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How My Parents’ Immigrant Work Ethic Held Me Back

When you move to America, no matter how old you are, you quickly learn that the American Dream isn’t something you’re given — it has to be earned. This country definitely has the tools for you to succeed, but only if you work hard enough for it.

My parents and I moved to California from Brasil when I was nine years old, and overnight, everything in my life changed drastically. I went from private schools to government-funded free lunches, all while adapting to the new language, new social status, and a new work ethic.

In Brasil, my dad worked a white-collar job at a used car dealership, and my mom stayed home to take care of me. My mom would walk me to and from school every day, and we’d wait for dad to come home so we could all eat together as a family.

Here, they’d take any job they could get that would put food on the table and a roof over our heads. For my dad, that meant working at a construction job in the morning, delivering pizzas at night, and taking any side job he could get in between. My mom became a nanny, and later cleaned houses. From a young age, I saw them not just working hard, but working constantly. I was enrolled in every (free!) after-school program possible, allowing me to be picked up as late as possible so it didn’t interrupt their hectic schedules.

It didn’t matter if it was their day off or if they had been working every day for weeks — if there was an opportunity to bring in some extra cash, no matter how much, they were there. My mom, ever the decorator, was always able to find a few bucks by helping friends out with their kids’ birthday parties and other events. Dad put his old racecar driver skills to the test and found some work assisting his mechanic friends at the shop every now and then.

When I was old enough to join the workforce, I mirrored exactly what I witnessed growing up, and dove in headfirst. Part-time was for people who could afford to not succeed. Right away I started working full time at a retail job while going to school and stage managing plays at night. When I left my first job and couldn’t find anything stable, I took any and all of the gigs I could find. There was a point where I was working as a painting assistant, a social media content developer, an accountant’s assistant, and a stage manager simultaneously. I’d get home with paint splatters on my clothes, tweets and tax numbers in my brain, and more stress than 22-year-old me knew how to handle.

I felt like I had to be working all the time, no matter what. If an opportunity came up, I always said yes, ignoring how much I would be paid. My interest in the job wasn’t even a factor. I once stage managed a production that paid me a stipend that didn’t even cover gas to and from the venue, but hey, I was working!

My parents gave up everything to move here so I could have a better life — didn’t I owe them to work as hard as I could to build from that? So I did. I’d hop from job to job, never quite achieving what I thought success would look like, or even seeing the road to it. I was doing everything right, but I wasn’t reaping any of the rewards. I was spreading myself too thin to enjoy any of my jobs, or even to do any of them well. The pressure I felt to work all the time wasn’t honoring their sacrifice. If anything, not allowing myself the opportunity to focus on jobs that fulfilled me, rather than just filling my time, was a disservice to them.

I know a lot of immigrant kids that feel this same pressure. If we don’t succeed, we carry not just our own failures on our backs, but our parents’ expectations. But by trying to lead the same kind of life my parents have, I wasn’t honoring their sacrifices. I wasn’t making good on the fact that they’ve worked as hard as they have solely so I wouldn’t have to.

As anyone who has ever overworked themselves can guess, it all eventually came to a head. I started dropping the ball, double-booking myself some days, and just not being mentally present others. Everything I knew about hard work was falling apart around me as I became a less dependable employee. Making the decision to quit jobs was difficult, but I knew I couldn’t keep up with the demands. I made the decision to leave both the accountant’s office and the painting classes to focus on the creative jobs that I actually enjoyed.

I spent a couple of years juggling being a social media manager and a stage manager, and the time I spent focused on those two jobs was the most productive I can think of. The social media management company I worked for was a small business, with only four other employees, and it was so satisfying to help build something from the ground up. It also gave me the flexibility to work nights at a theater as a stage manager, a job I would actually want to build a career out of. For the first time since I started working, I would get home feeling like I spent the day building a life for myself, not just working for a paycheck.

I still feel pressured to live up to my parent’s work ethic, but whenever I feel stressed about not filling my time with work, I work on myself. When I get home from work, I take time to focus on things that will get me out of work mode. I sit down to write or cuddle up in my favorite corner with a book — anything that focuses my mind and puts me in a resting state.

I often get the urge to scroll Craigslist jobs sections, but every time I do, I snap out of it and try to do something else productive (usually cleaning — my house is never as tidy as when I’m stressed and ready to jump into another job). Getting out of the house also helps, and I run most of my errands when I’m feeling particularly antsy. I still believe in everything my parents taught me about working consistently and working hard to achieve success. I’ve just had to readjust my perception of what “working hard” means.

Julia splits her time as a receptionist and social media manager. She spends her free time hanging out with her dog, practicing needlepoint, and supporting the theater arts. You can find her on twitter at @jewlzhatestwitr.

Image via Unsplash

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  • Court E. Thompson

    Awesome read and such an interesting perspective!

  • Summer

    Really enjoyed this piece and I wish there were more like it across the internet. Too much of the so-called “American dream” mentality is centered around exactly what you described: working as much as humanly possible, often without regard to opportunity cost or personal sanity.

  • This is such an interesting look into a fellow immigrant kid’s life view and perspective on success.. It really got me thinking about my own journey.. perhaps this is something I will write about as well!!

    Jessica || Cubicle Chic
    http://www.mycubiclechic.com

  • Bs Brigs

    This spoke right to me on a deep level. I wish there were more writers like you sharing what it’s like to be the immigrant kid… we didn’t make this choice but we are the ones who have to live with it. Please keep sharing your story!!!

  • Miljana Stupar

    This was a very interesting read. I whole-heartedly can relate. My parents passed down the same behaviours onto me. I worked myself to death, and still do.

  • Karen Valdivia

    I think that we need to learn how to work *effectively* instead of just “all the time”

    “My interest in the job wasn’t even a factor. I once stage managed a production that paid me a stipend that didn’t even cover gas to and from the venue, but hey, I was working!”

    This. I’ve seen so many people being busy all the time but working at things that are costing them more money/time/other opportunities than what they’re getting out of it. I’m all in for having multiple income streams, but we have to be conscious and cut out the jobs that don’t really let us reap benefits!