Many people I know have parents who are suffering from Early Fox News Dementia, ranting about the perfidy of Anthony Fauci and the possibility of catching critical race theory from an open jar of mayonnaise. But at the same time, they want to give their children parental advice and guidance, though now through the prism of their separate bespoke realities. They want to remain parents, but only on their own racist and hurtful terms. My counsel to these children—stemming from what my closest friends and I experienced, all of us immigrants in our forties from different parts of the world—is to orphan yourself.
A few years after graduating from college, I decided to do just that. Not to become an orphan per se, because my mother and father remained thankfully alive, but to leave their vast, roiling emotional spheres of influence. I realized that they could not provide me with what parents are supposed to provide twenty-somethings, which is not necessarily a trust fund but rather a map of what early adulthood could look like based on their own experiences. My post-Soviet parents’ map of adulthood ended at the Baltic Sea; none of their advice made any sense, but all of it was rendered with supreme parental self-confidence, because they were, after all, my parents. As a sickly adolescent, I remember them taking me to a Russian energy healer who was supposed to cure my asthma by rubbing my chest with his alcohol-soaked hands. On the career front, my mother wanted me to pursue a CPA license. (I can barely add two small figures.) When I meet fellow post-Soviet immigrants at readings, the stories they tell me in the signing line are full of similar quack cures and ridiculous career advice. How many unfortunate women of my generation were parentally goaded into pharmacy school for no discernible reason? I’ll never know. And, of course, this does not only apply to Russian-speaking parents. As one friend of Indian heritage was told by his father when he was a teenager: “No one will marry you; you have no muscle tone.” Or another Indian American friend, who was given this mixture of romantic and career advice: “Become an engineer or a doctor, because no one will ever love you, and this way you can at least be useful.”
This article appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Esquire
When I was a teenage immigrant (I arrived in the States in 1979, at the age of seven), all of this started to make me angry, and the anger only grew through early adulthood. Now I approach my parents with unbounded love, and also with sadness. You are who you are. You know what you know. You do what was done to you. My parents won’t get vaccinated against Covid, in part because, in addition to Fox News, they watch Russian state television, which tells them Pfizer and Moderna may kill them or cause lethal allergies or blood clots or who knows what. How can I be angry at anything they’ve done to me, including the time spent with that asthma energy healer, when they are now using the same misconceived advice to rob themselves of their golden years?
During the pandemic, stuck at home with nothing to do, I began to write a novel about friendship, and I began to realize just how much my friends have been a family to me and to one another. As an only child, I had no older siblings to turn to, but I was surrounded with people just like me, most of them immigrants, most of them with parents who were similarly situated in their distinct alternate universes. We decided many years ago, informally, to create our own networks of families, to give each other advice, to figure out who we were supposed to become all by our lonesomes. We hunted everywhere for clues on families and relationships, from one another and from bookshelves groaning with texts in our overstuffed studios; in the end, we gleaned more information on how life should be lived from the collective works of Zadie Smith than from our ancestors back in Queens. Or as a friend of mine put it bluntly: “I’ve learned more from YouTube than from my parents.”
Each of us picked out our role as we embarked upon early adulthood. A Korean American friend mothered me by knitting me scarves, sewing me denim wallets, and making sure I wasn’t dressed like I had stumbled off Aeroflot in 1979. I became known for my résumé- and cover-letter-writing skills, proofing hundreds of these throughout the decades and then dispensing very gentle career advice: “I’m not necessarily saying PonziPlus Capital is a pyramid scheme, but. . . .” (Hmm, maybe my mother was right about that CPA license.) An Indian American friend who survived cancer regularly gave spot-on advice on navigating our country’s heartless health-care system. When I suffered a horrific groin injury last year and could not wear jeans for months, he sent me a pack of dhotis (loose, trouser-like sarongs), which allowed me the gift of movement while I healed. Wealthier friends shared their riches with poorer ones; one even paid for another’s stint in rehab.
And, of course, we got each other through the breakups and worse. As we reached middle age, we sharpened our emotional skills. Learning to take care of others made us better people and, for those of us who chose to have kids, hopefully better parents. Our own parents came from cruel parts of the world, where toughness was the ultimate value, which in turn made any suffering on America’s wealthy shores seem relatively minor. “Stop crying!” my Korean American friend’s mother told her after she went through both a breakup and a miscarriage. “Shut up already!”
“Any sign of weakness or vulnerability brings out their bully mentality,” my friend told me.
After our Capitol building was raided by insurgents and in days when our very democracy has to apply for a renewal pass every two to four years, I can see native-born American parents of certain generations taking on some of the same qualities—qualities rooted in the propensity toward violence and control that was built into this country from the start. To them, their children are the enemy, and Thanksgiving is the battlefield upon which their sense of dignity will live or die. Some millennials and Gen Z-ers with younger, more progressive parents may not encounter this carnage, but those with parents still Booming along are stuck in a bind. They are part of a culture that encourages tight, helicopterish parent-child relations, yet talking to their parents brings them more grief than comfort. “I can’t tell you how many times I say to my cousins to stop telling their parents about their lives,” a friend wrote to me.
But this is easier said than done. Every aspect of our human and animal selves is primed for dialogue with and affirmation from the two creatures who stalk our dreams and therapists’ couches. For so many of my friends in their forties, no achievement has been sanctified until their parents have signed off and thereby made it real. But for so many of them, that affirmation will never come, in the same way that the Arizona election results will not be reversed and their parents’ beloved Trump will not be reinstated in office. This is not a Hollywood movie where reconciliation, enlightenment, and closure can be attained. This is The Sopranos, where the same thing repeats itself over and over until (spoiler alert) the screen conclusively fades to black.
Of course, there is one thing that immigrant parents can do better than native-born Fox News parents: save money. If any advice from my parents has mattered, it is on how to remain solvent, even when pursuing a liberal-arts career. A friend of mine recalls that after I bought my first apartment, a dilapidated one-bedroom on the Lower East Side, my mother marched in “looking like a communist worker with that kerchief in her hair” and, using her willpower and several strategic bottles of vodka, managed to browbeat a small team of Eastern Europeans into renovating the place for the price of several so-so dinners down on Grand Street. And today, I still save money like a crazed just-off-the-boat immigrant, walking hundreds of blocks instead of taking the subway or, God forbid, an Uber. Which leads me to the most difficult part of any parental decoupling: the fact that your parents live on inside you no matter what kind of relationship you have with them in real life.
And so the holidays might be a time of listening to their Foxy rants with a mysterious half smile on your lips and a faraway look in your eyes (though my own family is pretty holiday averse, and I tend to huddle with some friends and a small turkey out in the countryside). What they’re saying may be repellent, but ask yourself: How much of their anger and helplessness is permanently cached in you like an authoritarian mini parent in full uniform directing Pyongyang traffic or scaling the walls of our Capitol? Every time you share a kindness with a friend, treat them how a good parent would, by sewing them a wallet or helping them start a pass-through corporation for their new hipster wallet business; that way, you are shrinking that little dictatorial parent inside you. And then when your actual parents give you outrageous, useless advice, or fail to vaccinate themselves because Tucker Carlson said so, or send you on a path toward a career that hasn’t been around since 1987, instead of reacting to them with anger, you can harness the one emotion that is called for. You can respond to them with the sorrow they so richly deserve.
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