From a young age in my Middle Eastern family, it was drilled into us that we must go to college and become either a doctor, dentist, engineer, or lawyer. I dreamed of going to Harvard or another Ivy League school: I fancied it to be the consummation of my assimilation as an immigrant—the door to a bright future. One condition thwarted my dreams: My parents forbade me from going away to college; instead, they wanted me to attend a local university. And so, I stayed home, worked full time in dentistry, put myself through college—and nursed such a bitterness against my parents that it took me 30 years to overcome it.
That bitterness—a grave moral failure on my part—became the source of many foolish decisions. And it was what drove me to get married before I finished college. After marriage came a baby, and still college wasn’t done. Life took over and distracted me, and besides, in my mind, Cal Poly was not Harvard, so I did not care. I couldn’t see past my bitterness, which darkened my mind, poisoned my heart, and polluted my decision making. In many ways, it rendered me impotent in achieving the customary goals for Iraqi Christian girls, who are expected to finish college before marriage.
Wendy Wang was right when she wrote in her recent Wall Street Journal article that people from the East teach their children the success sequence: Get an education, work hard, get married, and then have children. Immigrants from that part of the world use the freedom and educational opportunities prodigious in America to instruct their children in this success sequence.
I want to bring two observations to this conversation: a strong family structure that can withstand a misstep in one or more of the steps in the sequence, and trades and apprenticeships both play a crucial role within my immigrant community. Both together, I’m convinced, prevent the fall into poverty many other groups suffer.
The teaching of the success sequence in my culture reinforces the message not only through talk but also action. I write often about how the loose American culture affects immigrants, their children, and their traditional cultures. So what happens when immigrant kids hear the success sequence message from their parents, but not from their school and the culture around them? American culture writ large does not advocate the success sequence, and often times works against it through messages like: “follow your heart,” “do what you think is right,” and “experiment.” Music, movies, and other social elements saturate youth culture with the message that casual sex is natural and acceptable. I remember during my college years my friends would try to convince me to move out of my parents’ home so that I could “have freedom.” But I was raised in a culture where a girl didn’t leave home until she married.
What happens in that vulnerable state of assimilation as an immigrant tries to become Americanized? What happens when an immigrant kid fails at one or more of the sequence steps—no matter the reason for their failure—do they suffer the same fate as their native-born counterparts?
This is mostly anecdotal, but from my personal experience and observations, this is exactly where the familial help comes in. For many in the immigrant subculture, the family is strong enough to withstand a misstep in the success sequence, even if it’s not a particularly wealthy family. And that is because wealth is not just economic, but familial—that is, someone can be rich in the strong bonds of family and community without necessarily being rich in money. This helps the individual get through missteps and the hard consequences of foolish decisions until they are on their feet again. When I had to be on bed rest in the third trimester of my first pregnancy, we moved in with my parents. We stayed even after I had the baby because I needed to return to work, and my mother took care of my daughter. I was working, going to college, raising a baby girl, and attempting the role of wife. I could not have done that without my parents’ help.
When my ex-husband and I separated, and I became a single mom working and going to school, it was my parents who helped me with my daughter, even though by then I had overcome my culture’s taboo on an unmarried girl living by herself (I had moved out). It was because of our strong family bond—even during the times when we didn’t get along—that I was finally able to overcome the steps I had missed and graduate from college.
Wang and Wilcox note that “No statistical model can perfectly predict a youth’s future success.” And that “particular types of people, endowed with different personality traits, intellectual skills, and physical attributes, are undoubtedly more or less likely to select into thriving in school, work, and married life.”
This is absolutely true. I had many good opportunities: hard-working, educated parents, good public schools, excellent grades, and parents and cultural support for the success sequence. But by allowing myself to become so embittered against my parents for not allowing me to go away to college, I made some decisions that were driven by my bitter emotions.
Along with strong family ties that help the child when there is a misstep in the sequence, for the segment of the immigrant community that does not set as much of a premium on education and professional careers, a trade is held in high esteem. Apprenticeships—endorsed by Wang and Wilcox in their study—are a hugely popular path for Middle Easterners in their country of origin and when they immigrate. There are jewelers, construction workers, mechanics, to name just a few. Therefore, even those who do not pursue a college education still have a route to financial stability and sometimes great success. I know plenty of immigrants who do not have a college education but who worked hard, apprenticed under family or friends, took risks and opportunities as they came along, and are now wealthy as adults. They all had one thing in common: the sequence (of work, then marriage, then children) was still followed after high school. None of them had children before marriage. While it’s true that this is part of the tradition passed down from their parents, often we misunderstand what tradition is—not “closed-minded social rules everyone must obey,” but a culture’s crystalized wisdom.
And this brings me to something Eve Tushnet wrote yesterday in her critique of the success sequence narrative. While I admire her work and her observations are meaningful, I think Eve misses something important. The success sequence is not about getting rich, nor is it morally vacuous: one of the powerful consequences of following the sequence is that it has the potential to teach self-discipline, a much-needed moral virtue in our day. And it is self-discipline—in the face of what everyone around you is doing—that can break the “sex, then cohabitation, then marriage” ethic that Americans of all classes hold. And strong families play a role in teaching and supporting this virtue.
We desperately need strong families in America, and no, they do not need to be economically wealthy. What we need is more social capital: relationships, friendships, associations, communities—these are the bonds that uphold and shape our identity. And they are the bonds that can best guide a young person along the path to the success sequence and lift that person up when and if they stumble.
Almost one year ago, I moved within walking distance to my parents’ house. It was one more healing step on my path to overcoming the bitterness that had long enslaved me. I am 48 years old, and this June, I will leave my husband and children to travel to Washington, DC, where I have enrolled in a master’s program that runs for six weeks over four summers. I will be able to do this because I have the support of my parents, who are still committed to helping me. So, I leave my family in good hands as I tenaciously cling to finishing the path set before me. This is America after all; it is never too late.
Luma Simms is a fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Her essays and articles have appeared in First Things, Public Discourse, National Affairs, and other publications.