HUFFPOST PERSONAL

My Immigrant Parents Wanted A Better Life For Me. This Is Why I Chose My Path Over Theirs.

The author as a child with her parents.
The author as a child with her parents.

My father’s family left Greece and emigrated to the United States when he was a teenager. As many come to learn when pursuing the American dream, it wasn’t all rainbows and white picket fences. My grandparents, who didn’t speak English at the time, struggled to adjust to their new life far from friends and family. While they spent 12 to 14 hours a day working toward the better life that they had dreamed of, my dad skipped out on his high school classes. A nonconformist at heart — a trait I clearly inherited — he refused to go to school in protest of his new life. In lieu of studying, he started working in restaurants owned by other immigrants in New England.

At the age of 21, my rebellious father somehow convinced his parents to help him open his own restaurant. Although he had rejected the life they’d envisioned for him, they wanted to support him on his quest to create his own version of happiness. They moved down the coastline in search of a new home, eventually settling in a small town in South Carolina. A few years after successfully establishing his business, my dad met my mom during a trip back home to Greece.

My mom grew up in poverty, working on farms with her parents. She also hadn’t gone to high school, but in her case, she had made that choice to help her family earn an income. Though she was only 19 when she met my dad, she was already considered too old to find a suitable husband, according to the norms of a small Greek village in the 1980s. When a successful Greek businessman living in America showed interest in her, everyone encouraged her to seize this opportunity for a better life. My parents eventually got married, my mom joined my dad in the U.S., and I was born shortly after.  

I associated my dad’s restaurant with a sense of immense pride, security and connection. But as I got older, that transformed into feelings of anxiety and being overwhelmed.

Growing up, my father’s restaurant played a central role in my life. I remember playing songs on the old jukebox we used to have many years ago. When Hurricane Hugo devastated the coast of South Carolina in 1989, we sought shelter in the back of the building. I sometimes had my birthday parties there. People in town knew me by my father’s business. Customers sometimes came from other states to eat our food. I associated my dad’s restaurant with a sense of immense pride, security and connection.

But as I got older, that transformed into feelings of anxiety and being overwhelmed. My father intended for me to eventually take over the business, but I had no interest in following in his footsteps. While working there as a teenager, I would sometimes lock myself in the bathroom and cry. I wanted to do something that fulfilled a sense of purpose, and running a restaurant didn’t feel meaningful to me. 

Throughout high school, I desperately tried to find other jobs over my summer breaks so I wouldn’t have to run the register or wait tables. I started to drop not-so-subtle hints that I wasn’t interested in taking over the business. My dad eventually realized that I intended to live my life on my own terms. He understood why it was important for me to pursue my own dreams, because he had made the same decision despite what had been expected of him. I think he could see himself reflected in me, and he started to encourage me to do what would make me happy.

Even though I was determined to forge my own path, I continued to feel stifled and limited by my mother’s unrealistically high expectations. I felt immense pressure to make her proud, which meant being involved in every possible extracurricular activity while also maintaining an excellent academic record. When I graduated third in my high school class, my mom expressed disappointment that I didn’t make salutatorian or valedictorian. No matter what degree of success I achieved, I felt like I could never do or be enough.

Even though I was determined to forge my own path, I continued to feel stifled and limited by my mother’s unrealistically high expectations.

I had always been a very creative child. I loved reading, writing and creating art. I tried to funnel my artistic passions into a profession my mom would approve of — architecture. But after the suicide of a close friend, I started to think about pursuing a career as a therapist instead. My mom was supportive of architecture because she thought it was respectable and financially lucrative. When I started talking about my interest in the social sciences, she perceived that as a downgrade and questioned why I would be willing to give up security and stability.

I felt obligated to please her, especially after rejecting my father’s business, so I applied to a school with one of the best architecture programs in the country and was accepted. But I couldn’t stop thinking about pursuing a career that would allow me to cultivate meaningful human connection. I had never really bought into traditional definitions of success, and purpose meant far more to me than money. Just a few days before the start of my freshman year, I filed the paperwork to change my areas of study to sociology and psychology. 

As children of immigrants, we want to make our parents proud, and we want them to feel that their sacrifice was worth whatever they might have given up. But what does that mean, really? Do we carry on their legacy, or do we create our own? The dilemma we face is usually further complicated by cultural differences. Most of our parents come from regions with collectivist cultures, whether it’s Cuba, Mexico, India, Iran, or in my case, Greece. These are societies that place an emphasis on community — inheriting a family business is the expected norm, and the pursuit of individual dreams is not encouraged. But we find ourselves in the United States, a highly individualistic culture that emphasizes choice, freedom and personal fulfillment. We’re torn between who we want to be and who we are expected to be. 

I made the decision to pave my own path because I would have become resentful and miserable if I had forced myself to take over my dad’s business out of a sense of expectation or obligation. I often worry that my parents think I don’t appreciate them because I chose my desires over theirs, but nothing could be further from the truth. I didn’t always agree with their perspectives or reasoning, but I was always grateful for everything they did to provide for me.

As children of immigrants, we want to make our parents proud, and we want them to feel that their sacrifice was worth whatever they might have given up. But what does that mean, really?

But maybe choosing my own dreams is the ultimate expression of my gratitude. I have a choice because of the sacrifices they made for me. The ability to define my future is possible because they made it so. Am I really supposed to follow in their footsteps when everything they did was to make sure I could make choices for myself?

We so often ignore the desires of our hearts, give up on our dreams and betray ourselves in order to please our immigrant parents. They want us to choose “safe” paths that lead to “guaranteed” success. They push us hard and expect a lot from us because they don’t want us to struggle in the same ways they did. They just want what’s best for us, but they unintentionally stifle our spirits in the process. If their sacrifices were made in order to create space for our happiness, shouldn’t we be the ones to decide what that happiness looks like? 

My personal journey as the daughter of immigrants has taught me a critical life lesson — only I can give myself the approval and worth I so desperately seek from others. I could have spent my whole life doing what I thought would please my parents, and they would have always expected me to go one step further. I could deny what was in my heart and strive to live up to impossibly high expectations, or I could choose a life that would bring me joy.

My personal journey as the daughter of immigrants has taught me a critical life lesson — only I can give myself the approval and worth I so desperately seek from others.

I chose the latter, and I’ve created a fulfilling life that I love. I didn’t end up pursuing therapy in the long term. During my undergraduate studies, I lived in housing designed to cultivate cross-cultural relationships between international and domestic students. This experience had a profound impact on me and shifted my professional path. I went on to get my master’s degree in cultural anthropology and dedicated myself to a career in intercultural education. I now travel the world full-time as a location-independent intercultural consultant and coach, and I spend every day doing work that gives me purpose.

Not everyone, including my parents, is able to comprehend the value of my work or the life I’ve created for myself, but I do. And I’ve come to realize that has to be enough for me. Not everyone will understand or appreciate what I have to offer. Not everyone will support me or the choices I make. But it’s not my responsibility to mold who I am to fit into a box built out of someone else’s expectations. And it’s not my job to fulfill someone else’s dreams. I am here to live out my purpose, and that’s what I intend to do. 

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