07/19/2012 04:53 pm ET | Updated Sep 18, 2012

A Tiger Baby's Rebellion

I never knew how to rebel until I discovered Fuzzy Navels and Amaretto Sours during my sophomore year of college. I'd always followed my Chinese tiger mom's directions -- I took piano lessons, graduated as valedictorian of my high school class, and accepted a full academic
scholarship to The Ohio State University. I was supposed to follow in the footsteps of my older brother, who found success on Wall Street. I'd graduate from college, find a high-paying job, marry someone at least equally educated and successful, and have cute (maybe half)
Asian kids. My immigrant parents had paved my way so that I could live the American dream and have it all.

Yet, I realized that my version of having it all was completely different. Perhaps I didn't want it all, since "it" sounded so trite. Maybe I didn't want everyone else's idea of success, because it meant nothing to me. Through my frequent cheap beer-induced haze during my latter college years, I had little idea who I was and what I valued. Then one day during senior year, in the middle of a particularly dry lecture on the supply chain processes for an insulation company, I suddenly felt the need to jump off the conveyorbelt to corporate success. I wanted nothing less than to work sixty hour weeks for a company that I cared nothing about, making money I'd never have time to spend. After class, I headed to the computer lab and started filling out applications for the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps because I needed to do something not-corporate. In my naïve mind, I needed to save the world. To quote Dionne in Clueless, I was starting a "post-adolescent idealistic phase." This was my (admittedly tame) version of ultimate rebellion, which still gave my parents quite a few headaches.

The summer after college graduation, after a quick jaunt in Rio de Janeiro and just before my 22nd birthday, I left for an AmeriCorps position in Austin. I moved into an East Austin house full of strangers and lived off food stamps, Lone Star beer, and less than $900 per month. During my rather unglamorous year of living with three guys (which was absolutely nothing like Zooey Deschanel's quirkily charming lifestyle on New Girl), I somehow realized that I couldn't save the world. I couldn't change anything or anyone but myself. In the midst of the most challenging year of my life that included tough bosses, a totaled car, a parent in ICU, no job prospects, and identity theft, I'd lost my naïve idealism. By that time, I'd fallen in love with Austin's artsy, eclectic ways (and breakfast tacos) -- despite limited, viable job options for many of us without computer science degrees. Therefore, I followed my AmeriCorps term by doing temp work for a full thirteen months while going out with a slew of hippie stoners from OkCupid. With each decision I made, I questioned my actions. Was I being an ungrateful, privileged brat and ignoring all the hardships my parents endured to become U.S. citizens in order to provide me a better life? Why was I purposely choosing to live this life rather than pursuing grad school or $50,000 per year entry level jobs in the Midwest like most of my college friends?

A couple months after my 24th birthday, a temp job became permanent. I was finally able to afford student loan payments, car payments, and a one-bedroom apartment. This sudden sense of stability terrified me. I felt like I was on that expected narrow path again, and I was envious of friends who took off on extended trips to India to learn yoga or Thailand to volunteer with elephants. I sold out, opting for the comfort of living alone in my quiet home, tucked away in a greenbelt, instead of pursuing more fanciful adventures in foreign countries. Eventually, I learned that adventure doesn't require traveling abroad. My own life wasn't that boring -- I'd become entrenched in the local arts and yoga scenes, I had a great group of friends, and I was an occasional food writer for a local blog.

Our generation was encouraged to pursue our passions. Many of us were privileged, affording us opportunities to sell our belongings to wander across South America, bike across the United States, and follow whatever free-spirited whims we have. I fully realized that I'm incredibly blessed just to be a U.S. citizen and to possess a college education. I was free to choose to live in self-imposed poverty for a year rather than join a cohort of entry-level employees at a large company. My decision occasionally seemed foolish, but I had to step away from familial expectations and find myself. Those first few years after college -- bad decisions and all -- taught me so much about gratitude, happiness, and self-discovery.