Canada Goose, The Great Gatsby, and the Four Seasons
My relationship with social mobility as a first-generation immigrant
Good morning from Hawaii! TBH, I vacillated between heading off to passively lie on the beach and writing this newsletter, but I would be doing a disservice to myself if I didn’t write weekly as I had intended to. And moreover, the themes of social mobility, class, and privilege have been top of mind for me over the past few days, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a stab at making sense of them.
Today’s newsletter is more of a stream of consciousness, a semi-structured amalgamation of ideas whose form, funnily enough, is reflective of my ongoing journey to seek clarity on these very topics.
I was born in China and grew up bouncing around the Bay Area. Like many first-generation immigrants, my parents left behind comfortable jobs and communities in their homeland in pursuit of an American dream where your financial success wouldn’t be parameterized by your political standing.
I won’t go into the gory details here, but a lot of my close friends know that for the majority of my life, I grew up watching my parents juggle multiple and often under-the-table jobs (delivery driver, nanny, waitress, a receptionist at an acupuncture clinic, and more) and struggle with immigration policies to establish a foothold in America. Only within the past decade were they able to propel our family from working-class to upper-middle-class — they found comfortable 9-5 jobs and were finally able to fulfill their dream of buying a house in the suburbs.
Growing up, what I understood to be “making it” was the family in a gated neighborhood with two Teslas and a Dad who was an engineering manager at Google. I realized how misguided I was when I went to college.
I’m often asked how I liked Penn, and my reaction is always tepid for a multitude of reasons. This is one of the most poignant ones.
It was disorienting, to say the least, being thrust into a new reality where everything I knew about wealth and privilege was turned upside down. In 2017, the median family income of a student from Penn was $195,500, and 71% came from the top 20% of income-earners.
And this is just income, not wealth. I shared classrooms with the children of foreign diplomats, the Lauders and Moelis’s of the world, and students who had their last names engraved on the sides of campus buildings. My classmates also had material possessions that signaled wealth, but moreover, there was an entire cultural code and set of norms that I was not privy to whatsoever as a freshman who had grown up working-class. Socioeconomic status and its corresponding social norms had farther-reaching implications than I was prepared for — even Greek life was stratified by who your family knew and where they vacationed.
I quickly realized that my understanding of the Google dad with two Teslas as someone who belonged to the upper echelons of society was off-base. Moreover, I constantly straddled the line between being privileged and marginalized. I was deeply grateful that my family’s belief in mobility and education had gotten me to where I was, but I was constantly confused trying to figure out how and where I belonged in an institution that wasn’t built for me.
On a tangential but related note, The Great Gatsby will forever be one of my favorite books. I’ve been thinking a lot about it these days, and I’m amazed by how its meaning is able to metamorphosize yet remain relevant as I move through different phases of my life. It’s timeless, and it’s masterful in capturing the essence of the American psyche — aspirational but at times borderline delusional. It was part of my mandatory reading in high school, but it wasn’t after I went to Penn that I truly understood the symbolism of Gatsby’s green light.
I’ve probably belabored this point, but I’ll say it again: social mobility isn’t just about money, it’s about underlying norms. You can have economic mobility with money, but you can’t have social mobility without cultural capital.
“… social mobility isn’t just about money and economics, it’s about a lifestyle change. The wealthy and the powerful aren’t just wealthy and powerful; they follow a different set of norms and mores. When you go from working-class to professional-class, almost everything about your old life becomes unfashionable at best or unhealthy at worst.” — J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
On the topic of books, I recently read Hillbilly Elegy and was floored by how much I resonated with many parts of his story despite coming from a completely different background. The quote I highlighted above is one of these parts. Gaining admission to a brand-name school and putting my nose to the grindstone paid off in the form of employment that gave me disposable income, something my family and I were completely unfamiliar with.
“Life-changing” is a trite term, but I can’t think of a better phrase right now to describe the effect having disposable income had on my life. In college, it funded my first international trip and helped me not be worried about paying rent my senior year. When it came to my parents, it enabled me to buy them access to privileges they never had. This was partially out of filial duty, and partially because I wanted to prove to myself that I had enough financial and cultural capital to transcend the circumstances of my upbringing.
But things didn’t necessarily work that way. Two examples that distinctly stick out to me:
After my first summer internship, I took my family to Gary Danko for their first Michelin-starred meal. Gary Danko has one of the best portion-size-and-service-to-value ratios out there IMO, but that’s beside the point. My parents were visibly confused by the flurry of waiters who set all our plates down at the same time for every course. What is a “course”, and why is all the food so small? They also insisted that we share everything family-style, slicing the foie gras into tiny slivers and taking small sips of the lobster bisque before passing it around. I’m ashamed of having felt this way now, but I remember feeling so uncomfortable and embarrassed at that restaurant.
More recently, I booked a house cleaning service for my parents since my Dad did a shoddy job and my Mom was too tired to deep clean the house after working 12-hour shifts as a nurse. As people who never outsourced household tasks (I’m pretty sure my dad still changes his own motor oil), they couldn’t fathom paying someone to clean the house. My Mom actually tidied up the house and wiped things down beforehand, which I’m sure was beyond confusing to the cleaners. This time, I understood why they acted this way — when you were raised in poverty and the only resource you had was time, of course you’d balk at the idea of paying anyone to do anything that would give you time back.
I feel incredibly privileged to be the first in my family to have the opportunity to build wealth. But I’ve also learned that when you aren’t brought up with upper-class norms, money can create more discomfort than it alleviates. I still struggle with learning to trade time for money and being comfortable splurging on nice things and convenience, but the more I think about it, the more grateful I am that this discomfort keeps me grounded.
Hello from Hawaii
I’m beyond grateful to be writing this newsletter from our balcony at the Four Seasons in Hualalai … which I allowed Josh to book only after we found a discount, of course. My family would never have been able to afford to stay here when I was growing up, and they probably wouldn’t be comfortable spending so much money on an experience like this even though they have the financial means now.
My experience here over the past couple of days is a big impetus for why I wrote this piece. I’ve vacillated between “treat yo self” and “I don’t deserve this” more times than I can count. It feels odd being one of the youngest people (and one of the only people of color, but that’s a whole other post) staying here. I’m used to doing everything myself, so it still makes me uncomfortable when someone lays out my towel or brings my bags into my room.
Moreover, it’s raised more questions than answers for me. Some of the things I’m pondering:
I’ve learned to be comfortable with behaviors and norms that are more “upper-class” — paying for convenience, splurging on fitness and self-care, shopping at Whole Foods, focusing on building a network, etc. Is this a good thing? Where should I draw the line?
How do I still maintain my values of hustle and grit even though I’m no longer operating in immigrant “survival mode”?
How do I pass these values to my potential future children, who will (hopefully) have a healthy nest egg?
Thanks for reading this — it was long, heavy, and slightly rambly, but it’s an important part of my life’s narrative. I’m still trying to iron out many of my thoughts around this hairy topic, and I’d love to chat if any of this resonated with you! Now off to the beach 😎