Do you ever feel like you’re a disappointment to your parents? Or that they have extremely high expectations for you, plans for your life that never included your own preferences or desires?
If so, chances are high that you were raised by immigrant parents, possibly Asians. Now, I don’t mean to say that all Asian (or immigrant) parents are like this, and that others aren’t. However, there are certainly many second-generation Asian-Americans who have similar stories about their “Tiger mothers” and fathers. (My story, told here, is less stereotypical, but I’ve been close enough to others that fall into the pattern.)
It’s a complex issue. I think immigrants (to America, at least) tend to be a self-selected group: those who came because they believed the United States was a land of promise, a place where their offspring could achieve even greater things. Many immigrants end up working tough, low-paying jobs to provide a better future for their kids — and so there’s often a very strong expectation that their kids will rise to meet these opportunities that they didn’t have themselves.
Level Up, a new graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang and Thien Pham due out in early June, deals with a lot of these issues in a way that is both sensitive and funny. Yang drew a cartoon explaining a little of the background of the story, but it’s a fascinating look into the tension between parents with high (and rigid) expectations and kids who have their own ideas about how to live.
Level Up focuses on Dennis Ouyang, who has been in love with video games ever since he saw his first arcade game at age six. His parents expect him to be a doctor — and not just any type of doctor, but specifically a gastroenterologist. When his father passes away shortly before his high school graduation, Dennis loses himself in his video games and abandons his dreams … until they show up.
Four little angels straight out of a greeting card come to turn his life around, to keep him on the right path and help him fulfill the dream of becoming a gastroenterologist, even if it’s not Dennis’ dream. It’s an interesting portrayal of his father’s influence from beyond the grave, but what really makes the story great is the eventual outcome. I suppose there are two expected outcomes: that Dennis eventually lives up to his father’s expectations and learns some important lessons about himself; or that he realizes that following his own dreams and being himself is the the path to true happiness. But Yang manages to tread a line somewhere in between the two, and the ending isn’t quite what I expected.
Even though my own story isn’t like Dennis’ — my parents encouraged me to find my own path and didn’t push me into medicine or law — Level Up still struck a chord with me and it’s a really amazing story. Pham’s simple, watercolored line drawings and the fantasy elements of the cutesy angels belie a much more serious theme, and it’s definitely worth a read.
In the end, I think both Yang and Pham are happy doing what they do, but there’s still a residual guilt that they’re working through, and this story is part of that process. The book is dedicated to their brothers, “both of whom work in the medical field, for being the good Asian sons.” It’s a touching tribute to the drive and determination of Asian parents, and at the same time a celebration of the remarkable freedom and opportunity we have in the U.S.
You can preorder it from Amazon. It will be released June 7.