On my return flight home from San Francisco a few days ago, I chatted with a young man sitting next to me. We talked nearly the entire flight, from take-off to landing, only stopping to take sips from our drinks. I don’t usually chat with strangers on flights since I value that precious alone time. Plus, it’s usually the only time I can actually read a book. But this young man was very friendly, obviously kind, and clearly wanted to chat. So I took out my earphones and put my book down.
He had spent a weekend at home and was headed back to college, where he is a pre-med student. It was obvious that he is very passionate about his studies and career choice and had already decided on what field of medicine he wanted to study (cardiology). I was intrigued by this 20 year old man because he seemed so confident and self-aware. He told me that he has known he wanted to be a doctor since he was very young and had been preparing himself his whole life for the challenge. The sacrifices, the studying, the long hours, and lack of social life…he said he was ready for all of it. I believed him. But I was curious. Where did his drive come from? Who or what inspired him? And did he feel any pressure to become a doctor? His Asian ethnicity made me immediately think of the recent Wall Street Journal article about Chinese Mothers and I could not help but ask questions about the mother who raised him.
His mother was an immigrant from Vietnam and, although she encouraged him and his brother to do their best, there was never any pressure to study for a certain career. While he is studying to be a doctor, his brother is studying to be a filmmaker at a local art school, something that their mother supports and encourages equally. They were allowed to play sports, play any instrument of their choice, spend plenty of time with friends, and pursue whatever interested them. I said that his mother must be so proud of him and his accomplishments and goals, to which he replied with a modest shrug. His mother worries, he told me. She worries that he works too hard and encourages him to spend more time with his girlfriend, friends, and to enjoy his college years. He brushes off her concerns, saying that if he doesn’t work hard enough, he will not achieve his goals. She certainly didn’t sound like a “Chinese Mother” to me.
He asked about my son and joked if I’m already putting any pressure on him to pursue a certain career. As we laughed about the idea of toddler LSAT and MCAT tests, I started thinking about the role I play as a mother. In reality, I don’t encourage the Monkey to do anything other than eat his veggies and share but, one day, I’ll be paying close attention to his interests and studies. Ideally, he will develop interests and find studies that he is passionate about and will pursue them to the best of his ability, but I know that’s not always the case. Children often have to be coaxed and nagged to study or practice. I can easily recall my childhood desires to stop swim practice, finish my piano lessons, and my impatience for certain classes to end. But how much is too much? When do we stop making a daughter practice the piano when it clearly no longer interests her or agree for a son to drop AP Biology when he prefers to work harder in History? Even when they nail a test or do well playing certain notes, does it even matter if they don’t find it that interesting or meaningful?
I saw the spark in the young man’s eyes when he spoke of his dreams of being a doctor, a spark his mother surely sees as well. I hope to see that spark in my own son’s eyes one day as well, whether it’s because he wants to be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. Or an artist, a writer, or an electrician. It truly doesn’t matter to me. Because without that spark, it won’t matter how hard a parent pushes. The spark cannot be generated artificially. It cannot be handed down or prompted by parents, “Chinese” or otherwise. The spark is created from within. And from within is the only place where that spark can truly be fueled and free to build and glow.