“This time I’m gonna break out and be free/Stop needin’ what I want and start wantin’ what I need.”
I have learned that our romantic preferences are socially constructed, and when we ask ourselves why we like someone with a certain skin color, hair, eyes, etc. couldn’t we all find some possible, albeit obscure, answer to those questions that point to outside influences? The very meaning of beauty is socially constructed, we know that. Some years, big hips and hourglasses are hot; others, it’s Twiggy. The socializing source can be anything from societal norms to our own parents, but the growing counterculture tells us to marry whomever we love, regardless of appearance.
It’s unpopular of me to say, then, that I am purposefully selecting a partner based on physical appearance.
As I grow older, I have physically grown apart from my parents, and I have had time to rationalize the crazy things that they say and do. The weight of their survival and selflessness began to set in when I learned about the dangers of escaping Vietnam in 1975 and my parents’ journey to America as refugees. My parents may live the “American Dream” but they have never enjoyed life the way my brother, my sister, and I undeservingly have. They never go on vacations if the purpose is not to see family. They never go to fancy restaurants. They never do anything “fun.” For them, the primary purpose of their existence has always been to provide for not only us, but our family members who struggle for money either here or in Vietnam. That is why I carry this guilt on my shoulders: my existence would be nothing without the courage, sacrifice, and wellbeing of my parents. So when people tell me to live my life for myself and myself only, I think, Isn’t that selfish?
Had my parents taken that advice, they would have separated years ago; I would not have had the means to go to a prestigious university; I would never see my mom and dad in the same room again; I would lose the home I grew up in; I would become family with strangers if my parents remarried. But that didn’t happen because my parents live by a different set of values that are uncommon—unpopular, even—in America.
They chose a life that they thought was better for their children. It’s still far from perfect (and sometimes I wish they would just take a day off work without complaining about the money they would lose), but in theory, what they did was selfless.
So when I arrive at the question of who to date, I have been socialized by this guilt, but whether that is right or wrong is a question of morality. My parents set constraints to whom I can date/marry, and although it contradicts popular meanings of liberation, obliging my parents along these lines also frees me from the burden of choice. Choice is often paralyzing in this era of unlimited option, and to know that respecting my parents with a choice that makes them happy ultimately makes my life easier and is worth more to me than preserving my “God-given freedom.” Freedom may be entitled to everyone, but not every one is blessed to live in it. In fact, I should be grateful for even having the privilege of choice at all and not have my choices revoked from me simply because I was labeled by society as undesirable by my skin color, a stigma that many Black women must live with. My American lineage is but two generations old, so it’s easier for me than for others to see where I came from. Many of us, at one point or another, lose sight of that. Maybe that’s why many Millenials feel so entitled to everything.