My parents are Russian scientists, but I want to work in publishing

They're spending a fortune sending me to an Ivy League school, and I'm terrified I won't justify the investment.

Published May 18, 2005 12:13AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Twelve or 13 years ago, my family immigrated to the U.S. from Russia. My parents are both scientists, both Ph.D.'s, but it took them a long time and a lot of moves -- three states and five schools for me -- to find jobs that suited them and to buy a house. My mom changed careers during the programming boom, but she lost her job two years ago.

I was always the good daughter; my sister was always the troublemaker. I made my parents proud in school and asked for very little materially. I shared their values, their friends, their parties. I still call them every night. But because we are so close, I am the one they come to when they want to complain about each other. Their marriage is awful, and I'm the first to hear about what a hysterical woman my mom is and how she sits on her ass and does nothing all day, and about how my dad is a selfish bastard who is only nice to his buddies.

When I got into an Ivy League university, my parents were thrilled, but they could barely afford the tuition. I know I'm an investment, but I'm not just a financial one, I'm an emotional investment, too. I'm a whole-life investment. They live through me. Unfortunately, I'm not mathematically or scientifically inclined, so I'm not here studying something irreproachable, like engineering or economics. I'm studying literature, and I'm terrified that I won't justify my parents' investment.

So I want to take a publishing internship where I go to school, stay with my grandparents, and work this summer. It might be good for my career -- and I wouldn't have to go home for very long. I'd preserve my newfound calm -- I was always nervous and touchy at home -- and I'd make my dad proud. But my mom is lonely. She's home alone for most of the day, and my sister, while a great student, talks to my parents only enough to get them to drive her places. Most family friends are really my dad's. She really is alone. I love her and my dad, but I don't want to be where I'm always forced to act as (an ineffectual) buffer between them, and I want to do something to secure my future.

So what should I do? Should I look for a less suitable job where I live and descend into the crossfire at home to support my mom? Or should I stay here, where I'm calmer, and take an internship, which would make my dad proud?

Unwitting Traitor

Dear Unwitting Traitor,

My suggestion: Stay. Take the internship.

Look at it this way: If you really want to make your parents proud, then you'll do all the things that will bring you success. What will bring you success is learning everything you can about your chosen life's work. When I think about your situation, it gives me a great feeling of bittersweet happiness. I don't know why it affects me so deeply, but it does. I suppose there is something beautiful and classically, mythically American about the choice you face.

To me, it isn't simply a family drama. It is a national drama. You're the child of immigrants like millions before you; your parents came here to build a life, and while their dreams may have been rather detailed and specific, they could not expect to know exactly what kind of new life they would build. They brought their scientific training but they also brought you, and you apparently were born to work in the literary arts.

So that's what you do. You build a new life out of what you bring here and what you find here. You can't build a new life that contains no novelty, no surprises. You can't build a new life but keep everything of the old life that you liked. A new life means novelty. Your role is to embrace it. Your parents may not embrace it at first. For them, the pain of leaving the old life may obscure the joy of the new. To see their children hastily revise their detailed blueprint may give them a shock, but that's what we do here. That's how we stay fresh. That's how we make new Americans who write new books and new poems that keep us from descending into Puritan darkness.

Weird, isn't it? I feel like you are pursuing a classic path to the heart of American culture. There will always be the mother who sits alone in her room, disconsolate, inconsolable and reveling in the punishment it metes out to her coldhearted bastard of a husband, making sure that every child knows just how much he's made her suffer.

But as I sit here writing I make a silent toast to you. I imagine you learning to drink new, expensive cocktails named after dying European cities and having long conversations with promising novelists and sad-eyed poets. I think your parents will be most proud of you as they see you becoming a figure of culture. They may be scientists but they come from a society that loves poetry as much as it loves science, so I'm sure they understand that social progress and personal success emanates as much from cafes as from laboratories. Here's to you, unwitting traitor, perpetual reinventor of America! Here's to you!

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