I was just the journalist reporting on the project. I had no intention of participating in it. But when I called up Steve to ask for an interview and to see what a photo session was like, he told me that to preserve the intimate nature of the project, he rarely allows anyone to observe the photo session. If I wanted the story, I had to be in it.
And so, I took this photograph. In the following days, as I talked to Steve and some of the participants and saw the reaction to the “What I Be” project (and to my photo), I felt privileged to be a journalist. Journalism lets me learn the stories behind these photos, not from a blog post on Mindful Princeton, but from the participants themselves. Journalism lets me have incredible conversations in which people share their vulnerabilities, tears, and mind-blowing wisdom. Journalism lets me shatter my shyness with a voice recorder and a steno pad and takes me out of my comfort zone. And if I could be a journalist for life, I would.
But I can’t.
Because my life is not solely mine to live. Like many immigrants, my parents gave up everything to come to America—their life savings, education, career, and family—and all for the sake of my future. Sometimes they still question if immigrating to America was the right decision, and my small successes—getting into Princeton, for one—validate their choice. I feel obligated to achieve a certain kind of success, to capture the elusive American dream that persuades millions of people to throw away their former lives for a chance in the New World, a chance to get a stable, high-paying job, a single family house, and 2.5 kids.
And lucky, lucky me. I had the fortune of getting infected by the journalism bug. Symptoms include groveling for unpaid internships, spending more time writing articles than writing academic papers, and feigning optimism that, no, the newspaper industry isn’t dying, really.
Despite the depressing forecasts about journalism, every successful journalist I’ve met has told me, “Follow your passion.” And for a while, I believed them. Screw parental expectations and Chinese filial piety, I was going to forge my own path, even if that meant living in a tiny apartment and making less money as a journalist than I would be flipping burgers.
But starting in my senior year of high school, my uncle in Australia underwent a two-year battle with lung cancer. Meanwhile, my mom tried to take care of my grandparents, who don’t speak English but also live in Australia, as my uncle grew weaker. She spent every evening calling doctors and flew there multiple times. After my uncle passed away from lung cancer last January, my mom made plans to quit her job and permanently move to Australia, and suddenly, it felt selfish to follow my passion. What if my parents’ small business is failing and they might soon have to rely on me? What if my relatives are getting older and sicker and I’ll have to help take care of them? It wasn’t about taking on my responsibilities just because that’s what my parents wanted me to do; it was what I had to do. And a journalist’s salary and grim career outlook just isn’t going to cut it.
I’ve accepted the fact that I might not follow my passion after graduation, but I will find passion in whatever I do. And my passion for my family trumps my passion for journalism any day. But still, I have to repeat that to myself over and over and over again, when I’m being judged for “selling out,” for “giving up,” for “being too obedient,” when I’m doubting myself whether or not shirking my dreams for my responsibilities is the right decision, when I start fearing that the rest of my life will just be a big “what if?”.
The internal debate between choosing my dreams and choosing my responsibilities will always exist, and I’ll always be on the lookout for a foray back into journalism, but for now, I’ve accepted the truce.