Migrations For My Immigrant Parents, a Vacation Is a Reprieve from Labor—for Me, It’s a Time to Work
My parents wanted to give me opportunities that they never had, to let me participate in bizarre American rites of passage.
My climbing instructor was flinging advice up the rock wall. My forearms were burning. My body was trembling with fear and exhaustion. I had climbed ten meters—with five more to go—up the route called Vegan Schnitzel. Here, in the forests of Laos, Vegan Schnitzel was a relatively easy route, but my first one climbing outdoors. The possibility of falling was imminent. I had a fleeting desire to release myself from the self-inflicted pain.
If I let go, I wouldn’t go very far. The rope would swing me from the wall, but my bottom would stay snug in the harness, legs dangling. I would not “send” it, or finish the route without stopping, but I was determined to reach the top, no matter how long it took.
Prior to attempting this crag, my only experience with rock climbing was at Brooklyn Boulders. It wasn’t cheap—forty dollars for a day pass, not including rentals. Now, here I was, hauling my body up the side of a mountain in Laos. The only real prep I’d done amounted to two visits to a bouldering gym in Yangon, Myanmar, where I now live.
It was April. I had joined fellow expats from Yangon to Green Climbers Home in Thakhek, Laos, a camp for rock climbers where trees were abundant and stilted bungalows with hammocks dotted the property. I wanted to get lost in a new sport, one that fully immerses the body and mind. Yes, I chose to exert physical and mental energy while on vacation.
As a child, my parents’ idea of a vacation was Disney World and all-inclusive beach resorts in the Caribbean. Coming from modest childhoods in Taiwan and Myanmar, the American Dream did not entail camping or extreme sports. Our house had a white picket fence and our driveway housed expensive cars. They would never dream of buying expensive climbing gear only to exert more physical effort to have a good time. They still rave about being upgraded on a European cruise, when they had their own butler and ate at the exclusive dining hall.
With only one week of vacation per year from their restaurant jobs, they want to be on the receiving end of service whenever they go on holiday. They want to pay people to lavish them , for a change. They can spend up to twelve hours a day on their feet, so the ideal vacation is spending money to relax in a beautiful locale. The American Dream mentality is one of hustling: Work hard, endure the struggle, save for retirement, and splurge on an annual vacation.
Whenever I visit home in New Jersey, the television is always on, blaring with commercials. Sandals resorts, cruises, and theme parks—superficial, man-made destinations—seep into the American viewers’ consciousness, directing them to book a vacation today. They advertise extreme relaxation, do-nothingness, “fun for the whole family.”
At some point, my preference for vacationing changed. Maybe it was when I was sixteen, in Cancun with my parents, when I felt stir-crazy, sick of eating at the resort’s rotation of restaurants after just two days. I asked my parents if we could go do something. The resort advertised activity options: a day tour to Chichén Itzá and exploring the cenotes, and horseback riding on the beach. I remember balking at the prices, guilty, once again, of asking for more. But my restlessness won out and we ended up doing both.
Sipping beer and eating tacos on the beach, I was mauled by mosquitos and my guilty conscience. This kind of vacation for three people costs at least three thousand dollars: flights, hotel, and—because I was in attendance—excursions to “do things.” On top of this, I was forcing them to expend energy doing said things. Their jobs require stamina, especially when they make most of their money from tips. Energy means money. Rest is necessary to maintain that kind of endurance over decades.
All I remember is jumping into crystal-clear sinkholes, my mom cheering me on (even though she probably hoped I would chicken out) always eager to give her only child everything, no matter what it cost her.
My earliest foray into outdoor adventures began with Girl Scouts. Brownie Troop 617 wore brown sashes strewn with badges. To be part of the troop, we paid annual dues. To earn badges, we attended meetings and went on field trips. At minimum, the cost of being a Girl Scout was over $300 per year. Even the badges cost money.
But the field trips were the reason I endured the after-school meetings. Colorful permission slips listed the trip’s cost and activities: sledding at snowy cabins, horseback riding at a dude ranch, and outdoor activities at Camp Mogisca. They promised bonding, team-building, fun. I was the type of kid who wanted to try everything. Some trips cost over a hundred dollars, so I was allowed to attend two per year. I made sure to pick the most worthwhile ones.
“A hundred dollars!” my mom would say. “That’s more than I make in one night!”
Of all the aspects of Girl Scouts that yielded disapproval from an immigrant mom, she regarded the annual cookie sale as most pointless. She and I both were unsure what we were fundraising for—it was like paying taxes and never seeing the return on investment. Given that door-to-door selling was discouraged (parents in the neighborhood were concerned for our safety), we relied on our parents’ networks.
My mother, a waitress, was ashamed to pester co-workers who might purchase cookies out of sympathy. Instead, she bought ten or fifteen boxes (three-fifty per box, at the time) of the least sweet kinds—Trefoils, Thin Mints, Do-Si-Dos—and doled them out at work. This compounded my guilt over the Girl Scout charade, knowing that she was willing to spend the extra money to buy cookies she didn’t want, just for me.
My mother was always eager to give her only child everything, no matter what it cost her.
Even when we were not struggling financially, I was wary each year, certain it would be the year she insisted I quit. Despite these sentiments, she still wanted to give me opportunities that she never had, to participate in bizarre American rites of passage.
Every year, the Brownies would go to Camp Mogisca. Our troop would arrive at our tent-like cabins (unlike Boy Scouts, we did not pitch real tents, tie ropes, or build fires), then head to the mess hall for dinner. We slept on cots with mosquito nets. We made lanyard bracelets. We performed trust falls in the forest. One time, a park ranger gave a presentation about endangered animals and used stuffed creatures as props. It was a simulated and contained version of nature.
I longed to encounter the grittier parts of nature, or at the very least, to pitch a tent myself. How were we supposed to become leaders, as the Girl Scouts preached, if they spoon-fed nature to us? Where was the uncertainty? The decision-making? It was a taste of what camping could be. I wanted the real thing. But camping, like rock climbing, was inconceivable for someone whose family did not have the time, money, or energy to invest in it.
In funding these trips, my parents exposed me to new ways to spend free time. Later, it was trips to Italy with AP Euro, then skiing with friends. Their hard-earned money was constantly spent on me to have fun, activities they did not have time for, activities they would never pursue or spend money on themselves. They invested in me, an extension of their American dream.
And I accepted it. For years, every time I asked to go on a trip, twinges of guilt arose in my stomach. I lifeguarded for minimum wage (eight dollars an hour) during the summers, not even enough to cover the Italy trip. Plus, that money still wound up in my savings account, per my parents’ wishes. The job’s real purpose was to teach me the value of hard work.
Though we may disagree on how to spend our time and money, both sides compromised to make the other happy. I limited and maximized the trips I did take, and they learned how to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
Besides my affinity for adventurous vacations and my parents’ preference for relaxing ones, our lifestyles are also very different. Three years ago, I moved to Myanmar, where foreigners like me are considered “expats,” not immigrants, and typically have jobs at NGOs, schools, or news agencies. Being American in Yangon gives me an inherent privilege, just for being born and raised in a country that implies wealth, education, and status from the perspective of Southeast Asian countries.
Over forty years ago, my father was born in a village a few hours from Yangon, where the family snack shop was burned down because they were ethnically Chinese. He immigrated to the US in the early 1980s, where I was blessed with a powerful blue passport that I now use to live a freewheeling lifestyle far away from them, in the country my father left decades ago.
Here in Yangon, I spend half of my days drifting from one café to another and the other half in an office, creating communication materials for a peacebuilding NGO. I moved from New York in 2016 because I grew tired of the lifestyle, marketing fragrances by day and schmoozing by night. What was once a childhood dream had eroded into a lonely reality. I envisioned a future writing and working on fulfilling consulting projects abroad. If this type of lifestyle was possible, why couldn’t I live it? So, when I was offered a fellowship to teach English in Inle Lake, Myanmar, I accepted.
After the fellowship, I stayed for another two years in Yangon, pursuing writing and consulting. I published articles in local and international magazines. For a few months, I started an ethical clothing brand with traditional textiles. I sourced fabric from weaving centers in Kachin and Shan States, worked with local tailors and sold the dresses at a Bangkok boutique. In some ways my life was more difficult here than in New York, but the distance from home put less pressure to tick off boxes like graduate school and earning a six-figure salary, and more autonomy to balance work and travel.
Upon graduating from a state college in New Jersey, I earned more in my first year of my corporate job in New York City than my parents had ever made. Even in Yangon, I earn several times more than the average citizen because I hold jobs that pay international salaries. This is somewhat justified in that I can leverage my English skills, my privilege, to benefit local NGOs. The substantial gap between cost of living and my income enables me to travel nearly every month and still save money, which I could never do in New York.
Choosing to vacation at Green Climbers Home is yet another example of the stretched-out generational and cultural gaps between me and my parents. I grew comfortable with uncertainty. I pushed my physical and mental limits. Once I started, it was easy to continue down this path.
I grew comfortable with uncertainty. I pushed my physical and mental limits.
These days, I am reckoning with the guilt. My parents chose to clear the path for me, sacrificed so much so that I wouldn’t have to. I have the luxury to seek these experiences because of them, but I can repay them by showing them the world in whatever way I can. While we were in Amsterdam, I booked us an AirBnB, something they would never have done. Our Dutch host raised chickens that produced eggs we ate for breakfast. My mother was charmed by the butter dish shaped like a receptionist’s bell, asking where she could buy it. When we left, our host gifted my mom the dish, insisting she could find another.
In October, I went back to Green Climbers Home. The fresh air, pale blue sky, and unruly trees greeted me like an old friend. This time, I arrived at the camp with my cousin and new climbing gear I had purchased at REI. The rest of the group came the day before and sat splayed on the restaurant’s shabby cushions. My cousin and I are the same age, both born in New Jersey and active travelers—we both came ready to learn how to lead climb, a step up from top rope climbing.
One of the current owners of Green Climbers Home is Fai Kanita, a Bangkok native who spent ten years in the States. She told me that her family was confused about her decision to run a rock-climbing camp. “They said, ‘Why don’t you get a real job?’” said Fai. “But I’m happy here.” Despite her family’s disapproval, she proceeded with her dream. She challenged the conventions of how we, as children of a different generation and culture, can spend.
When I moved to Myanmar, I let go of rigid expectations and embraced uncertainty. When my parents immigrated to America, they focused on survival: Work first, play later (during retirement). As an immigrant in Yangon, I seek a well-balanced life, one that prioritizes exploration, learning, and playing.
On that first Vegan Schnitzel route, I was stuck on a slight overhang. My forearms throbbed. Sweat dripped down my face as I contorted my body. I patted the rock with chalky palms in panic, grasping for something to hold onto. The final anchor was so close.
With my remaining core and forearm strength, I heaved my lower body up past the jutting rock and onto a ledge. From there, new holds became available as I stepped higher and higher.
Finally, I reached the anchor and yelled down, “Take!”
My belayer let me rest and drink in the view, high above the trees and humps of limestone karsts in the distance hugging the sky, before lowering me. Doing things, especially those that challenge the body and mind, is rewarding—just like going back to the country that my father left.