You’re 30 years old and Chinese and you quit your finance job? Why?" an acquaintance asked me at an all-Asian dinner party at Buddakan last spring. All heads turned to me.
"I’ve wanted to pursue a Masters in Fine Arts for a while and finally decided to go for it," I replied.
The guy, a hedge fund high-flier, nodded. "Must be nice to become a house husband. And what does your mother think?" I had a fork in my hand and wanted to stab him. His snide comments were the last thing I needed. My mother and I were on video chat the day after I tendered my resignation. I was in New York and she was home in Singapore. She had discovered Skype and insisted on using it whenever she could. Thus, I could see her expression when I broke the news. "Ma, I’m quitting my job for grad school."
"Really?" She smiled. I relaxed for a second, until I realized she thought I was joking.
"I’m serious." This time, I saw her expression freeze.
"So why did we bother working so hard to send you to America for college?" she asked. "All that money wasted. Why give up such a good job?" If my father were alive, he would have understood. Eleven years ago, when I told him I found Singapore too restrictive and wanted to go to America for college, to pursue my dreams, he encouraged me. "Find your own path," he said. My mother has a more traditional view of life. As with any Chinese family, there was pride at stake. Finance was considered a good industry in Asia, despite the turmoil of the last few years. Giving all that up for an arts degree was considered frivolous. And for a husband not to work? The conversation with my mother drove me into another heart-to-heart talk with my wife, a hardcharging Chinese banker herself. "Do you think I’m mad? Should I do this?" She rolled her eyes. "If you keep asking me the same question, I’ll go mad! You’ve saved all these years for this opportunity, and now you’re afraid to move on?" she said, and reached for my hand. At least there was emotional support from one woman in my life. But then, she added, "Just make sure you can afford it." My Tiger Wife believed that dreams should be grounded in reality, and I respected her for that. We agreed to the rules: I was to pay for my own tuition and common household expenses, either through savings or part-time work. It was only fair.
My mother and I continued our online chats but avoided the topic of my fine arts degree like it was a landmine. Talking to my friends gave me an idea of the conversations my mother was likely having with her own. "You’re going back to school? Oh, which MBA program? Harvard? Stanford?" they asked. When I mumbled about the MFA, they said, "Oh, I see. Masters in Financial… what does the ‘A’ stand for?" The confusion was comical except for the peer pressure.
Other relatives heard soon enough, though I only told the ones I was closest to. The Chinese family gossip network trumps a Facebook status update for speed. There were awkward moments: When my favorite relatives visited before school began, they brought a present. "We thought of you when we saw this," my auntie said, holding up a florid kitchen apron, red with purple trim. "We figured you’ll need it since you’ll be cooking for your wife now," my uncle added with a laugh. My pride rankled, until I realized the apron was more than a joke—it was their way of showing love and acceptance. I was the one clinging on to traditional stereotypes and letting misguided pride affect me.
I soon began my new life as a graduate student. To lower our rent, my wife and I moved from Midtown Manhattan to Jersey City. Two weeks after school began, my mother chatted me online. After tiptoeing around the topic, she asked about school. This time, I was the one who froze in surprise. Reconciliation was in the air. Nonetheless, I was nervous when I told her about my classes and schoolwork. "Make sure you study hard," she said. Near the end of the chat, she peered through the webcam intently. "You look happier. That makes me happy for you, too."
Now, I juggle schoolwork, a part-time job and house chores. When my wife comes home from a long day of work, I am often in the kitchen and, yes, I have my apron on. When we sit down for dinner, I can see her eyes light up at the home-cooked meal, often a recipe my mother emailed me. There’s something gratifying about the way my wife’s shoulders relax as she tucks into the food I cook. It makes me think that being a househusband isn’t so bad after all. I can deal with it. But can she?
"Of course, dear. You’re going to be really successful after you graduate, right?"