Lessons from an (unusual) Asian immigrant father

(Not my dad, but the basis of the "strict Asian dad" meme).

Immigrant dads in Canada tend to have a bad rap -- Asian fathers especially. The stereotypical Asian immigrant dad is super-strict and overbearing, expecting nothing less than straight A's from his offspring and demanding them to become doctors, lawyers and engineers (or at the very least, marry one). If comedian Russell Peters' memory serves right, they're also highly likely to beat you if you give them any sass. 

But I've never quite been able to relate to the "stern immigrant dad" experience of others because my own father had a very different line of thinking. 

Sure, he expected high grades, but his job expectations for me were shockingly expansive: 

"Just don't end up on welfare, okay?"

Same deal for marriage: no pressure to marry within a certain race or culture, or even income.

"As long as he doesn't beat you, it's fine." 

It's not that he's a lax father -- far from it, actually -- but as the youngest of seven children growing up in an impoverished post-war Okinawa, Japan, he knew that things could always be a lot worse and that nothing should ever be taken for granted. "五体満足で生まれる" -- to be born with limbs and head intact -- was already viewed as a lucky start for a newborn child. That's what a lot of people from an older generation say, and the attitude remains today, even if the saying does not.   

Below are a few of the favorite lessons I've learned from my unconventional  immigrant Canadian dad:

(Almost) everything is a good experience. 

People tend to distinguish "good experiences" from "bad" ones, but my dad pushed his kids to think beyond the narrow social definition of "good": pleasant, productive, profitable. A nasty breakup with a partner could bring important self-reflection, while getting lost for hours leads to exploring more paths on the journey. Aside from the few psyche or health-shattering occurrences, most things can be turned into a good experience. 

Happiness is "right now"

My dad's advice was that happiness wasn't worth very much if it was ghettoized to childhood memories or postponed until specific conditions were met in the future. The trappings of happiness were, in any case, often arbitrary at best: what if you worked hard to become a successful doctor and realized you actually wanted nothing more than to be an indie horror filmmaker? What if the seemingly ideal marriage partner turned out to be a con artist?

Be happy where you are with what you have, he said, even if that place might not be enviable from other peoples' perspectives. 

Don't get attached to material things.

Everything that has a physical shape will eventually end up breaking -- so don't get too worked up over material possessions. And really, some things are valuable precisely because of their fragility: would a near-indestructible plastic teacup have the same value as a breakable handmade earthenware cup? Probably not. 

This was an important lesson, to be sure, but led to a certain nonchalance in my case if I accidentally dented a sibling's loaned possessions.  

Things can only happen as they're meant to happen.

It's not exactly fatalism, but a revised version of the "expect the worst, hope for the best" saying. My dad always mentions this when he sees me stressing out over a situation that can't be helped. Praying and hoping for a safe return flight or a childbirth is fine, but there are a lot of factors that are outside of one lone individual's control.

Lighten up.

"If I wanted my kids to worry and stress out every day in a cram school, I wouldn't have come to Canada," my dad assures. 

He's right, and I'm glad he chose this country to build a family. 

Happy Father's day, Otosan. 


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