I spent New Year’s Eve of 2018 in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I sat in a penthouse apartment, overlooking the twin towers against a backdrop of shimmering golden fireworks, drinking a bubbling flute of champagne handed to me by one of the rich aunties. The event was the picture of wealth and excess: businessmen, doctors, the inventor of the e-cigarette; fifty-year-old wives adorning designer dresses; a mixed Asian boy with an international accent I couldn’t quite place—British maybe? He was the spitting image of Nick Young. “I live in front of the Crazy Rich Asians mansion,” he told me. “The movie is set in Singapore, but they filmed most of it in Malaysia. Did you know that? I could give you a tour.”
I’d been invited by my uncle, a self-made man who climbed the ranks to become one of Kuala Lumpur’s elite. He owns a Ferrari, a Porsche, a country-club membership, and a stellar real-estate portfolio—all the things he’s meant to own. He spends his evenings visiting his friends’ Bangsar mansions to discuss their children in international schools and their future Ivy League educations. After all, Western credentials and approval will always play a role in success. They talk ostentatiously—about European wines, the latest luxury Chinese New Year biscuits, and fusion Thai desserts—with no nuance, no class, like a child desperately showing off their toys.
On New Year’s Day we sat in a stuffy Chinese restaurant on Petaling Street. The restaurant held four round tables with plastic red chairs, filled with octogenarians—my great-aunts and uncles—and a smattering of their children and children’s children. “My son bought me a BMW,” my Koong Koong (grandfather) bragged, only ever speaking of his eldest wealthy son. His youngest son sat in the background; a sumo-warrior of a man filled with insecurity from years of living in his brother’s shadow. “So, you want to be a doctor?” A grinning uncle in a polo shirt with an unusually large Ralph Lauren logo turned to me. “Become an orthopedic surgeon, or a plastic surgeon. That’s where all the money is.”
On Chinese New Year we tossed the Yee Sang. “Gong Xi Fa Cai,” the banner above us read, directly translating to “hope you get rich.” We lifted the colorful salad as high as we could with our chopsticks, so our wishes for the year would come true. In Cantonese, we wished for wealth—because prosperity is happiness, and social class is everything.
This is the Asian definition of success. We value Louis Vuitton handbags and Balenciaga sneakers like no other culture, Hong Kong markets booming with fake models and real models alike. We immigrate to Western countries and push our children to become doctors, lawyers, professionals who earn money and respect; then we brag and brag endlessly. We walk the streets in Anti Social Social Club, Off-White, and Comme des Garçons.
But I grew up in a Western country. In grade school, having fun was prioritized over memorizing times tables. In high school, my peers valued boyfriends, music, parties, and the adolescent journey of finding themselves. And after we graduated people spread far and wide, taking gap years, working toward useless degrees, and finding newfound passions for the environment or becoming a makeup artist or moving to France to become a pastry chef—all in the name of self-discovery.
We watched countless movies and shows in which the independent white girl pursues her dream—Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada, Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City—valuing passion over social class. We consumed films about the rich white girl who rejects her wealthy family to forge her own path—Rachel McAdams in The Notebook, Rachel McAdams in The Vow—romanticizing moving to the city to become an artist or find true love over wealth. An Asian girl wouldn’t do that.
Two weeks ago I sat in a cab with a Chinese driver, defending my fellow first-generation immigrants. He was a man full of sorrow, scrutinizing his children’s quest for independence. The children of immigrants are entitled, he thought. Their parents give them everything, only for them to leave the nest in search of their individual purpose, as is the Western way. But in Asian culture the children must give back. The children must stay, living in a three-generation household, where they take care of their parents as their parents once cared for them.
This man will forever live on the third level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—never striving for more than love and belonging. Who cares about self-esteem and self-actualization when family is all that matters? Isn’t this why we care about wealth, prosperity, and social standing? We are looking for approval from our family. We are proving that we can support our family. We are looking out for our family name. The Asian endeavor for wealth has nothing to do with being a greedy, vindictive individual. The pressure is greater because we are doing it for others.
So after an upbringing filled with traditional values, I didn’t take a gap year or find myself in Europe. I did the most conventional Asian thing and applied for medical school. The idea of instability frightens me. The idea of familial disapproval terrifies me. And yet, with a very Western mindset, the idea of helping others, challenging myself, and following a meaningful passion excites me.
So when we’re having lunch on Petaling Street on New Years’ Day and a grinning uncle tells me to do orthopedic surgery or plastic surgery because that’s where all the money is, I can kindly respond that I’m not in it for the wealth. He won’t understand, but he will still nod to my parents in approval. My younger sister will sit in the background next to my insecure uncle, feeling immense pressure to follow in my conventional footsteps. Like me, she might. Or, like many other children of immigrants, she might reject this pressure, this culture, with her middle fingers in the air.
The push and pull between accepting traditional cultural values and assimilating to Western ideologies as an immigrant is tough because the two philosophies are different on almost every plane. Perhaps seeking individual fulfilment is the key to happiness—or perhaps familial prosperity will bring ultimate satisfaction. Either way, as third-culture children, we’ll somehow find a way to choose a philosophy that sits somewhere in between.
By Meghan Chiew
Illustration by Hannah Kang