Baltimore, MD

My Brother Wanted to Join The Marines, And My Mom Wouldn’t Let Him

Ryan Fan

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My brother’s dream was to become a pilot, but instead, he was pushed to go to medical school.

I just went back home to visit my brother to spend time with him and the rest of my family. Because of the cultural divide between my parents and grandparents, as well as the fact that my Chinese is pretty God awful, my communication can sometimes be pretty bad. As such, whenever I’m home, I spend the most time talking to my brother.

My brother is a huge pessimist and a bit of a nihilist. It’s not easy talking to him but I’ve learned that I’m not going to change his mind about a lot of the things that he believes, even if I disagree with them.

As brothers, our kinship is strong, but unlike most sibling relationships it probably goes a bit unspoken. As the younger sibling, I have seen less of life and I grew up in a far less challenging time in our family’s endeavor assimilating as Chinese immigrants to America.

Just one example of many is that in high school, he had to take a citizenship test to become an American citizen. I didn’t because I was born here.

At the stem of a lot of his troubles is probably the fact that he was pushed into doing something with his life that he didn’t want to do. As an upwardly mobile Asian-American family, my parents wanted my brother to be a doctor.

But that didn’t work out. My brother never wanted to become a doctor — he wanted to be a pilot. He tried really hard in all his hard science classes like physical chemistry, physics, biochemistry, molecular biology, because it’s what my parents wanted for them. The dream of my parents is for one of their kids to be a doctor, but my brother dropped out in his first year of medical school and had a lot of challenges.

Now, the pressure is on me to become a doctor. But I want to make sure I don’t make the same mistake of doing something with my life just because my parents want me to.

My brother had several hard years where he was at home after college, not working and not going to school, so my parents were on his ass, for lack of a better term. Now, he is in pharmacy school and entering his second year.

I remember, however, during his senior year of high school, and he was talking to people about what he wanted to do after he graduated high school. He talked to a lot of recruiting officers and made a resolution: he didn’t want to go to college. He wanted to join the Marines and hopefully become a pilot.

The first thing my dad said to my brother the first time I heard my brother tell him he wanted to be a pilot was “who the fuck would want to fly in your plane?”

I don’t know how much it depleted my brother to hear that — because after all, our dad was just being honest with his feelings, but, well, that was really harsh.

Anyways, my brother had no interest in going to college at the time. His scores on college admissions tests weren’t as good as he wanted, and he just wanted to join the military to hopefully achieve his goal of becoming a pilot.

I’m not a parent, so I can’t speak to how it feels like as a parent when your child wants to go to the military. Our dad was actually okay with it. He felt like it would give my brother more discipline and help him improve as a person to join the military, and give him a lot of the habits he didn’t have as a kid.

My mom, however, cried for days. She kept screaming and yelling at my brother about how he was going to die if he joined the military, and my mom, as a pretty headstrong person who does not back down, did not even consider the complaints my brother had advocating for the fact that the military would help pay for college or about the benefits of him going into the Marines. All she kept saying were statements like:

“Your grandfather was in the military and you see what it did to him.”
“What am I going to do if something happens to you?”
“I don’t want you to die!”

I don’t remember how it happened, because I was only eleven years old at the time. I remember how it felt, though.

My brother had no choice but to rescind his consideration and decision. He had to stop communicating with the recruiter as per my mother’s request. He went to college at a state school less than two miles away from where he lived, and we all moved on.

But I wonder what his life would have been like if he went into the Marines, and now, as a teacher in Baltimore, I have several kids whose dream it is to go into the military. I teach at an all-Black, high-poverty inner-city school where the kids that want to join the military don’t have that much parental involvement in their lives. One of them is raised exclusively by his grandmother.

I don’t know how I feel about their career aspirations, but as their teacher, I have no other choice than to support them.

I’m conflicted in my personal views as to the U.S. military’s role in the world, but I have nothing but respect for our servicemen. People like generals and politicians make the decisions that get negative publicity that we don’t agree with — servicemen are just serving our country and doing their jobs. A lot of countries in the world have compulsory military service for all able-bodied men — and we’re privileged that America is not one of them.

I wonder how different my brother would be himself if he joined the military.

And I wonder what it was like for my mom when she did everything she possibly could to stop my brother from joining the Marines. At the core of it was a deep maternal instinct: she didn’t want to see my brother in harm's way. But at a certain point, you have to let go of your kids and release them, too, so I just don’t know what was right or what was wrong, only that there’s nothing we can do to change the past.

And what about me when I become a parent? How would I react or feel if one of my kids wanted to enlist? I doubt I’d panic as much as my mom did, but I can’t help but think that I won’t ever know how she felt unless I was in the same situation myself.

Originally published on The Bad Influence on July 5, 2020.

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Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire," God's gift to the Earth. Support me:

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