Interviewed by Philip Cho
Podcast by Maayan Gutterman and Leah Shaw
Rayson’s Chen’s parents, immigrants from China, had big dreams for their first child. They expected Rayson to become a doctor, lawyer, CEO. Instead, he wanted to become a high school history teacher. That didn’t go over well.
“I was kind of replaced in my mother’s eyes,” he explained in his oral history with Philip Cho, who had attended Edward R. Murrow High School with Chen. “I was not a favored child any more. She focused less of her attention on me at that point. She was disappointed.”
His parents grew up in Mao’s China. His father had fought in the Chinese Communist Army in Vietnam, “but not in the Vietnam war we know,” said Chen, but one of several Chinese-Vietnam wars. But when they came to the U.S., his mother, especially, adopted what Chen calls “a very conservative viewpoint on life—small government, earning money and doing everything on your own, not depending upon government aid or other people to build you up.”
His mother had learned English pretty quickly. She had gotten a job as a secretary in a doctor’s office. “It wasn’t a Chinese office,” said Chen. “It was an American doctor’s office, a white doctor’s office. So I guess her interacting with the doctor, the patients, she had to learn quick.”
Chen’s father drives a Lincoln Town Car, “driving wealthy people around…so you know he learned English too.”
Chen has thought a lot about stereotypes about Asian families. “You hear a lot that Asian children are saying, ‘I wasn’t loved at home, my parents never told me they loved me’—like in TV shows at the end the parents and the kids get together in a group hug and say ‘I love you, blah, blah, blah.’ I think that’s wrong. It’s just that Asian parents show love in a completely different way.
“Asian parents don’t see the point in doing that,” he said. “The way they show love is going above and beyond, helping you to achieve what you need. Your parents work nine to five every day. But they’re still up at six o’clock dragging your stupid ass to get to school….and then they run off to work.”
Chen’s father worked the night shift. ”He would go out seven o’clock at night and he would go around taking calls from all over the city, picking people up. He’d be home at 4 or 5 in the morning. But at any time had I asked him to drive me to school, this man, after working an eight or nine hour shift, would wake up and drive me to school.”
Senior year in high school, Chen had a social studies teacher, Ryan Mills, for a government class. “He probably is the biggest inspiration to me. He has a sarcastic style in the classroom but I really look up to the man.”
By the end of high school, Chen said, “I’m like: I wanna be a teacher, I wanna teach history. That was it: I want to be one day like Mr. Mills.”
That’s when he broke the news to his parents. He later realized he was O.K. with disappointing his parents and their hopes for him to achieve a gold-plated American Dream. “My definition of success is achieving my dreams: to become a teacher, work and settle down and just live out the rest of my life. That’s successful,” he said.
Rayson Chen has achieved one piece of his dream. He is now a history teacher—at his old school, Edward R. Murrow High School. “Mr. Mills is now my boss—it’s wonderful teaching under and with him,” said Chen.
And his parents? “Teaching pays the bills and sets me up for a successful future so they don’t really mind any more,” he said.