When Financial Independence Isn’t Always the Goal

In the summer of 1996, when I was 16, some of my friends found jobs at our local mall in Jacksonville, Fla. We all came from upper-middle-class families, so working was about building character and earning spending money, not because of financial necessity.

I loved music, so I floated the idea of working at Blockbuster Music, a now-defunct record store, while riding in the car with my mother, an Iranian immigrant. When she heard this, she pulled off the road, parked the car and angrily lectured me.

My mother said I should instead pursue internships and other activities that would support my studies and career goals, not distract from them. Making money wasn’t important yet.

Shellshocked, I dropped the subject. My Iranian mother’s ideas about the way the world worked often clashed with my American upbringing.

I understood that academic success was the means to a job that would bring me financial success. For my mother, however, education was a success. Until I had the necessary degrees, she would support me financially. But I also understood that the longer you study, the longer you delay your earning power — a greater measure of status in American society.

For my mother, and many Iranian parents with means, this trade-off is worth it. But if education does not translate into a well-paying job — as my Ph.D. in English literature doesn’t — their children can find themselves stigmatized by prolonged financial dependence.

Aspects of my experience resonated with a number of Iranian Americans I spoke to. Farnoosh Torabi, a personal finance expert and an author, heard the same expectations around education from her parents. Ms. Torabi, 43, said her parents had expected her to go to graduate school no matter what she planned to study. She ended up getting a master’s degree in journalism.

Jason Rezaian, a writer for The Washington Post, received financial support from his grandfather. He also knew that his father, who owned a Persian rug business, would do his best to support him if necessary.

“If I tried to go get a loan from a bank when I needed money at some point, my dad would have done terrible things to himself,” Mr. Rezaian, 47, said.

Immigrant Parents Supporting Adult Children

Most research about immigrant groups and personal finance focuses on filial obligation, in which children are expected to support their parents, said Kevan Harris, an Iranian American sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. Less studied, he said, is the opposite: immigrant parents supporting their children well into adulthood.

My mother, an anesthesiologist who made $250,000 a year at the peak of her career, probably invested more in my education than in any other expense except our home. She paid for private school and my undergraduate and master’s degrees, and subsidized my meager teaching stipend while I completed a doctoral program.

She attributes her desire to support me not just to our family history but to Iranian culture in general. “This is my child,” she said. “I have money. And then, as long as I am alive, I am responsible.”

More sporadic support came from my American biological father, who earned far less as a county clerk. He wanted me to enter the work force earlier and consider a more lucrative degree.

At 34, I received my degree but had neither a job in a cutthroat academic market nor a Plan B. I had fulfilled my mother’s expectations of earning an advanced degree — a scholarly path I genuinely loved — but it did not create the financial independence I felt I needed to be a valuable member of society.

Financial independence was not something I desired, because I felt controlled by my mother’s money. It was only when I compared myself with the American ideal of successful adulthood — having a well-paying job — that I felt like a freeloader.

That’s not to say I don’t want to make a good living. But my mother’s financial support has allowed me to reinvent myself as a freelance writer without worrying about making ends meet. Single and childless by choice, I have lived with her and my stepfather since I received my doctoral degree.

When adults live with their parents in America, it’s usually seen as a temporary circumstance, but multigenerational households are common in many immigrant cultures. Mr. Rezaian, who lived on and off with his parents into adulthood, said it was common among Iranian American families “to see somebody who’s, you know, a fully formed, fully capable, employed adult living with their folks.”

Cultural Over Financial Capital

A survey from the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, a nonprofit, shows that 86 percent of Iranian Americans hold at least one college degree and that one in five Iranian American households has an annual income over $100,000. Still, many Iranian Americans work to support themselves when they’re younger or decide not to pursue a college degree.

Many Iranians come to the United States in pursuit of higher education, a pattern that began in the 1950s when the Iranian government encouraged study abroad so Iranians could apply their expertise to a rapidly modernizing country. Mr. Rezaian’s father received his M.B.A. from Golden Gate University in San Francisco in the 1960s.

Mr. Harris’s father met his American mother while studying microbiology in the United States during the 1970s, as a second wave of student immigration arrived in the wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and, later, the Iran-Iraq war. Ms. Torabi’s father also arrived during that time to get his doctorate in physics.

While Mr. Harris, Ms. Torabi and I followed in our parents’ footsteps and received graduate degrees, Mr. Rezaian and his brother, an I.T. entrepreneur, left school after they received their bachelor’s degrees.

“If either one of us had adhered to this notion that we had to keep going to school, I don’t think we would have gotten as far as we have in our lives,” Mr. Rezaian said.

However, he believes that his father, now deceased, always regretted that neither brother attained a graduate degree. “It’s just an indication that someone is cultured, someone is worldly,” Mr. Rezaian said. “And that still matters to Iranians.”

Different Financial Fears

My mother’s nebulous fear that co-workers and shoppers at Blockbuster Music would woo me away from my studies is, at heart, an immigrant parent’s fear that a culture she doesn’t understand will corrupt her child. Ms. Torabi’s parents did not fear her working, but they did instill in her what she considers healthy fears around financial insecurity and debt.

They paid for her undergraduate degree — in part because she agreed to attend Pennsylvania State University, which charged less tuition than other schools that accepted her — but warned that if she got into credit card debt they would not help her. The only acceptable debt Ms. Torabi could have would be from investing in a master’s degree, “because that is the degree that’s actually going to place you in your career,” they told her. When she did borrow for her master’s degree, her parents helped her make ends meet as she got her career started.

Ms. Torabi credits these fears with motivating her to pursue financial independence and success, something she expands on in her forthcoming book, “A Healthy State of Panic.” Her younger brother went even further, turning down his parents’ offer to pay half his rent after college.

“He didn’t want to feel he was needing to consider their desires when it came to making a professional or a personal decision,” Ms. Torabi said.

She understands why many American parents are hesitant to provide too much financial support for their adult children.

“There’s this fear in American culture that you’re going to spoil your kid,” Ms. Torabi said. “I would raise you another fear: Imagine you don’t help out, and instead they get saddled with $100,000 in debt.” She suggested that parents who could support their children financially now consider doing so if it helped them achieve a better quality of life, rather than waiting to leave them that money in their inheritance.

“This idea that we’re run out of the house when we’re 18 is so opposite of how most Iranians are raised,” Mr. Rezaian said. Noting that no one he knows is truly financially healthy at the moment, he added, “We’re entering an era already where some of these more traditional Iranian-type values probably make more sense.”

Holding Contradictory Truths

As an Iranian American, I straddle two very different — often aggressively oppositional — worlds. Holding contradictory truths is central to my understanding of myself, and this perspective applies to my financial life, too.

I am both grateful for and ashamed of my mother’s financial support. I don’t sweat the everyday bills, but I fear for my financial future. I have never equated my worth, or the worth of my work, to the money I earn, but that also makes it easier for me to accept unsustainable wages.

Though I always loved English and history more than math and science, I spent my high school years saying I wanted to be a doctor like my mother or, failing that, a lawyer or a businesswoman. What I meant was, I wanted to achieve the kind of job that brought financial capital and its corollary, social capital. Without my mother’s financial support and encouragement, I would never have pursued my love of literature. As Ms. Torabi pointed out, my mother’s love and money made it possible for me to focus on what made me happy.

“Your mom is who we all want to be,” Ms. Torabi said. “We all want to be able to support our children so that they can go do what they want to do and give them a financial leg up. The reality is that your mom was way ahead of her time, and you are a product of good parenting.”

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