My dad left Shanghai when I was 2 months old. He went to the University of Kansas with $20 and an acceptance letter from the dean of the Physics dept. The department head changed between his acceptance and his planned departure but he went anyway because my parents had a dream. They had survived the cultural revolution as young adults and wanted a different and better life for me and for themselves. They both have stories about those years that are surreal and like an excerpt from 1984.
My dad finally had enough money to send for my mom a year later. They both worked two jobs while going to school full time. They have stories about living on their last $20, taking leftovers from the school cafeteria where my mom worked, and grabbing furniture that people have thrown away on the sidewalk. They both took the biggest risks imaginable leaving their family, friends, and their child to move to a country where they don’t know anyone and have no guarantees. Anytime life gets “hard”, I try to remind myself that everything in my life is a cakewalk compared to what my parents have gone through.
It took them 9 more years to have the means to get a green card and bring me through the immigration system to join them in the US. At that time, my dad was a professor in the electrical engineering department at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln and my mom had somehow gone from a PhD in Education to the COO at a ellipsometry startup. But the cost was 10 years of not being together as a family.
When I was in college studying computer engineering. My mom advised to get a good engineering job and don’t try to go into leadership or management. Management jobs come with a lot of hassle and I just wasn’t built that way. So get a good engineering job and just focus on doing good honest work I was trained for. I was suppose to get a phD from a good school like Stanford or Berkeley first and then get that senior engineering job or go into academia like my dad. That was what I worked towards since I was 12 years old. Of course I didn’t do that. I took my GRE and could not imagine going to school for another 4–7 years for my phD. So I ended up with two job offers as a product manager before my senior year: Microsoft and Google. I took the Google offer after a few tearful conversations with my parents about abandoning our phD dreams and being the least educated member of my family. When I decided to leave Google for Facebook 5 and half years later, we had the same troublesome conversations around why I was leaving a good thing. Why I was never satisfied with what I have already and why the risks weren’t worth it. Again when I left Facebook for fun-employment and my latest adventure, Athos.
My parents are risk takers and adventurers. They made bold decisions with their lives and they conquered new lives, new countries, and new careers. You would think that they would want their children to take the same type of risks in life and maybe be entrepreneurs. Instead my parents have always encouraged me to make the safer choice. This is a common theme with immigrant parents. The lesson seems to be we took risks so you don’t have to. Why take the crazy road when we’ve already won?
I am so lucky that my parents took the risks and did the hard work they did. I wouldn’t be where I am right now without them. However, it makes me wonder if that’s the immigrant’s dilemma. My parents risked it all so I don’t have to. So that I will have a safer and better life. However, without risk, without hardship, how could we become more? How do you go from settling into a new country with nothing to shaping the future of the country? How do we balance grateful and humble with ambition and creativity?
this essay was originally published on Rose's personal blog
banner image of Rose as a girl in Shanghai, courtesy of author