The New Generation Gap

When Katherine Chon was in fifth grade, she drew a "dream tree" representing the path she hoped her life would take. One branch led to Harvard Medical School, which is exactly what her mother, Kumhee, had hoped for when the family immigrated to New Hampshire from South Korea in 1980. The Chons, including the then 2-month-old Katherine, brought only $200 and spoke no English, but the parents worked long hours—on an assembly line at a Hewlett-Packard plant and in a dry cleaner's they eventually bought—to give their three children opportunities they could never have had in South Korea. "I was a typical mom," recalls Kumhee. "I wished my kids to get higher education, get powerful jobs."

Always a diligent student, Katherine started out on the premed track at Brown. But then a new limb sprouted on her dream tree—one that her mother still doesn't understand. She read in the local newspaper that South Korean women were being forced into brothels near Brown. Appalled, Katherine joined forces with another Brown student to form the Polaris Project, now one of the largest anti-human-trafficking organizations in the country. "It was really hard for my parents," says Katherine, now 27. "They gave up a life in Korea; they were working 80 to 90 hours a week, and had so many life stresses so their children could get a great education and have a comfortable life."

The dreams of parents and children often clash, but the conflict can be especially painful in first-generation immigrant families where the parents have made enormous sacrifices. Lisa Sun-Hee Park, an assistant professor in the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of California, San Diego, says that every family that moves to the United States to provide opportunities for their children shares a remarkably similar story. The focus is almost always on the future, with little mention of the circumstances that compelled them to move. And even though the parents are the ones working 12-hour days, the children are also under intense pressure to perform in ways that will justify the parents' sacrifice: study hard, get into top schools and choose careers that offer financial stability without considering personal fulfillment.

The contrast between parents' dreams and children's realities can be particularly acute for daughters who have grown up with almost infinite opportunity in the wake of the feminist movement. Their mothers often came from countries where opportunities for women were severely limited, which makes the daughters' choices even more inexplicable. May Lugemwa's family left Uganda and the tyranny of Idi Amin when she was 7, ultimately settling in Birmingham, Alabama, where her father was studying for a Ph.D. in biochemistry. Her mother, a math teacher, stood in line for hours to make sure May was enrolled in a progressive grade school. Later, May was accepted at Harvard, where her parents encouraged her to study math or science. May complied at first, majoring in computer science. But then she switched to Visual and Environmental Studies, where she concentrated on film, much to her parents' bewilderment. Then her plans took an even more surprising turn—back to Uganda. For her senior film thesis, May accompanied her mother on her first trip back, filming her return to the village and visiting the graves of relatives. Then she discovered her mother's biggest secret: another daughter still in Uganda. The resulting short film, "Former Nationality," won awards and was even included in a film festival in Uganda. Now 25, May is currently studying at UCLA film school and working as a producer for a nonprofit organization called Meaningful Media. "I sometimes feel guilt," she says, "having chosen to be an artist, because I know that if I had chosen a scientific background, I could help my parents a lot more—and my relatives back home."

The struggle to reconcile personal fulfillment with familial obligation is common in this generation of immigrant daughters. Sparlha Swa, 27, for one, believes that following her bliss is the best way to honor her mother's sacrifice. Juliet Hart brought her three children to the United States from Jamaica for the opportunities. Sparlha and her brothers were straight-A students, and she went on to major in anthropology at Stanford. Sparlha held a series of jobs but soon found she could make money heeding her passion for music. She's now a singer-songwriter, and has performed around the world. One of her most personal songs is called "Mama," and includes the lines: "Who worked 16 hours just the other day breaking her back, her pride, her bones? So that we wouldn't ever have to do the same, never have to groan and moan, when we were on our own." Sparlha says her mother is now her biggest fan. "My mom's life has been inspirational because she has served the family instead of serving her own dreams. Because she didn't get to live her dreams, I have to."

Sometimes, mothers are called upon to do more than merely accept their daughters' choices. Going against the traditions and beliefs of their community can be devastating, as Irshad Manji's mother, Mumtaz, 62, knows firsthand. Her 39-year-old daughter has been hailed as the face of modern Islam, largely because of her controversial 2004 book, "The Trouble With Islam," a call for Muslims to make their faith more tolerant, especially of women. Irshad was raised in Canada after her parents emigrated from Uganda during Idi Amin's crackdown on South Asians. She's openly lesbian and has worked as a broadcast journalist in Toronto. Mumtaz is a devout Muslim who lives by the Five Pillars of Islam and faithfully attends mosque.

Although Mumtaz sometimes wishes her daughter were more conventionally observant, she sticks by her—even in the face of opposition from members of her mosque. When Irshad's book was published, her mother found out that her imam planned on making it the subject of a four-sermon series, beginning on the last Sunday of Ramadan, when the mosque would be filled with people. Although she knew she would face gossip, Mumtaz attended anyway. "Until this day, there are so many people who don't talk to me," Mumtaz says. "But who cares? My daughter comes first." Even when beliefs clash, love and loyalty endure.

Join the Discussion