The Price of Being an Immigrant: Trading Your Dreams for Survival

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My parents never encouraged me to dream.

As a child, my dream of becoming a school teacher took shape in the form of role playing secretly inside my bedroom on uneventful days in our home in Manila. They never entertained the possibility of following my creative pursuits in the name of aligning with my truest desires. Hence, I kept my dream of partaking in the field of arts as merely a form of a hobby, singing at music competitions and occasional karaoke sessions with friends.

As an immigrant child, I was expected to take advantage of the new life we had in America. I was expected to excel in academics so I can obtain a stable job as a doctor or a lawyer — the latter of which became my path. My desire to become an international social worker came in the form of obtaining a Bachelors and Masters in Social Work without ever putting my knowledge into practice.

The logic behind all this is simple: There is no money to be had as a school teacher, an artist or as a social worker.

Instead, I had no choice but to walk on a path towards stability.

To please my parents and avoid confrontation with them, I took it as my obligation as their daughter to suppress any foolish dreams on my part. I convinced myself to follow their dream for me, and never the dreams I had for myself.

I didn’t know then what I know now. The mantra that they instilled in my childhood years had to do only with one thing in life:


Every parent understandably wishes for his or her child to succeed in the manner in which society defines it. Who was I to go against the norm? That is, especially, when implicitly, surviving is a goal I am tasked to achieve in exchange for the sacrifices that my parents made to bring us to America for that so-called milk and honey.

As a result, I didn’t hesitate one bit to forge ahead towards becoming a lawyer. As much as I valued the responsibility of being a lawyer, it wasn’t necessarily the road I wanted to take. And yet, because I was one of the lucky immigrants who came to the most opportunity-filled country in the world, America, the traditional definition of success was forced into my psyche. Being an immigrant carried with it the unwritten rule requiring financial success to take shape in my life or else risk being branded by most of my peers as a failure, defective, or worse yet, an ungrateful daughter born to immigrant parents.

Surviving to become financially stable was so ingrained in my psyche that to live otherwise was simply unimaginable. After all, just like in most immigrant families, our family came to America for the pursuit of one thing: financial betterment.

My family is no stranger to poverty. With my father being the only breadwinner in a family with four kids in Manila, my parents were more often than not limited in their financial abilities to give their kids comfortable lives. Survival meant counting every cent and budgeting religiously so we have food on the table. It meant no regular summer vacations or lavish gifts. Survival meant soliciting financial help from relatives who can afford to spare money. It meant borrowing money from relatives from the U.S. so my older brother can afford to attend medical school. Survival meant equating accomplishment with having to overcome your financial limitations so you can get through another day with food in your stomach and clothes on your back.

Specifically, in my case, survival meant attending college and finding a way to afford it on my own because my parents had no money whatsoever to pay for it. It meant being creative with my spending and working as much as I could to save up. It meant learning to tolerate accruing student loans for the sake of attaining some form of education that I believed will propel me towards this notion of financial success that I was told will define my very place in America.

And yet, unexpectedly, I also learned that to survive in this manner meant suppressing and foregoing your dreams and those paths in life that your heart wishes for you to take. Once you achieve the so-called financial success and stability that everyone says you need in order to attain happiness, you then realize that your effort to survive all this time was at odds with the only thing that matters the most in life — the inspiration induced goal that quietly resided in the back of your mind. The dreams that will never make you financially stable; but, rather, fill you up spiritually and emotionally. The paths that will capture your imagination and creativity and fuel your passion with ease and determination. The goals that shape your true essence and define your existence in this world.

After 15 years of living the financial and professional success that was expected of me in my life as a lawyer, I unexpectedly came face to face with having to redefine success — one that my parents have cautioned me about all my life. These locked away desires finally decided on their own to return to my consciousness; thereby challenging the long held belief that money is the driving force behind success. By my parents’ standard, I know I survived and succeeded in America. But surviving is not necessarily living.

Is surviving the success I was meant to strive for?

Ironically, giving myself the chance to be a lawyer as dictated by my parents’ dreams for me provided the answer to the aforementioned question. And the answer is a resounding “no.” Our parents have every right to dream of a financially stable life for us as their children but as human beings we also have every right to define our paths uniquely and according to no one else’s desires but ours. It’s a conundrum that begs a decision from us individually when our dreams become at odds with survival.

Life has bigger intentions for us than merely “surviving.” We are meant to live authentically, celebrate life and dream infinitely. Whereas survival was the manifestation of fear that my parents created in my head; to dream was a manifestation of having faith in life — a notion I discovered much later on, albeit, on my own. In such realization, I surprised myself with the next few steps I took: sold my house and possessions, quit my career as a lawyer and pursued my passion for mountain trekking, traveling and writing full-time. I couldn’t be anymore the opposite of the American dream for most immigrants. I traded the financial stability that I had made a priority all my life with a life full of risks, instability and unpredictability and very much the exact opposite of a life that my parents wanted for me. It took decades before I finally allowed my dreams to transform themselves into my reality as I made the decision with intent and deliberation, which I felt was a necessary step in order to overcome my fear of not surviving.

However, the decision to redefine my life goals came with a slew of difficult questions. Along with giving up the notion of survival for the purposes of regaining back my dreams, came a sense of guilt. The decision called into question whether I betrayed my parents in anyway by giving up the career that they wanted for me or whether my wanting to pursue my own dreams demonstrates a lack of appreciation of the sacrifices they made all these years. Thankfully, my level of insight at this stage in my life compelled me to think otherwise. Ultimately, I was able to give myself permission to shift gears and live my life on my own terms while at the same time holding onto the sense of gratitude that I will always have for what my parents have done themselves as immigrants: giving up THEIR dreams for their children’s survival.

And this leads me to note one last thing:

Living a different definition of the American dream matters. Why?

In my world, dreaming means giving up the definition of success as financially based. It means defining success in your own unique way undeterred by the expectations of others. It means trusting your intuition more than your ego for a change. And, most of all, it means loving every minute of the process because you know you are beyond surviving; you are free to live a life of your own choosing. And, if any of these definitions doesn’t suit you, dreaming will always allow you to reinvent your life however you want it to be; thereby, living the rest of your life with very little room for regret, if at all.

— Dedicated lovingly to my parents with gratitude.

Marinel DeJesusComment