Growing Up with High Expectations

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Does this family story sound familiar: the father, born the son of a North Korean farmer, leaves his family, escapes the Communists, and puts himself through the most prestigious department of the most prestigious school in Korea, Seoul National University. Through sheer determination and brainpower, he comes to the United States in 1962 to earn a master’s degree in chemical engineering at M.I.T. He would later earn his PhD there. This hard-driving, extremely focused man all along the way expected his own children to do at least as well and even better.

He is a brilliant scientist who holds dozens of patents in the esoteric world of fibers research. Recently retired after 30 years as a chemical engineer for Allied Signal, he is fluent in four languages, English, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese, as well as the highly specialized jargon of scientific research.

The story is one that’s very familiar to me. The man I describe is my father, Dr. Young Doo Kwon. He came to the United States alone in 1962, much like the pioneer men of old, scouting out the new territory and getting himself on more solid financial ground before sending for me, my younger brother, Osong, later given the American name Bob, and my mother, still in Korea.

My father always told me that as a girl and a minority, I would have to work twice as hard as everyone else. Though English was our second language, my brother and I quickly became known as the school superbrains. We got straight As. We were expected to do well and we did. We grew up with the pressure to go to an Ivy League school. We resented and at the same time both thrived under the burden of family expectations.

One of my unhappiest childhood memories was triggered by receiving a “B” in penmanship in second grade. At the time we were living in Arlington, Massachusetts, while my father worked on his doctorate in neighboring Cambridge. I hid my report card in my top desk drawer and told my parents the teacher had not given it to me. She would mail it. Of course my parents found it. I was punished, more so for lying than for the “B,” but I had still let them down.

I was so programmed with the idea that I had to do well that in the fourth grade, when I failed my eye exam at school, I was afraid my parents would be angry. Failure of any sort was just not in our family’s vocabulary.

I was tapped for the Double A program, Able and Ambitious. In high school I was chosen to represent my school at the Girls Citizenship Institute and Washington Workshops, student leadership conferences. I excelled in music. I won an award for writing an original piano composition. I won the opportunity to play a recital in New York City. I played the violin for the school orchestra and Renaissance group.

In high school I fell in love with French literature and Jean-Paul Sartre. I pondered the mysteries of existentialism. I imagined I was Simone de Beauvoir, sipping cafe au lait and writing poetry in Paris.

My parents wanted me to become a doctor. My father told us that if he hadn’t had to struggle so much, he would have gone to medical school. He pushed his unrealized ambitions on his children, not understanding that the idea of blood and sharp instruments and sick people turned my stomach.

My high school yearbook reads “Euna dreams of one day becoming a journalist or a doctor.” The journalist part was my dream. The doctor part was a bone I threw to my parents, an option I pretended to keep open, so they would be happy.

In high school, I was the only freshman to dance in the spring musical, “Can-Can.” My parents chaffed about rehearsals. They warned me that they would yank me from the cast should my grades slip. I was yearbook editor and they worried I wouldn’t have enough time to do homework. I played lacrosse. They fretted about the time consumed by practice and traveling to games. I was a cheerleader. They thought games were a waste of time. I ignored their protests. It was the beginning of my rebellion.

I decided early that Yale was the place for me. I would major in English, and indulge in comparative literature. My parents wanted me to go pre-med. I applied to Yale early action, and by December had received the coveted fat envelope with the key to my future. In April I got into Princeton and Wellesley, but was turned down by Harvard, my parents’ first choice for me. Though I was somewhat relieved, my parents were crushed.

I was to let my parents down yet once more. They anticipated I would be named valedictorian of my graduating class. Not only did I have a straight A average, I was a leader, an athlete, and a musician. But I was taking AP Calculus, at my father’s insistence, though I had zero talent and equal interest. The last marking period, suffering the combined effects of senior-itis and spring fever, my calculus grade slid. My arch academic rival slipped past me and grabbed the brass ring of being first in the class.

I couldn’t spot my parents in the sea of faces at graduation. I learned later that my father had threatened to boycott the ceremony and came only at my mother’s insistence, sulking at the fringes of the crowd.

I joke that I compromised and chose to major in political science at Yale because it had the word “science” in the title and that would placate my parents. After graduating in 1982 I got a job with the Associated Press in the People’s Republic of China, recently opened up to the United States. I worked my way into television news, reporting on air in Sacramento, San Francisco, and New York. While I became a TV personality, interviewing people like Gloria Steinem, Itzhak Perlman, and Tom Hanks, my parents never gave me the sense that I had chosen the right career. As far as they were concerned, I had turned my back on the opportunity to become a doctor.

My brother, Bob, also felt the pressure to go into medicine. His teachers nicknamed him the “enthusiastic scholar.” He played the piano and the cello. He was an Eagle Scout. Bob went to M.I.T., just like my father and most likely because of my father. He graduated in 1986. Though he majored in biology and now works in research and marketing for Proctor and Gamble, at heart, he is an artist and a poet.

As an adult, I recognize the pressure that my brother and I grew up with and how it shaped our lives. I confess looking into the faces of each of my newborn babies and silently pleading, only half in jest, “please please please go to medical school and get grandma and grandpa off my back.”

We are raising our children differently. We expect our children to do well, but they know that anything less than an A is not a cause for shame, as long as they tried their best. When the G and T math letter came home in third grade I asked each of our daughters if they were interested in taking the test. They said no, and we didn’t push.

I don’t believe in Ivy League or bust. I would rejoice if our children got into Yale, but with Katie’s ambitions to become a professional hip-hop dancer and actress, she’d probably do better going to someplace like NYU or Carnegie-Mellon. Molly’s love for all creatures great, small, and slimy would make her an ideal candidate for the UC Davis veterinary medicine program. Will has talent at T-ball. Our budget would welcome a sports scholarship and the Ivy League does not give those out.

I have learned important lessons outside of school. I know that academic success is not a guarantee of life success. Getting good grades and testing well is important, but real life demands other skills. A healthy shot of street smarts never hurts.

I know that it’s not wise for parents to base their happiness on the success of their children because it’s too much of a burden and no child should have to live with that. As a parent you have an obligation to open as many doors for your children as you can, but ultimately, it’s up to them to choose which they will walk through.

My father, tenacious as ever, is the embodiment of the idea that hope springs eternal. He now knows that none of his children will ever become a doctor. But he’s got five grandchildren and his dream is still alive. And that’s enough to make me happy.