When my brother and I were growing up, we developed a lie that we sustained until adulthood. We pretended to not want things. When we went to Wal-Mart or Fred Meyer’s, we averted our eyes from the aisles of toys and books and electronics. When we were caught staring too long, too longingly, at anything, our father would immediately grab it and eagerly ask, “Do you want it?”
“No,” we’d say. “Definitely not.”
We’d shake our heads empathetically and scrunch up our faces to convey our revulsion towards the Power Ranger action figure or Play-Do pack or whatever object it was. Despite whatever secret desires lurked in our hearts, we would never speak them out loud. Even throughout our teenage years, we kept up the lie.
“Ugh, no way!” we’d exclaim at the sight of an iPhone or Xbox. “Those things suck!”
The lie was necessary because of two facts of our lives: We were very poor, and our parents were very generous.
For my parents, as for many low-income immigrant families, love meant sacrifice. Sacrifice meant you supported and uplifted the dreams and desires of your children — and forgot whatever dreams and desires you yourself had. Sacrifice meant backbreaking work — long hours, long days — and no breaks. It meant your priority was never yourself.
As a child, I often wondered whether my parents had dreams of their own. Their responses when I asked were never satisfying.
“Nope,” my mom would say curtly. And that was that.
“Yep, I wanted to work in a government office like the Department of Motor Vehicles,” my dad would joke sometimes. “Good benefits and long lunch hours!”
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The lessons of my childhood were complex and vital. My parents never told me what they thought about sacrifice or diligence. Instead, they showed me with their everyday actions.Yet, my parents’ selflessness did not teach me to be selfless. It taught me to be selfish. And it taught me that my selfishness is a gift I must always treasure.
It was a gift that they never owned themselves. Their legacy — and my inheritance — is the fact that I always think of myself first. And that is revolutionary.
I am a young woman of color living in a world that was not built for me. Every day that I live and breathe and believe, I am fueling radical possibility. My parents’ gift of empowerment is a complete game changer. Because now, as a young adult, I believe that my priority is myself. When I make life choices, my chief considerations are my happiness, my security, and my future. I believe that I have worth as a human being, that I have power to create change in the world. I have grand dreams, and I believe that it is my right to make them come true.
My parents have always thought that my dreams are too impractical and idealistic, but they’ve also always believed them to be possible and achievable. Whatever I told them — that I wanted to be a writer, a teacher, an artist — they said, “OK. Go for it then.” I told them I wanted to travel the world — and now I am. I told them I want to publish my poetry — and now I have.
I have made decisions in my life that were never feasible for them. I never want kids. I went to college to study languages and storytelling and poetry and culture and art. I want to go to graduate school. I want to live a life of independence and innovation. I will never sacrifice my own joy for someone else’s. I will feed all the hungers I have and water all the thirsts I have. I will give in to wanderlust, and I will nurture all of my intellectual cravings. Sometimes, I will even let my feet leave the solid, familiar ground. I never have to give up passion or wonder.
These paths would not be possible if I were not selfish.
I have always known that my path is lined with privileges my parents never had, and that those privileges are a result of their sacrifices. The food on my table, the roof over my head, the laptop I am typing on, my high school diploma, my college degree. These tangible fruits — ripe when I plucked them — are from the seeds of my parents’ labor. I have also come to realize that there are intangible things that have sprouted from these seeds.
It is a common story amongst families like mine — people who give up everything so that their children can have more. The hopes my parents have for us seem simple: financial security, basic contentedness in our work, the ability to choose our work. Yet the lack of these things means devastation, and with these things come more and more priceless privileges. It is not the fact that I am more economically secure than them or the fact that I am working a better job than them — because neither is even necessarily true. It is the fact that I feel, in the deepest part of my heart, that whatever I do will be completely my choice, and that my choice will come from my greatest dreams.
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Right now, I am meandering down the paths of “traveler,” “teacher,” and “writer.” For my near future, I am paving the paths towards “starving artist” and “struggling grad student.” Whatever challenges I face, at least I know who I am and what I want. My confidence in myself and my dreams is one of the greatest privileges I have.
I am unapologetic about my existence. I am sure in my humanity. My power comes from myself. And most of all, I will never forget where — and from whom — I came.
TBINAA is an independent, queer, Black woman run digital media and education organization promoting radical self love as the foundation for a more just, equitable and compassionate world. If you believe in our mission, please contribute to this necessary work at PRESSPATRON.com/TBINAA
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