At an elite American university, ambition competes with the desire to find love | Opinion

Jorm Sangsorn/Getty Images

At the beginning of high school, I sat down in the back of an empty English classroom, cracked open a can of stale Cola and journaled a list of all the things I wanted to do before I graduated: Find a best friend, become class president, go to Harvard, visit Paris, put a rap album into the world and get a boyfriend. It was the end of the school day — the last bell had rung — and I was, once again, avoiding the crowd of unfamiliar faces in the hallway.

Over the years, I slowly crossed out the goals I finished and wrote in new ones, but the general theme hasn’t changed much. Six years later, today, that list reads something along the lines of: Visit Paris, get into Harvard Med School, naturalize my undocumented mother, save a life, buy my parents a house, write music and get a boyfriend.


At first, I found comfort in the secrecy of my goals — not only to avoid embarrassment if I failed at any, but also because I knew that being ambitious as an Asian son of immigrants in America wasn’t the kind of Asian that people liked or wanted around.

When the faces in my high school hallways slowly became people I could call my good friends, I still didn’t feel too safe. In conversations, peers constantly brought up the quintessential triangle of being a student, and how I can only choose two of the three: a vibrant social and love life, academics or sleep.

For the first vertex of the triangle, in particular, they warned me that the only way to see tangible romantic results was if I invested as much time in love as every other part of being a college student.

My longest relationship ever was three months. A great number of my college relationships failed to break past the two-week mark. At 20, in my junior year at Yale, I am more than halfway through my undergraduate years. A part of me is unable to accept the fact that, at that age, my grandparents had already gotten married and were welcoming their first child.

“You never know when someone could be your forever person,” one friend added. “It’s kind of like the stock market game.”

My friends, especially those in committed long-term relationships, wonder if I care as much about love as I claim I do, and if I always give love my best shot.

I don’t know how to tell them that I do care about love.

I care about it a lot, if not as much as they do. My goal has never been to come across as a sort of anti-love, anti-hero. Just like almost everyone I know, I am also terrified of waking up one day and not having someone there for me. I think about what it will feel like to go through the taxing years of medical school, residency or law school alone and my stomach absolutely plummets. I think about what it feels like to have a cup of pumpkin spice chai in my hands as I find myself wrapped in a man’s warm hug during autumn. I like kisses, and I like hoodies even more.

But I also don’t know how to tell people that I have my own dreams, too.

My non-Asian friends often assume that the igneous pressure to succeed comes from my parents. It does not. It comes from a fear of not knowing if I have honored their sacrifices enough, a tough love that only the recipient can see the value of.

Asian Americans, immigrants and children of immigrants are often made to feel ashamed of our ambition. It is stereotypical to want to be a doctor; it is calculated when we want to do well; it is obnoxious to call Harvard or Yale a dream; and our ambition becomes synonymous with cutthroat. Growing up, I couldn’t help thinking that in white America, the best thing I could be was a handsome, adorable fool who embodied the acceptable parts of the model minority monolith: quiet, agreeable, warm.

At the same time, I would never go as far as to say that I am deserving of any love I don’t work hard for. Toward the end of my first year in college, I met a guy who came from a completely different world than the one I had always known. He is the descendant of a very prominent family in the United States, and he had the kind of connections that I could only dream of getting. He’s a good guy — not one of the snobby “Old Money” boys who announces to everyone that they drink their coffee black or use Latin in an English classroom.

But I never felt at peace in that relationship, and though that was my fault, it’s not something I ever felt ashamed of admitting. I never stopped thinking about the younger me who had always wanted to become greater than his circumstances allowed him. These breakthroughs may involve love — another person, a man, a partner — but they are also very separate.

As much as I wanted that relationship, I was not ready for it. I found myself jumping ahead and fantasizing the perfect easy life with a person I barely scratched the surface of, when, like many other extremely low-income teenagers, I had made an invisible commitment to always put my family and future first.

My journal keeps me on track to uphold my commitments. More than I appreciate the satisfying feeling of checking them off, I like seeing how my goals evolve over time as I walk through and metamorphose into different stages of myself: from the trivial tasks as a high schooler who just wanted to get into a good school to the emotional promises I have made to the people I love most. I will meet a lot more of those people down the road.

But if it so happens that I want to fall in love with one of them, I will happily let myself do so.