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Filial Piety

In his 2019 Netflix Special, comedian Ronnie Chieng made some of the most astute (and hilarious) observations on a long held Asian American model minority stereotype. In a short three minute segment, Ronnie delivered over the top impressions of Asian parents’ carnal thirst for ‘money and prestige’ that’s only quenched by having a doctor in the family.  He moved on to quickly highlight the insidious irony of the very same parental figures being just as unwavering in their principle of not going to see a doctor when personal health issues arise (who needs to when you have Tiger Balm?). And of course, these two polar extremes of Asian immigrant behavior were comedic exaggerations of reality, relative to the spectrum of Asian immigrant parenting antics. But as Ronnie transitioned between these two portrayals, he imparted on the audience one raw perspective into the motivations of tiger parenting: 

“…if you’re a first-generation immigrant, your children becoming doctors is the quickest way you can turn it around in one generation. Instant credibility, instant respectability, instant money.” 

This hit home for me, as I recalled the many times I overheard my parents be so quick to share that their only son intended to pursue medicine even though they themselves barely wanted to get annual flu shots. My parents are part of that first generation of Vietnamese diaspora desperate to pursue the American dream. At 18 respectively, my dad left alone in the dead of night to become a boat refugee, and my mom gave up her university dreams, becoming a school teacher for the communist party to stop her family from being sent to ‘The New Economic Zone.’ Any family in newly named Ho Chi Minh city that didn’t have at least one public servant employee in the household would be sent to these harsh labor camps for an indefinite amount of time. Higher education was no longer an option for either of my parents by the time they immigrated and met each other in the late 90s, so they opted for a quiet family life in the Austin, TX suburbs as blue collar factory workers for the next 30 years. 

I had the all American experience growing up, performing in marching band, screaming my lungs out at Friday night football games, and playing 2 a.m. laser tag in a full tuxedo after prom. By the time I was 18, the walls of our house were plastered with photographs of all these moments. I was frustrated and embarrassed over their aggressive documentation of my life experiences, but I quickly realized this was perhaps my parents’ way of reliving their youth. They were present at each and every one of these moments with me, supporting me from behind the scenes emotionally and financially, and rarely indulging in anything for themselves. 

I was lucky I was never forced into medicine. Sure, the positive reinforcement probably started early when I stated my intentions back in high school. But looking back, it was definitely me who gravitated towards and signed up for all those biology courses and community service organizations. I arrived at medicine on my own accord, but now that I am here, there is still a pressure to see this American dream fairy tale through. From my parents’ perspective, all those days showing up to work while ill, the vacation time never taken, and the years having never been back to Vietnam even once have to amount to something, right? It is hard not feeling a bit guilty living life’s indulgent moments without getting a chance to repay my parents yet for all they have sacrificed. Maybe it’s all in my head, or maybe they instilled in me a little too well the motherland’s core value of filial piety.  

The journey through medicine is long and arduous, and I often catch myself sometimes wishing there is a 2x speed option on its harsh moments just so I can get to that finish line a little faster, the one where I finally get to treat my parents to a dinner, a trip, or those fluffy Japanese cheesecakes I know my mom secretly loves but would never buy for herself. But competent medical professionals are not (and should not be) created overnight, and the learning experience is something that needs to be thoroughly lived; from the frustrating moments to the rewarding ones. Now I lean a little more into the difficult moments, making each one a humble reminder to pump the brakes on this marathon before I wipe out altogether. As Billy Joel would say, “Vienna waits for you.” 

And until then, maybe the solution is just to make time throughout the journey to spend with my family and give back however I can. Like the time I took my father, an ardent fan of stand-up who had never seen a live show, to see Ronnie Chieng’s set in our city a few months after watching his Netflix special. 

I grinned at the end, secretly glad Ronnie had a completely new show.

” (CC BY 2.0) by tonnoro

Johnny Dang Johnny Dang (1 Posts)

Contributing Writer

John Sealy School of Medicine at University of Texas Medical Branch

Johnny is a medical student at the John Sealy School of Medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas, Class of 2026. In 2022, he graduated from Rice University with a Bachelor of Arts in degree in biochemistry and cell biology. He enjoys running, baking, and visiting coffee shops in his free time. In the future, Johnny would like to pursue a career in Anesthesiology.