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I Had the Career My Immigrant Parents Always Dreamed About—and It Was Suffocating

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Under the blankets at night with a flashlight.

In my bedroom, leaning against the door so my little brother wouldn’t come in.

During class, scribbling in a notebook, looking like the most studious of students, when I wasn’t listening to a word the teacher was saying.

Sitting in parks and coffee shops, anonymous in a sea of faces.

These are some of the places I would write. I dreamed about turning my passion into my profession, while at the same time following a path that only seemed to be leading away from it.

I was the daughter of immigrants, as were most of my friends. I grew up surrounded by kids who either came to Toronto when they were young, or who were the first in their families to be born there, to parents who were quick to tell you that they moved across the world — left their families and friends and lives — for you. So that you could have a chance. So that you could have a better life. Freedom. Opportunity. Security.

Those were the promises of a Canadian visa to my East African family, and so they came. And they had me — I was the chance to live those dreams. To fulfill them for my parents, and to take advantage of them for myself.

And the path to fulfilling these dreams was school. Then a job – preferably for a large organization that offered medical benefits, retirement contributions and paid maternity leave. I finished high school, and then went to University to study Kinesiology and Economics, not quite knowing what I was going to do, but knowing that whatever it was, it would ideally be for an organization offering me the fulfillment of the dreams of my parents. Because with those boxes checked, I could go on to check the other boxes presented to me: marriage, mortgage, children…

While finishing my undergraduate degree, I continued to write, and continued to keep it all to myself. This was before blogs — the internet was really just getting its footing back then. I had a Hotmail address, a bulky laptop computer, and a dream of being a writer. But I studied anatomy and physiology, demand curves and supply-side economics, looking to be what I’d always known I would be: stable.

And that stable job came. It was at a clinic, where I worked with people to help them lose weight and get healthy. It was carpeted floors and fluorescent lights in a low-rise office building, where I wore creased pants and crisp white shirts, and kept a sweater in my office because the air-conditioning was always cranked up too high. I ran clinical trials for pharmaceutical companies, putting people on this drug and that, monitoring their results and reporting back to the drug companies who would send their reps to the office once a month, bringing lunch and pens and other swag to keep us involved in their studies.

It only took two short years for me to know that life in a clinic wasn’t for me. My heart screamed at me to write. My head said I needed something stable. So back to school, I went. Not to study English literature or creative writing or even journalism, but to get a Masters in Business Administration. I spent my time going to class, studying finance, marketing, and organizational behavior, and watching Anne of Green Gables over and over on my little TV.

I did the work to get the job to have the life I was supposed to have. I watched the movie to dream of what my life would have been like if I was an orphaned redhead at the turn of the century.

Growing up, I didn’t have examples around me of people making a living in the arts. Everyone I knew — everyone I knew —worked some version of a nine to five job. Offices. Briefcases. Traffic jams and public transportation. This was what I grew up with. I just didn’t know any different, and I couldn’t see any difference for myself.

What would life look like if I was a writer? I literally had no idea. And no idea sleeping in a bed of fear with its head on a pillow of worry shrouded in a blanket of insecurity does not make for the get-up-and-go attitude a writer needs to succeed. Rather, it makes for the girl who would continue to write in secret while publically wearing pantsuits and high heels.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m in my parents' dream job for me: banking. It was everything they wanted, and everything I thought I needed in my life. It was paid vacations and great health benefits. It was a corporate credit card and lunches with clients.

It was retirement contributions, a pension and a lot of room for advancement. It was the dream of a leadership position in a corner office while wearing slim skirts and high heels in air conditioning under fluorescent lights.

It was the fulfillment of their immigrant dreams for their Canadian-born daughter. And it was all that to me, too. I felt their happiness, I saw their pride, and their dream for my security fulfilled. And it was suffocating.

I lost that job three years into it. And though it was devastating at the time, it was, without a doubt, the best thing that happened to me. It wasn’t the end of my career under fluorescent lights, but it was the beginning of the idea that life could be different. In that garden of unintended freedom, a seed was sown that slowly started to take root.

And just as it was outside voices who gave me the idea that a stable, corporate job was what was best for me, it was another outside voice who watered the garden where I sowed the seed of a different life. Someone who told me that I could live the life of a writer. That my words mattered, and they meant something, and people would be interested. Someone who told me that there was a whole world out there beyond high heels and fluorescent lights, where I could live where I wanted, how I wanted, doing what I always wanted.

This possibility of the trifecta of my dreams coming true is really what spurred me to begin, and to keep going in the face of every debilitating fear and insecurity about what I do, and how my life would turn out as a result of these new choices, these new possibilities.


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