my parents understand what I do but they’re slowly starting to. I think the journey towards that looked so unfamiliar that it creates this instinct of fear in our immigrant parents who sacrificed so much for stability. They think ‘Why are you creating more instability?’

Azah Awasum, founder of Lendie, 26

My parents are from Cameroon, and they immigrated to the U.S. in 1983. They came get a better education in hopes of going back, but with the economic and political unrest at the time they decided to stay and raise us here. I’m one of five girls, and they instilled in us the importance of education, really hard-lining traditional career choices like doctor, lawyer, accountant — safe things that would most likely be able to get you a job and money.

I loved the performing arts and that was a huge ‘No’ in my household. The other thing that my parents didn’t like was that I competed in pageants. They didn’t see the point in them and how they could lead to anything — but that was the impetus to starting my business. To offset the costs of competing, I would rent out my clothes to people in my network and a business idea was born.

“They hard-lined safe careers most likely to get you a job and money.”

My parents are supportive now, but I had a couple difficult years where I couldn’t find a job and started working in hospitality. I kept thinking, ‘Man, if I had just listened to my parents I would be so much further ahead.’ Our relationship is better now but at the time, my mom would say things like, ‘I really don’t want you to grow up to be a failure.’ When I talk to my parents now, they can see that the entrepreneurial traits I have are not something everyone has — and that those traits reflect them — they’re more accepting.

For other young women, it’s very important to take a step back, reflect, and follow the feeling you have inside of you. No one can make a decision about your life except you.

Raman Deol, communications lead, 28

My parents were both born in a small town in Punjab, India. My dad is a chemist and my mom was a teacher, but when they came to the U.S., they couldn’t do those things. Eventually, my dad worked his way into a very stable government science job.

It felt like there was this unspoken rule to pick well-known careers that were stable and well-paid with a clearly defined path to get there, like law or engineering. I tried to go down a more traditional route — a process more familiar to my parents — and studied environmental engineering. When I graduated, the internships I took weren’t feeling like good fits for me. I started working in PR.

“My career path has been a learning experience for both me and my parents.”

I think with first-generation kids, a lot of your choices come down to what you’re exposed to. Law and engineering — for friends and family who had the opportunity to go to college — are what they chose to do. It’s hard to imagine that there are other things out there. I kind of understood as a kid that there were people in this vague business function, or people who worked in companies that weren’t engineers. But I had no idea what people actually did in an office — I just thought everyone sat around and talked about strategy and numbers. I didn’t understand what was being executed.

As I started moving up the ladder and became more financially stable, they grew to understand it and I grew more confident in saying “This is my job, this is what I want to do five years from now.” My mom is a big proponent of me going to grad school even though she has no idea what for — she just has it in her head that it’s the next stepping stone. But they’re supportive enough. They use the app I work on, see that I enjoy it, and that it’s a good place for my talents.

Georgene Huang, CEO & Co-Founder of Fairygodboss, 37

I was born in Taiwan, as were my parents. I think their expectations were in some ways stereotypical of East Asian immigrants to America: you need to do well in school to go to a good college and get a job as a professional like a doctor or engineer. I guess you could be a lawyer, too. It wasn’t explicit, it wasn’t like they said you had to do those things, it was just assumed you would try.

“First-generation women have to deal with the double-whammy of gender role expectations on top of the ideals of their immigrant parents.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t do that well in school, mostly because I stopped doing homework to practice classical music — that was in clear violation of their expectations. After doing music, I went to law school and that made them happy. Later, I found myself suddenly needing to job hunt when I was two months pregnant and wanting to ask questions about maternity leave policies and cultures for moms — things I feared were stigmatizing to ask. I went online to find answers but there was no place where women talked about these topics openly with each other, so I created it. Taking an injustice in the world and turning it into a business is really anathema to the way I was brought up. You don’t take a problem on, you try to go around it.

My advice for younger women is that life is precious and short and it’s hard to live a life that’s inauthentic to you. How you go about that depends on your family dynamics, but baby steps are good way to start to get your family acclimated to your choices that may be different than their expectations.

Traci Cheng, operations manager, 27

My parents immigrated from Hong Kong in 1988. My mom was lucky enough to continue her career as nurse in Canada but my dad’s degree in social work — something he loved — was not recognized in Canada. There was a lot of emphasis growing up that they made a lot of sacrifices to give me a better future, so I had to go to university, achieve a steady career, and make good money as a result. There was a lot of pressure from knowing that.

Luckily, I had a group of friends in high school whose parents encouraged them to explore diverse career paths. I went to university to study media. After I graduated, there always jokes about me going back to do a master’s or going to med school. But I love the tech world and the start-up community.

“It’s hard because I’m an only child, but at the end of the day if they wanted more opportunities for that, they should have had more kids!”

If my dad’s in a bad mood he’ll say something like, “I thought you’d have picked a career that would be harder” or “I didn’t think you’d be so ordinary.” Those are painful things to hear — it makes you feel like you’ve disappointed them and all the sacrifices they made weren’t worth it. My mom assures me that they’re happy for me as long as I’m happy, and I remind myself that’s more important to them than the status of one of those professions.

Michelle Perez, Michelle Perez Events, 29

My parents came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic. I remember at six or seven years old asking my dad what I should be when I grow up. He said I should be a lawyer because I was smart, and I liked to debate. I never questioned it — from that point on, I was going to be a lawyer.

I went to college, took the LSAT, applied to law school, and got in. In my first semester I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m miserable.’ I decided to quit law school and I started working at a corporate job while interning on weekends to get experience in event planning. I always had it in the back of my mind to use the money I would make as a high-powered attorney to fund my entrepreneurial dreams anyway!

“I give my parents so much credit for not understanding — even for us, it’s still a foreign concept.”

With my dad, we actually had more issues when I decided to quit my corporate job. He said that I had all this stability: a near-six-figure salary, health insurance, and more. It makes sense he would crave a steady income and predictability considering what he had to do so I could have the opportunities he wished he had growing up.

To be honest, I didn’t know there were other careers besides the ones with prescribed, laid out paths. I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this, but it wasn’t until I saw The Wedding Planner that I realized you could be a wedding planner and live off it. I remember being in awe of J. Lo being professionally assertive — I had never seen a woman going after clients and getting what she wanted. It had such an impact on my life.

Diana Villegas, PR manager, 25

My parents came to the United States illegally from Mexico. Fortunately, it was at the time when [the U.S. government] did the [Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986], so we got green cards. They came here with the purpose of giving us an education, so right off the bat that’s what it was all about: What are you doing to get that? How are you studying to be better? I was repeatedly told I needed to work harder than Americans because I wasn’t from there and they wanted me to be someone to be proud of.

I think their idea of a better life was being respected. My mother was a teacher and at the time, being a teacher in Mexico was respected. They had to leave all of that behind for a place that belittled or infantilized them just because they didn’t speak the language. It feels harsh when you’re trying to give a future to your children.

“I knew my parents couldn’t help me build a career because they didn’t have the right connections.”

I attended college with a full scholarship. When we started looking for apartments my dad said, “If I knew I would come to the United States and you would be living in a worse apartment than the one I did when I studied, I don’t know if I would have made that decision.” I was very taken aback by that. They wanted me to be an engineer, a doctor, or a dentist — typical first-generation careers. I studied communications and my dad said I would end up homeless.

When I decided to study abroad — to help make me more competitive in the professional world — my dad was angry and afraid. They didn’t know how to react to my being so far away. My time in Australia was the first time I proved to myself I could survive outside my family unit. Without that experience, I don’t think I would be living and working in Hamburg, Germany, now. And I don’t think my family would be as comfortable with it.

Marian Bacol-Uba, social entrepreneur, speaker, & writer, 32

My parents are both from the Philippines. There’s a huge Filipino community in LA and that’s where I grew up. It’s kind of a running joke that everyone works in the medical industry and I think that’s what they wanted for me because it’s very stable. I went to college as a pre-med bio major and I absolutely hated it. I was miserable. I switched majors and didn’t tell them until my third year.

When I started doing marketing for restaurants and food, they didn’t really understand why someone would pay me to post photos or eat food. Even though I brought them to events, they still couldn’t understand how you could have a career eating food and writing and taking photos. When they saw that I had different clients and was working for different companies, it didn’t make sense — my mom has worked at the same place for more than 30 years!

They always told me to get a real job, which to them is going into an office every day, getting benefits like health insurance and 401k contributions. I come from a traditional family, and while they don’t intend to be mean, the negativity can wear you down. It almost feels like they’re wishing you could fail just to say, ‘I told you so’.

“I was never encouraged to be entrepreneurial. That was frowned upon.”

Growing up, I only saw white men doing the things I wanted to do. I had to look online to find people who understood me. It’s why I started speaking and writing about it more, to be an example of an Asian American woman with a successful business. I know there are a lot of Asian Americans my age and younger who want to be more entrepreneurial and don’t want to do the doctor, lawyer route.

I feel like when you’re close to your family and they’re always around, you can’t fully be yourself. When I was deciding to move away, I thought to myself, ‘Do I really see myself denying these desires and feeling this way for the next 50 years of my life?’ At the end of the day, if you want to be happy, you’re the only person who has control over it.

Judy Tsuei, writer and business strategist at Wild Hearted Words, 39

My parents immigrated to the U.S. from China via Taiwan, so they kind of grew up as immigrants before coming to the States. My parents were entrepreneurs, but they were continually in debt and struggling — they didn’t want that for us.

I fell in love with writing in fourth grade, but the liberal arts were not something anyone in my culture really pursued. They felt I should be a lawyer or a doctor. I went to Berkeley and they were stoked about that because it’s a good public university. When I told them that I was going to double major in mass communications and English, they were like, What?!

I continued to try to blend the creative with business to appease them and by 26, I was working as a consultant, easily making six figures. They still couldn’t get over the fact that I was a writer, but they were surprised by how well I was doing. When I told them I was going to start freelancing and become a yoga teacher and holistic practitioner, they were like, WHAT?!

“Being first-generation American meant that my parents didn’t know how to guide me in my career — or even help me apply to college.”

My parents and the people around me really didn’t know how to guide me in my career. I tried to hide that as much as I could until I realized I needed to acknowledge there were things I didn’t know and get over my shyness about asking questions to figure it out. Now that I’ve evolved into coaching female entrepreneurs on creating a laptop lifestyle, and finding their authentic voice, I think it’s way beyond what my parents can understand. I think they say I’m a reporter. Or they say I’m a mother.

Christine Serra, graphic designer and founder of Pastel Queen, 30

My parents are from Katerini, Greece. My dad moved to Boston in 1963 and my mom came right after she got married to my dad in 1973. They expected that I do well in school — education has always been important to them and that’s something I didn’t value as highly as they did. They wanted me to go to college, get good grades and be a doctor or a lawyer. I ended up going to school for graphic design and it was kind of a weird idea for them — how do you make money with art?

They were always telling me that I was doing the wrong thing, that I was wasting my time because I would never see success in that. That made me want to do it even more to prove them wrong. I started running my business full-time in February and my mom seems to be coming around. When I tell her good news she says, I’m so proud of you — I’d never heard her say that in my entire life! My dad seems pretty supportive. The other say he asked me the name of my business so he could share it with his friends on Facebook. That was sweet.

“One of my biggest challenges going down this path was just the negative talk.”

I think when they tell their friends what I do they say I design clothes. But they don’t really understand how I design clothes or make money from it.

First-generation children face a unique set of challenges when it comes to choosing what used to be thought of as alternative career paths. One thread that connected several of these women’s journeys was simply lack of exposure to creative careers. I always enjoyed writing but I didn’t know how a person really became a writer. If you wanted to be a doctor, you studied science, went to medical school, and worked at a hospital — there's only one way. But a writer? An artist? An entrepreneur? Today, we have more career possibilities than ever before. These first-generation women demonstrate that there’s no expectation we can’t defy to have the career we want.