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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.