When my parents, my two older brothers and I flew from Korea to America, my father and mother had grand dreams in mind. They imagined a new life in the United States for themselves and their children. Once here, as their youngest child and only daughter, I took on their mindset and grew up wanting to be highly successful.
A Better Life
I realize now that I didn’t pursue this dream just for my own sake, but to give back to my parents for all the sacrifices they made so I could have a better life. As an Asian-American, my view of my life was so tied in to that of my family that I didn’t merely think about what I wanted to do, but rather what would make my parents happy.
These feelings may have been particularly strong for me because I was from an immigrant family, but I’ve noticed this sense of duty to the family in many of my Asian-American friends. It is opposed to the mainstream American mindset of individual self-fulfillment, “doing what makes you happy.”
Because of my dreams of being successful, I did everything I could to get ahead in life. I excelled in school, I got into the popular crowds, and I was heavily involved with school activities and leadership positions. Everything I did seemed pleasing to my parents because they saw I was becoming successful in small ways, and would therefore also succeed in life.
What is Success?
In high school, I became a Christian and got involved in a youth group. Because I was “nice” and didn’t go around hurting people, I thought I was being a good Christian. I was getting to know Jesus, but my faith wasn’t affecting my values and goals in life. In reality, my life looked no different from non-Christian students, except I attended Bible studies and other Christian activities.
In college, I got involved in InterVarsity. That was when Jesus, through his Word, deeply challenged me. I started learning how to become like Jesus by exchanging my values for his values. For instance, my definition of success started changing.
Rather than having a prestigious career, I wanted to become a person of deep character, love and mercy. Instead of thinking about how much money I could get and spend freely, I started to see how money controls me. Rather than spending time studying by myself and hiding from other people’s problems, I was learning to give some of my personal time to listen and care for other students around me.
Eventually I saw that what it truly meant to be a Christian was to follow the advice of Jesus and live out the values of the kingdom of God in radical ways. As a result, I started to experience new joy and meaning. I became more and more involved with my chapter fellowship and enjoyed ministering to other students. Gradually, the dreams I once had were being replaced with thoughts that God might be calling me into full-time ministry.
Up to this point, my parents were supportive of my involvement with Christian activities. But as I neared graduation in my senior year, tensions arose. My parents questioned me about what I would do after college. I started to hint to my parents that I might not end up pursuing the kind of career they had imagined for me in corporate America.
But I didn’t make that clear enough. They thought that I was just going through a phase and that I’d come to my senses by the time graduation came around. So, at the end of my senior year, when I told them that I was going to get a part-time job and also be a volunteer staff with InterVarsity, my parents became very angry. My mother was especially upset with me for going my own way.
These tensions are very real for both Asian and non-Asian students. While non-Asians may not feel the same sense of duty that I do, they feel the disappointment of parents. For Asians, that disappointment has even deeper ramifications: now, for the first time in my life, I lacked my parents’ blessing.
Being a Disappointment
I wasn’t used to feeling like a disappointment. My parents had been proud of me when our values and goals lined up well. But now I was pursuing a life of ministry and service, not fame, fortune, prestige and the American Dream.
So I lived with an immense amount of friction with my parents. My dad wasn’t very talkative about his thoughts, but he was clearly not pleased about my choices. I think he was mostly worried about my future. My mom was much more verbal about her disappointment in me. I had many tearful conversations with her over the next several years.
Receiving parental blessing is a big part of Korean culture. Every New Year’s Day, there is a tradition where all the children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces bow to their elders to wish them the best in the new year. In response, the elders bless them and their lives. Not receiving my parents’ blessing—whether the annual one or their ongoing support—was a big deal to me; I felt ripped apart inside.
But there was another, perhaps greater reason for my internal anguish: I felt like I was letting my family down. I knew that through all this my parents really loved me or else they wouldn’t care so much. It was also painful for me because I deeply loved my parents and I knew I was causing them pain. As I described earlier, as an Asian I don’t think only about what will make me happy, but I often think about how my actions and decisions will directly affect my family.
Some call this a collective consciousness, always thinking communally about everything. At the time, I couldn’t articulate it, but this is why I felt such pain from my parents’ lack of support. Not only were they disappointed in me, but I carried within me a truckload of guilt that was coming from within my own heart.
Another reason these times were difficult was because I was living in two cultures, my family’s Korean culture and my new American culture. The vast majority of my staff peers were white, and they couldn’t completely understand the tensions I was experiencing with my parents. To them, it probably looked like my parents were too success-oriented and controlling, but it wasn’t that simple. And when I couldn’t articulate why I felt so much pain, I experienced even more loneliness.
Be Clear. Listen.
Could so much anguish come from God? Surely not, so I could easily have thought I must not be doing God’s will and therefore should get out of ministry. When I was offered a well-paying job, I was tempted to take it, but it was clear to me that God was calling me to stay with staff work. I could see that God had gifted me to do ministry and I was enjoying it.
Looking back, I now realize I learned at least two lessons. First, I should have been clearer with my parents about what I was thinking from the beginning, especially how my values and goals in life were changing throughout my college years. Second, before I made a final decision about my future, I should have asked for my parents’ opinion and heard them out, even if I would have disagreed with them in the end.
Milestones of Healing
It has been nine years since I started as a volunteer staff and the friction with my parents began. Yet, despite the difficulty, there have been some significant milestones of healing along the way. These markers can serve Asian and non-Asian students alike.
Affirmation in Jesus
First, I have found value and affirmation in Jesus himself. The Scriptures were a huge source of healing. In Mark 14, a woman comes to Jesus just before the Last Supper to break open a very costly alabaster flask of ointment and pour it onto Jesus. The people in the scene rebuke the woman and they comment on what a waste it is to break open the flask on Jesus.
In a sense, I heard my mom and others using the same language to describe my life talents as being wasted in ministry. But when Jesus describes the woman’s action as beautiful, I sense Jesus speaking to me. My life, poured out for the kingdom of God, is beautiful, even though others may see it as a waste. This has been a healing passage of Scripture for me.
Another way God brought healing was through his work in my dad. During my third year on staff, my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. During his last few months of life, he started to see life differently—that a lot of what he had pursued in life was not really important. He had worked incredibly long hours to provide for his family, but now he was wishing he’d spent more time building relationships with us.
One day, when I was driving him home from a doctor’s appointment, he went out of his way to communicate that he didn’t regret any of my decisions about my life. He said that he respected my life and was proud of me and the way I care for others.
Because of the cancer, he felt he had more clarity about what was important, and that I was actually the one really living my life with the right priorities. I was deeply touched by my dad’s gracious spirit. Seeing the change in my father’s opinion of my life affirmed my sense of call to ministry.
There are still other ways God has brought healing. One has been through some older staff and mentors who understand my journey and have prayed for me. Another was a very significant event at an Asian-American staff conference. About 25 of us were struggling with similar issues with our parents. At that conference, we were able to receive a prayer of blessing on our ministry from the godly Asian parents of another staff person. This surrogate blessing brought to the surface a well of deep pain and sorrow for many of us, but also great healing.
Serving My Mother
Finally, healing has come as I have pursued ways to get more into my mother’s world and serve her. My mother had never been to any event related to InterVarsity, but two years ago, my husband, Doug, and I had an opportunity to lead the worship service at my mother’s Korean Presbyterian church. It gave her a better idea of what I do with InterVarsity in a context that was familiar. She and my grandmother received many honoring comments that helped her accept my ministry.
The Last Piece
After a decade of ministry, the InterVarsity staff and students Doug and I worked with at UCLA planned a huge farewell party for us. I hesitantly invited my mother to come with us to the party. To my surprise, she agreed to attend. The staff and students treated us to an amazing banquet attended by supporters, parents, and alumni from the UCLA chapter.
After the dinner, there was an open microphone for anyone to share about how they were blessed by the ministry of my husband and me. For about two hours my mom listened to many stories of how alumni and students were touched by God through our lives. At the end of the sharing time, everyone gave us a standing ovation (which was embarrassing!).
I caught a glimpse of my mom. She was also standing, enthusiastically clapping and beaming with pride. By God’s sovereign plan, I think this was the last piece he was adding to help my mom accept my life of ministry. Since then, I haven’t heard a negative comment from her about my life, so it seems the healing has been made more complete.
By telling you about this journey, I don’t mean to communicate that we all will some day receive our parents’ full blessing and support. I’ve talked with a number of people about their experiences. For some, the blessing came quickly, but for others more slowly (in one case, after 60 years), and for some it never came.
God doesn’t guarantee that we’ll receive our parents’ blessing, but he does promise to be with us to the end of the age as we walk with him (Matthew 28:20). If you are experiencing the pain of not having your parents’ blessing, hold on to the truth that Jesus, our ultimate parent, sees your life of ministry not as a waste, but as a beautiful offering.
Sandy Schaupp is InterVarsity Christian Fellowship staff in the Los Angeles Division. Article originally appeared in the Student Leadership Journal, Fall, 1999.