Our relationships with our parents are so important that they make it into the Ten Commandments. Exodus 20:12 instructs us to “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”
I’ll admit, that verse has always made me uncomfortable. How do we honor our parents as adults? When we disagree with them? When we have a different cultural reality or worldview? I’ve struggled most of my life to understand how to live out this particular commandment, especially when it comes to my Korean-born mother, who emigrated to the United States in the 1980s.
My discomfort came up again watching the “Parents” episode of the new, lauded Netflix comedy series, Master of None. The show’s co-creator, Aziz Ansari, stars as Dev Shah, a second-generation Indian American trying to figure out his future and working out relationships with his friends, lovers, and parents. In an early scene, Dev’s dad (played by Ansari’s father) asks for help fixing his iPad calendar. Dev responds with a string of excuses, finally ending with, “I’m not your personal computer guy!”
We flashback to scenes throughout his dad’s life: his poor upbringing in India, the struggle to become a doctor, racism during his early years in America, and an understatedly ironic and touching moment where he gives his young son a computer as a gift. Back in the present, Dev’s final refusal echoes, and his father wearily accedes.
Meanwhile, Dev’s Taiwanese-American friend, Brian, has a similar exchange with his father after he asks a favor. We see moments from Brian’s dad’s upbringing and his dream for his son to have a better life, before Brian heads off to meet Dev for a movie rather than help.
I squirmed throughout those scenes, feeling guilty for all the times I’d forgotten to call my mother back or ignored her small requests. For the 20 million Americans who, like me, are children of immigrants, Master of None presents a near-universal truth: We often take for granted the privilege of our upbringing. Compared to our parents, our lives are easy.
My mother was born near the end of the Korean War, the only girl in a family of seven children. Her family grew rice in the small village of Ichon, South Korea. She left before finishing high school and worked for a while, finally making her way to the United States. Just as Dev and Brian confess knowing almost nothing about their parents’ past, I know little between my mother’s birth, her move to the States, and her marriage in 1987 to my dad, a half-Lebanese/half-Irish, all-American soldier.
I know she listened to Tom Jones in high school. She learned to drive in California, of all places (and to this day is an incredibly sharp driver). My parents were set up by friends, another Korean lady and her white American husband. They got married in a courthouse.
Nearly a year and a half later, I was born, then my brother three years after. Our parents were determined that we would lead better lives than theirs. My dad, the youngest of his family, was raised by a single mom in East Boston. While he isn’t an immigrant, his father came from Lebanon through Ellis Island. My family’s roots are firmly planted in the US, but they don’t run deep.
It’s easy for me to look back at my childhood and see the “Tiger Mom” generalizations; at my parents’ request, I even played piano, violin, and took tutoring lessons. But my parents cared for me in a way that can’t be captured in a cultural stereotype. They eagerly offered me opportunity after opportunity. When I expressed the slightest interest in something new (team sports, art, martial arts), my parents used their time and money to make sure I could pursue it. There were plenty of rules, but a lot of freedom within them. What some might see as “helicopter parenting,” I can see now, as a new parent myself, is a deep love that desires the most good for one’s children.
As much as we may recognize, analyze, laugh at, or even lament the ways our upbringings were different because of our immigrant parents, these differences often point us to the sacrifices and struggles they went through for our sake. Master of None, created by two second-generation kids, gets at this dynamic in a way rarely depicted on television. They portray and critique the unemotional, practical, and rigid attitude common among Asian immigrant parents. Brian quips about a white girlfriend’s mom who hugged him more at one dinner than his parents did his entire life. Dev chimes in that white parents would support his acting career more than his own.
And yet, despite the jokes, these grown-up kids still can’t help but feel humbled with gratitude. Dev remarks, “All of us first-generation kids have these amazing lives, and it’s all because our parents made these crazy sacrifices. And we never thank them. Like, we do nothing to thank them. Shouldn’t we do something?” The two “pay back” their parents with nice dinners and thoughtful gifts, seeking to learn more about their lives in their country of origin. But as the ending reveals, all these parents really want is to spend quality time with their children and to see them live freely, without the burdens that they carried.
I used to feel uncomfortable when I disagreed with my mother because I felt I owed her so much. Any time we’ve talked about her life’s hardships and why she cares so much about my education, health, and every small detail of my life, I almost felt worse from being reminded of all she and my dad had done for me. But just like God the Father doesn’t compel us to obedience and worship out of guilt, our call to honor our parents shouldn’t come out of a sense of indebtedness, but of gratitude and joy.
I think of the sentiment in Ansari’s own remarks (now gone viral) about his father’s involvement in the show. When his dad told him how he agreed to act in Master of None just so they could spend more time together, Ansari said:
I almost instantly collapsed into tears at the thought of how much this person cares about me and took care of me and gave me everything to give me the amazing life I have…
I haven't always had the best, most open relationship with my parents because we are weirdly closed off emotionally sometimes. But we are getting better. And if you have something like that with your family—I urge you to work at it at.
Even the most sacrificial parents do so out of the hope of seeing their kids flourish, grow, and live happy lives. The best way I can honor my mom is to involve her in the happy life I’ve built thanks to her support and guidance. So we Facetime once a week so she can delight over my infant son, admonishing and caring from afar. We cross several states for relatively uneventful visits to my parents’ house, all for the joy of seeing them play with and love on their first grandchild in person.
With each day I spend with my son, I have glimpses of my future life as a parent and how our relationship will change. And when it does, I hope he realizes that the debt between a parent and child was never meant to be repaid. It can only be paid forward.
Jennifer Clark lives in the sprawling Chicago suburbs. She occasionally works from home, but spends most of her days keeping up with her infant son and husband. They attend Redeemer Fellowship church in St. Charles, Illinois.