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Immigrants (and their children), we get the job done

I’ve had as many jobs as most people twice my age. In fifth grade, I started walking my neighbor’s dog every day for $10 a week. At the age of 16, I handed out smelly (and sometimes moist) rental skates at the local ice skating rink to help offset the costs of practicing my sport. I worked random campus jobs and internships during college. By the time I graduated, I had not one or two, but three jobs lined up to set myself up for the real world in a good place financially. If you’re wondering how the math works for that, I did 30 hours per week at one place, 30 hours per week at the other, and an 8-hour shift on the weekends at the Museum of Ice Cream in a head-to-toe millennial pink uniform.

For many other people, an almost 70-hour work week would be too exhausting. But as the child of a Vietnamese refugee, I knew I was capable. Not long-term, but at least while I got my feet under me.

After all, my mom had worked much more strenuous jobs in her pursuit of the American Dream. She immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 13 with nothing. Her older brother and sisters that came with her didn’t have enough money to take care of her, so she was put in a foster home for the first few years she lived in the U.S. If you ask her about that time in her life, she mostly tells stories of growing up in poverty and working to survive.

She waited tables at a Chinese take-out restaurant in a small, mostly-white town. She spent almost the entire day on her feet and her clothes always had the stench of American-ized Chinese food. She sewed pockets and shucked oysters at a factory. She had a stint at the amusement park, the echoes of people with leisure time screaming in her ears. She worked overnights at the mall, putting up and repairing those bizarre holiday decorations that hang from the ceilings.

That was all before I was born. When I was a kid, I remember she worked full-time, but unlike a lot of other immigrant parents, she always came home and made dinner.

My mom’s an accountant now. But the mentality that all of those other jobs helped her get to where she is today never went away. In fact, the same reverence for hard work is ingrained in me. Even though I grew up in a middle-class household and we didn’t need the money, it was expected I would work as soon as I could, too.

To be honest, I enjoy the responsibility. I wear my resume with pride. In one way, I benefit from my mom’s sacrifices because I have more choice in what jobs I take and less stress knowing that I have a financial safety net. In another way, I have proved that I am made of the same worn hands, the same tired smile. I am my mother’s daughter.

Now, several years after entering the workforce post-college, I still have a funny relationship with employment. My mom definitely would have preferred that I chose a more stable career path, but instead I became a writer. She always encourages me to have a back-up plan in case my writing career doesn’t work out. I took on a side hustle last year, so my job count was up to two again. Then at the end of the year, the side hustle company asked me to come on full-time. That’s the American Dream, isn’t it? To turn your side hustle, the thing you love, into the thing you do every day. Mom, I did it, too. We both did it.

Meghan is a writer and audio producer based in Los Angeles, CA. She's a graduate of the University of Southern California and her work has been published in The Washington Post, NPR, Public Radio International, and NerdWallet. When she's not writing, she's usually calling her mom and sisters living in her hometown of Alexandria, VA. Follow her on Twitter @inkwaves.


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Thanks for sharing your story. When I read the theme I cringed a bit, as Asians a a whole, are stereotyped as “hard workers.” This is one reason why we hit the bamboo ceiling—who’s going to take over our work of Linh gets promoted? She’s such a hard worker and gets the job done. And also, it perpetuates the token “model minority,” which is another whole can of beans. That said, I am dedicated and committed to what I do but I’ve learned to work smarter not harder. And as a result colleagues don’t point to me when they need something done that requires me to stay up all night.

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