How I Embraced My Dual Cultural Identity as a Grown Up Asian
I was born in Staten Island NY to two physician immigrants from the Philippines. I was raised in Delaware in a predominantly homogenous town surrounded by very few families that looked like mine. And I think I can speak for many children of Asian immigrants when I say that growing up in the duality that is Asian American was tough.
Like every kid growing up, all I wanted to do was fit in. In middle school, when I was invited to sleepovers or to the mall, I had to pull from my long list of made-up excuses to cover the simple truth that I just wasn’t allowed. When my mom would put lumpia or other Filipino food in my lunch bag, I readied myself for the usual stares and questioning. In high school, I watched as my friends slowly started becoming more independent while I embraced complacency, depending on my parents for every little thing.
I began to struggle with this feeling that my life was not my own to live- that I was here merely as an instrument to “look good on paper” and not to do what I actually wanted. How could I feel this way when my parents, who immigrated here as newly minted doctors and went through training with little outside support, provided all these opportunities for me? Great schools. A litany of extracurricular activities and camps. My life struggles paled in comparison and I would often think- How could I complain? Why can’t I just do what they want? Was there anyone else out there that felt this way?
It turns out that there are! My story is not unique. Many 1st and 2nd generation children of immigrants often struggle internally with this duality-
Do I show my gratitude to my parents or lead my own independent life?
So I put my head down for many years, studied hard, and became a doctor. I married my medical school sweetheart. We got through residency and started our jobs as full fledged attending physicians. Despite what seemed to be a fulfilling career on the outside, deep inside, I felt like something was always missing. I wanted more autonomy over my schedule especially after having two children within 14 months of each other. I craved connection with people beyond the allotted 15 minute patient time slots. I always indulged in creativity growing up (the arts, music) but felt like my current job did not allow for that. I started quickly feeling burned out. The COVID pandemic only exacerbated these feelings of unfulfillment.
And that’s when I discovered life coaching. Like many people, I thought life coaching was something reserved for rich celebrities or CEOs at Fortune 500 companies. I didn’t realize that the very simple premise of coaching- that by managing our minds, we can create the lives we want– can apply to everyone. Life coaching gave me the permission to listen to my inner voice for the first time in my life. I was able to finally hear and listen to my own intuition. I was able to develop more nuance in my own thinking beyond my usual all or nothing tendencies i.e. that there exists a space where things aren’t strictly black or white. It was when I discovered this, that I realized that my dual identity did not have to be competing but could be complimentary. I did not have to choose between being grateful to my parents and leading my own independent life. I could do both.
How did I do this? First off, I let go of my constant need of approval from my parents. I realized that I was the expert of my own life and that by always seeking permission and approval from my parents, I was only hindering my own growth. This single shift in mindset has allowed me to take risks I never would have dreamed about in my past like starting a business and putting myself out there in the world.
I also became very curious about my own limiting beliefs and became proactive about challenging them. For example, I always thought that things just happened to me and I was powerless to my circumstances. Many people feel this way- that you’re just stuck in that job or relationship and have no way out. Now, I know that I always have a choice and I can be intentional about how I respond and what actions I take thereafter.
Lastly, I’ve found great comfort and community in other Asian women who deeply understand our unique cultural dynamics and want to optimize their lives. This inspired me to join forces with fellow physician and coach Dr. Kathleen Wang to start The Grown Up Asian, a community for Asian women to make their own rules to create the amazing lives that they deserve.
With the holidays coming up, I know I will have to lean heavily into these coaching tools that I teach my own clients. Whether it’s unsolicited advice, sparring over differing political or social views, or the dreaded comparison game all the aunties and uncles play, what matters most is rooting yourself in your own truth and knowing you are the expert of your own life. If you’d like to learn more tools on how to implement this in your own life, join our webinar “How To Manage Family Triggers During The Holidays” (link below) or join our next cohort for group coaching in December. We promise sisterhood, strength, and a renewed sense of purpose as you learn how to embrace all parts of your unique self in order to thrive in this life that is yours.
Dr. Jennifer Fagel is an internist and coach living in NJ. She is the co-founder of The Grown Up Asian, life coaching for Asian American women and founder of Life Reclaimed coaching for medical students and young physicians.