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SuChin's Journal: College Dreams

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SuChin's Journal: Super Americans

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November 17, 2004

What's Our Next Story?

It's my final meeting with the producers before I head out to meet Sonia tomorrow. People are always asking how we come up with ideas for the show, but I never have a problem. I have enough stories and ideas for this show to last us for a good 12 years. I wanted to do a story this time around the topic of college. Going off to college is the biggest thing to happen to a teenager ... possibly the first adult decision in a young person's life. I remember the first day of my freshman year in college and just being so scared. The world had suddenly become so huge and all those years I thought I knew something. Well, guess what, none of it counts when you get to college.

I sent out a letter asking kids to write in about their college experience. Sonia's story intrigued me the most, because it was so similar — and yet so different — from my own story. Here's a girl who's about as American as you can get: She works at a health clinic as a peer counselor, she's a business major at a local community college and she's got a serious boyfriend. But at the core of her identity is her incredible commitment to her family and, ultimately, her Mexican values. Her parents are immigrants from Mexico, and while they understand that school is important, nothing is more important than family, not even a college degree. And therein lies the conflict — Sonia wants to do better for herself and have an independent American life, but that means getting a college degree. And that means sacrificing some of her responsibilities at home.

I was thinking ... most of us fight with our parents about curfews and dating. Imagine arguing with them about wanting to study MORE!

Posted by SuChin | 1515 Broadway | NYC 10036 | Contact Me
November 18, 2004


Sonia told us she's been seriously contemplating dropping out of school. I could never even imagine that growing up. For me, college was not an option — it was like 13th grade, just an extension of all of my years of schooling. I don't even think my parents came to my high school graduation. They had friends over for a barbecue, but as far as coming to a ceremony to congratulate their daughter on graduating high school? I mean, it was such a given, that making a big deal about it was counterintuitive for my folks. Of course she's graduating high school. Of course she's going to Berkeley ... what's the big deal?

So I was afraid maybe I wouldn't relate to Sonia. But in fact, she's exactly me at 19, a complete overachiever and really struggling to figure out how to be American and still hold on to her parents' culture. The problem isn't that her parents don't want her to go to college, they just don't think it should get in the way of her being at home and helping out the family.

Sonia got accepted to San Diego State University with a full scholarship when she graduated high school, but couldn't go because her parents don't believe a young, unmarried woman should be living out of the house, even if it is for school. So she enrolled at a community college close to her home instead, with hopes of transferring in the next year or two. This is such a huge sacrifice, and I know the first question a typical American would ask is ... why? Why not just move out? Well, if I was faced with that decision at 18, I don't think I could've moved out. Go to college and have your parents turn their back on you? I mean, believe me, I fought with my parents every day of my teenage years, but I could never cut them out of my life. I could never choose anything over family and I would never be happy without my parents' approval. I guess that's the biggest difference between being American and Korean or Mexican. Your family always comes first, or at least you have to figure out a compromise. But that compromise has to include your parents.

Posted by SuChin | 1515 Broadway | NYC 10036 | Contact Me
November 20, 2004

Family Bonds

It's final exam month for Sonia at school, but she can't even make it to classes, let alone have time to study. Her sister's quinceanera is tomorrow. A quinceanera is like a sweet 16/debutane ball/wedding/bat mitzvah. It's like the biggest day of a young Latina's life and it takes all year to plan. So Sonia, who's had to take the lead in planning the event, is really stressed out and school just seems like something she's just going to have to let go of. It's not like her parents don't want her to go to school, they just don't think it's more important than her responsibilities as the eldest daughter in a Mexican-American family. They argue that she can quit her job or see her boyfriend less, but those are two things Sonia cannot sacrifice. She needs her job to have some independence and she loves her boyfriend ... so it's school that's suffering.

Sonia's father is quite the character. I don't understand Spanish, so it's hard to really communicate. He comes off very gruff. He's extremely strict, and clearly their relationship is rough. But you can tell he loves her — they just don't get each other. Her mother is the peacemaker, the glue in the family.

Posted by SuChin | 1515 Broadway | NYC 10036 | Contact Me
November 23, 2004

Growing Pains

Went to see my mom and dad in California. They're crazy. In a good way. It's amazing that I can have this relationship with my parents. If you would've asked me when I was 16 whether I thought I would ever miss my parents when I moved out of the house or if I would ever be close to them, the answer would've been a resounding HELL NO. But it's true, the older you get, the more you understand your parents. I keep telling Sonia that it gets easier, that this is the hardest part. It's hard when your parents don't speak English or they're not from this country, because you become a third parent in a way. You end up taking care of things for your parents and raising your younger siblings. Sonia's mom said it best: They rely on her because she's always been their little translator. At times, I really resented the fact that I had to go home early to take care of my brother or help him with his homework or that I had to spend my afternoons helping my parents read bills and contracts. You grow up so much quicker. I was a very serious child and a very focused teenager and often the responsibility was a burden, but in the end it all helped me get further in school and in my career.

Posted by SuChin | 1515 Broadway | NYC 10036 | Contact Me
December 1, 2004


Sonia told her mom she was considering dropping out of school. I think she actually thought her mom was going to let her do that. But her mom had a complete breakdown. She told Sonia that she left everything behind to help her children have a better life and that means to finish college and be independent and successful. It was a shock to Sonia. I don't think she had ever seen her mother so visibly emotional. Her mother, it turns out, had wanted to go to college and become a doctor. But she got married and then pregnant and then they moved to America and everything was left unfinished. She has huge regrets. It was a really emotional moment. I get teary-eyed every time I see the tape ... her mom is just so completely desperate to have Sonia live the life that she couldn't.

It's a lot of pressure, to not only live successfully for yourself, but for your entire family. I think that's why I've always been so driven; I think if I was just doing this for myself, I'm not sure I would have worked so hard at school, at my job. But knowing that what you do helps your family, that your family depends on your success ... it's a huge pressure, but it can also be a great motivator.

I don't know any first-generation kid who doesn't feel a deep sense of obligation. My parents, like so many others, left a home, a country and a family behind to come to a strange place, with strange customs and a strange language, all because they hoped to give their kids a better life. It's a strangely wonderful thing to understand this, to really understand how much our parents have sacrificed to give us more. When I asked my mom what was more important, the individual or the family, my mom responded by saying that she had no life, that her life was essentially over, because she was living for me.

Posted by SuChin | 1515 Broadway | NYC 10036 | Contact Me
December 2, 2004

Great Expectations

Sonia is putting a lot of emphasis on her final business exam. If she does not do well on this exam, she will drop out. Flunking out of college is not an option for her; she'd rather drop school and hopefully get to it later in life, when she has more time. But we all know that if she drops out of school now, the chances she'll go back are very slim. And if she drops out of school now, she may regret it for the rest of her life. The stakes are high. Her whole family is depending on her to be the first one, to set the example, to succeed in this country, but is it too much? Is it realistic to expect her to excel in school while taking care of her family?

Posted by SuChin | 1515 Broadway | NYC 10036 | Contact Me
December 15, 2004

College Dreams

I think it's been an emotional two months for Sonia. And I think she realizes that no matter what she gets on this exam, she has to graduate college. For the first time, I think Sonia realizes that doing the best thing for herself can also mean doing the best thing for her family — and that means graduating college. She seems happier, like a weight has been lifted. She's even talking about business school and maybe even getting into fashion. It's a big change. That's the thing about this time in your life — every day, it's something new. A day is a year, a month is a lifetime.

A lot has changed for Sonia in the last few weeks. Who knows what her future holds ... but at least she's headed in the right direction.

Posted by SuChin | 1515 Broadway | NYC 10036 | Contact Me

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