The Other Side of the Coin

It’s time for some perspective.

I’ve been very lucky, in many ways. I’m part of the minority of the human race that gets to even try to have a developed-world standard of living, let alone succeed at it. I’ve never lived outside of one of the world’s economic powerhouses long-term and never known firsthand what it’s like to live somewhere where electricity isn’t a dependable resource. The closest I’ve been to the depths of destitution this world has to offer is at a resort run by Royal Caribbean on the coast of Haiti, where I watched the staff (all locals, to RC’s credit) collecting trash at the periphery of the cordoned-off beach. It would not have been a long trek to find villages that would look right at home in DR Congo, and where the only constants were mud and violence.

To even have that opportunity–to look at that kind of privation from afar while frolicking on a banana boat–is to be the recipient of enormous privilege.

My parents would claim that it was entirely their doing, and much more than most American claimants to such success, they’re not wrong. They arrived on New Jersey’s shores with little to their names but the drive to make sure that succeeding generations of their progeny would do better than they did, and put prodigious hours into making that happen. They did not have the benefit of a large inheritance or deeply involved parents to get them on their feet, even as they relied heavily on the public school system and on several measures of luck, and that makes their success all the more awesome.

It makes my life’s work seem small by comparison.

They set me up with an idyllic start compared to what they endured. Even the small house in an inauspicious neighborhood in New Jersey was a paradise compared to their own upbringings, because I had them for parents and their home for mine. And they grew that to a home in Miami that is downright palatial compared to where many first-generation immigrants live, and which they continuously improve. Where they had to work to make sure their families survived them going to high school, I had to be cajoled into getting a part-time job in university, a job that ended up being one of my fondest memories of those four years.

It was as much a hobby as a job, because my needs–my roof and my food and my tuition and my occasional movie outings and the part of my online shopping habit that my pay didn’t cover–were on their dime. I graduated BSc in Biology and Marine Science with a minor in chemistry, magna cum laude, departmental honors in marine science, because they paid my way and let me drive their car and were my backup ride from the marine campus when I timed my experiments badly and didn’t mind my eating two meals a day on campus when my schedule kept me at it until 9 five days a week.

I could call it mine. I’d like to call it mine. I have every right to call it mine. It’s my name on that degree and it’ll be my name on my Ph.D. when I get it and it was me staying up until the wee hours typing term papers and reviewing ring diagrams and it was my SAT score that got UM to halve their tuition for me. But that achievement isn’t mine, not the way their too-perfect-for-reality Horatio Alger bootstrap history is. I owe my success to their buying me a wall of books on every topic and reading to me at night and not pressing me too hard to do things other than reading. I owe it to their taking my educational needs seriously and making sure I ended up in “gifted” programs at every level. I owe it to our periodic trips to the Rahway River to collect gambusias and crayfish and mud snails and to taking tours around the Miami Seaquarium before I even understood where Florida is.

I owe it to them reacting to my decision to pursue graduate studies 2600 kilometers away from home across an international border with confusion and preemptive dreading of distance to come and throwing their fullest into getting me set up in my first bachelor apartment knowing that it’d be months before they saw me again. I owe it to them not telling me to throw away my acceptance at once of the preeminent universities for aspiring fish physiologists because it wasn’t the one at the other end of town.

A lot gets lost in the way I talk about my relationship to my family. I’ve been the odd one out from the start, and became odder every year. There is a yawning gulf of difference between us, and that difference has lately dominated our conversations and made them tense and angry. There are things they say and do that remind me that I can go to them for the kind of unconditional love that is the best thing the human race can offer its own, but understanding is something I have to find elsewhere. There are things they say and do that remind me that they’d see me as a villain in the United States’s narrative, someone opposed to all manner of things that “their” America stands for, if I were not their son. There are things I recently enumerated at length, that they didn’t understand.

But even there, I am privileged. I am privileged in that I’ve never had to worry that I’d be expelled from home, or disowned, or any of the other horrors that friends of mine have experienced from their parents for their heresies. I’ve never had to worry that funding my education would fall on me if I didn’t toe the line of their presumptions. I’ve never had to worry that I’d enter the not-exactly-lucrative field of professional science or teaching with a mountain of debt like so many other university graduates, regardless of whether I picked a field they understood or found laudable. I’ve never had to worry that my parents would mistreat or try to drive away someone I was dating even though I’ve never brought home someone who met with their honest approval and probably never will. I’ve never had to worry that I would ascend my own ladders and accomplish things whose import they didn’t understand and have them sigh with boredom instead of beam with pride.

I’ve never had to worry that, after a long absence, I wouldn’t have a family to go back to, however short my stay.

I’ve never had to worry that my parents would do anything less than their utmost to make sure that their offspring succeed at what they do, and they’ve impressed that same zeal and that same intensity on me, to the point that I’ve made hard decisions that they can’t stand.

Whatever our differences, you’re frikken fantastic, and you deserve all the praise and thanks and gratitude there is for that.
The Other Side of the Coin