Passing on the M.E.A.L. Plan

It is a running joke in my family that my siblings and I did not take up the "M.E.A.L." career plan championed by every parent. M.E.A.L.–that is, Medicine, Engineering, Accounting, and Law professions–is the golden standard, the life paths parents cross their fingers for as soon as their toddlers start school. M.E.A.L. jobs are hard-earned titles, widely respected, financially stable, and of no interest to my siblings and I. Trust me, I often wish I grew up with dreams to be a doctor like so many of my admirable friends, but my restless mind led me to a different calling–a calling that too often generates furrowed-brow-wrinkled nose-reactions at Pilipino family parties.

"A writer? But, why? Are you sure you don't want to take up nursing?"

Cue: sigh.

From left to right: my two older brothers, me and my younger sister.

I have three siblings. My oldest brother studied linguistics, traveled around the world teaching English for several years, then returned to be a high school Mandarin and French teacher. My other older brother studied Film and Television, had a run as an NBC Page, and now works in production at Discovery Communications. I'm studying journalism–a career my heart was set on since I was 14. My 15-year-old sister doesn't know what she wants to be yet, but the M.E.A.L. plan isn't on her radar either.

Our parents never imposed any M.E.A.L. dreams on us. They let us discover our true passions, only bolstered by being raised in a city where opportunity sits at your fingertips. I was only 12 when my mom gave me a door sign that read "Future Award-Winning Author at Work."

My mom encouraged creative pursuits with gifts like this sign.

Why did we not pursue more traditional careers? Why did we choose the risk of uncertain paths with no set plan or mode of study? Despite my parents' undying encouragement and gung-ho dive into uncertainty alongside their kids, I still have felt guilt. Sometimes, I've wished they could boast about their daughter-the-doctora. I have felt the succeed-or-else urgency unique to second generation kids, and have been reminded of the struggles often associated with parents who leaving the Philippines in order to provide for their families.

I recently read an article in The Atlantic titled "All Immigrants Are Artists," profiling one of my favorite writers, Edwidge Danticat. It put into perspective the creative pursuits of my siblings and I perfectly.

"First-generation immigrants often model artistic behavior for their children... I realize now I saw artistic qualities in my parents’ choices—in their creativity, their steadfastness, the very fact that we were in this country from another place. They’re like the artist mentors people have in any discipline—by studying, by observing, by reading, you’ve had this model in the form of someone’s life. My mother could not have found time for creative pursuits with four children and a factory job. But she modeled the discipline and resourcefulness and self-sacrifice that are constant inspirations in my own life’s work. The things she did, the choices she made, made the artist’s life possible for me. I didn’t know it, but she taught me that being an artist makes sense."

If stringing words together, painting meaning from language, and capturing life's moments with pen and paper fulfill me both personally and professionally–I do not need to apologize. The M.E.A.L. plan wasn't for me, and it doesn't have to apply to others who have felt guilt as like I did. Besides, there are young Pilipino girls and boys with creative dreams like mine, and they need a role model to look to. Why not me?