“Tiger mom” Amy Chua has nothing on my dad. I’m talking traditional old-school Asian father. He was strict and uncompromising and raised me the way he was raised. Without having a Tiger Dad, I wouldn’t be the man, husband, father, or doctor that I am today.
My dad grew up on a tiny rice farm in rural South Korea with his parents, six siblings, a dozen chickens and a pig. Their home consisted of three small huts, one for sleeping, one for gathering and one for cooking. Their stove was a metal grate over an open fire.
My grandfather made his living farming a small plot of land, mainly growing rice and collecting eggs from the chickens that served as both food and pets. My grandmother raised all seven children, cooked, cleaned and cared for the animals. They spent almost all their earnings on food and repairs on their primitive home. The little money they had left over, they put in a jar to save for my father’s education.
As the eldest son, the hopes of the entire family rested on my father. My grandparents planned to use their savings to put my dad through medical school, after which he would move to America, become a successful doctor and pull his family out of poverty.
Like many Asian immigrants of his generation, my dad persevered through extreme hardship in order to move overseas. Ultimately, he arrived outside of Detroit, a penniless foreigner speaking almost no English, having no friends, and with only the rudimentary skills of a foreign physician. But he also brought a dogged determination to better his life and the lives of his family. He also defined success in the old Asian way: Success did not mean happiness. Happiness was something you didn’t have time to worry about .
As an Asian American, born and raised in Michigan, my Western culture emphasized “happiness.” This was the opposite of what my Tiger Dad said. Forget happiness. I had to be a success. My dad decided I would be a doctor the day I was born. I often wished my dad weren’t so strict. But now I see why: Being a doctor paid for the education of all six of his siblings, and pulled his entire family out of brutal poverty. I once asked my dad what he considered to be his role in the family. He said he saw himself as a stepping stone: one who knelt in the dirty water of the river to allow his family, and children, to step over him to reach the other side.
Dad has retired with grandkids to enjoy and enough financial security to relax. My wish for my Tiger Dad is that he has found not only success but also happiness.
Anthony Youn, MD, is author of In Stitches, a memoir about growing up Asian American and becoming a doctor.
Originally published on USAToday.com