Build Your Kingdom Here

July 28, 2021

Graphic by Paris Eskew

My traditional, orthodox mother graduated from well-known universities with both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in scientific fields. There’s one thing about women in STEM: very few give birth to daughters who become writers, dancers, or artists. Women in STEM make women in STEM, and that's who I was created to be. Writing articles, color coordinating my planner, and doodling in the margins of my Calculus II notebook were the extent of my creative outlets.

The immigrant parent stigma follows me around like a halo, and both my inclinations and downfalls root themselves in the knowledge that my mother was not born in the U.S. She came to America with nothing but her sense of self and her ability to work for what she needed to survive. I am often reminded that immigrant struggles and hope built the American dream. Like my mother, one can climb the rungs of the ladder and become more successful. She served herself and her family just as a daughter should. In my mother’s culture and my own, paying respect to your family is your life purpose. The value of a person is measured through honorable actions such as devotion and selflessness, two key virtues in Chinese tradition.

My mother always allowed us to flourish in our hobbies. At age 13, I was sent to a watercolor class 1,300 miles away from home in Washington, D.C. During the trip, our governess took us to the zoo and assigned us the task of painting an animal portrait. I wandered through the rows of animal enclosures, eventually finding the peacock exhibit tucked away. This enclosure was different from the rest; it expanded two floors, and opened up to the rest of the zoo. I was compelled to paint the scene of the peacocks and their tangible privilege. Freedom was feasible for the birds—but flight was not. The peacocks illustrated my own grapple with the choices I had. Like my own opportunities, each bird maintained an escape into the wild world of the unknown, yet their ornate, jewel-toned feathers held them to the ground. My own jewel-toned feathers were revealed by my mother’s expectations.

When I came home bearing a collection of cold-press cotton paper, my mother asked to see my paintings. She flipped through my artwork, pausing to express her admiration for each piece. When she got to the painting of the peacocks, she studied the image, each brushstroke articulating the colorful, magnificent wings of the birds that doomed their birthright. She looked at me with awe, declaring the painting the prettiest creation she had ever seen. Afterwards, my mother said, “You could do watercolor as a side job.”

Born to my mother and her cultural understanding of filial piety, my duty to this Earth was to make her proud. She came to the United States with nothing, and from there, she grew her own world. I lived out my childhood in the castle she made for me and my sisters and thought I would never leave. It is easier to settle for a path already paved for you, so I saw that as a law of truth. There is something different, something special about people who build their world with their own hands. They have no perceived notion of what it has to be; it is theirs in its entirety. When outsiders lead a coup d'état against the castle, they will not hesitate to throw every soldier into the line of battle and secure their creation. Like the subjects of the kingdom, I feel called to remain silent and orderly in the reign of hierarchy. But, like my mother and her actions, I feel the alluring urge to concur a world for myself.

Graphic by Paris Eskew

Duty does not define you. Normalize finding your own truth and what it means to you in all its uniqueness. Some parts of me got lost in the walls of my identity: views, beliefs, and the ability to stand up for what I know. My mother found a path that led to success and held out her hand for me to follow, and I was living someone else’s dreams for me. However, I have discovered more than one path to the same destination. Leaving my home, I discovered that guidance is not sufficient to stay afloat. That was when I grew into myself.

I keep memories of my childhood in my back pocket as a reminder not to stray from the truth. My mother built a palace for me from the ground up. In return, I must submit my homage. Being content does not condone being complacent, however, and it is important to differentiate goals versus others’ values of you. The world created for me was not my own. I do not play a one-dimensional role, but live interlaced with a myriad of complexities. I took some pieces and left others behind, building a new palace that I can grow into. ■

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