Bullish: What Do You Really Owe Your Family? (Also: Solving Problems Without Sacrificing Yourself)

Today we have a letter from someone whose story is so typical of today’s economy — jobs are scarce, your degree doesn’t get you that far, and even the military isn’t always hiring.

I just had drinks with a friend who is a career coach in her sixties. She hasn’t read any Bullish columns, and when I told her that I often suggest that young women totally forget about work/life balance until at least age 30, she was visibly startled. I told her that it’s hard out there, and if you follow the crowd, there will not be any Social Security for you when you need it, and you don’t want to be in the same boat as the rest of the crowd. I’m not sure she believed me.

In any case:

I have been living in China for two years teaching English which has been really awesome and has opened up a lot of interesting opportunities which I would never have thought of before. I started teaching in China because I graduated from journalism school at the height of the recession with thankfully no debt but also no good career options. (The only opportunities were writing for free.) I tried the military, because they are always hiring (right?) and I wanted some discipline, benefits and to learn to finally make my bed and wake up at a reasonable hour. However, apparently the military isn’t always hiring, which was a shock. Fast forward a year and I found myself in a small town of 3 million+ teaching English. Now I live in Shanghai and while I enjoy my job, I want to aim higher. Therefore, I am going back to the US to get my MA in International Education and hopefully get certified as a teacher. Then I plan to go to Saudi Arabia, Oman or the UAE because they pay really well. So overall, I am pretty happy and set in my current life trajectory. I am working on a blog and I will be writing a How-To guide about living and teaching in China which I hope to see to confused and freaked out undergrads who need a job.

My question has nothing to do with any of this. Basically my question to you is about how much you should let your family influence your life choices. I was raised by my grandparents who did the best they could with limited resources and I don’t have parents. This hasn’t been an issue until my grandmother started having really bad health issues and now my grandfather is wearing himself out by trying to care for her and his own not-awesome help. I am purposely coming back to Kansas City next fall to help out but I have no desire to live an hour away from my school so I can wipe my grandma’s butt at 3am. The environment is not at all conducive to studying or for being independent. I am also not keen about buying a car because I will probably need to take out some loans already and want to keep at number as low as humanly possible without looking like Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables. My initial plan was to make a bunch of food during the week and on Sunday take the bus over and give them a weeks worth of food and do several hours of chores. However, my grandfather has been subtly hinting that he’d like me to move in (rent free) to my old childhood bedroom. I should mention that I have a younger sister who is already living with them but doesn’t help at all and doesn’t even speak to them other than to ask for favors. I am the responsible one and it is making me feel like a horrible granddaughter for not being there.

So if you could give me any advice about how to think about my family situation in a way that benefits everyone and makes me feel less rotten, I’d appreciate it.

The Prodigal Granddaughter

80s 90s Vintage Fun


Dear Prodigal Granddaughter,

First off, I’m so glad you’ve hit upon something that works. Teaching English in China could easily keep you employed for the rest of your career, if you wanted. And you’re right that the Middle East pays even better. I tutor students in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, etc. online for the GMAT and SAT. Not only do they get reverse taxation from their governments, this level of socialist largesse actually makes them, in some ways, surprisingly liberal: my teenage Kuwaiti student was horrified when I told him that Mitt Romney had suggested that, if the poor lacked health insurance, they could just go to the emergency room. In fact, my Kuwaiti student called this “cruel.” So, there’s something to be said for that region of the world.

Note that you don’t need to get certified as a teacher to do any of this. I’m not. I have perfect SAT and GRE scores and an American college degree. It’s more than enough. The beauty of the private market is that you don’t need a middleman to “certify” you in providing a service that your clients already want.

How to Decide Whether to Go Back to School

If I were you — and I feel this is a valid thing to say, since you and I are basically in the same industry — I would save up a bit of money, pick a country you want to live in, go there, rent a hotel meeting room, and announce through whatever online and local media you can find that you will be giving a speech on how to get into American universities. Even the basics are not obvious to people from cultures very different from ours. For instance, why are extracurriculars and community service important? Why do you have to be interesting in an admissions essay?

Obviously, you have to worry about being legal to work in a foreign country. So you might want to get hired by some kind of tutoring outfit. Or start your own. Most Middle Eastern countries — the ones with oil — are absolutely full of people with money looking for things to invest in. Like you. If you have a service that people want, you are a thing to invest in. You could start a study academy with a local investor.

I’m not really sure why you plan to go back to Kansas.

When you get certified as a teacher, it’s not only U.S.-specific, it’s state-specific. Is becoming certified as a teacher in Kansas all that helpful in getting work in Dubai?

If you really, really want the masters degree — that is, the money you are making is a means to the education — then get the degree. But if the education is a means to making more money, I guarantee you that the amount of money you would spend on a masters degree would be better spent investing in your own business. A quick google search indicates that you can be self-employed in Dubai, for instance, by finding a local sponsor, to whom you might pay a percentage of your revenue.

You have many options. In fact, just by being the sort of person who was willing to move to China for work in the first place, you’ve already proven yourself to be in the top 1% of movers and shakers. Put simply: Most people don’t do things. They just tread water and wait for things to happen to them.

Degrees can be very important credentials for people who don’t do a whole lot in their own. They are less important for people like you and me.

So, What’s the Best Plan For Your Family?

The actual question you asked was how much you should let your family influence your life choices. It’s funny that you’re in China right now, because the Chinese answer to that question is something like, “Totally, forever.” But cultures in which children have an extreme duty to their parents or grandparents also tend to be cultures in which parents and grandparents sacrifice in extreme ways to ensure their children’s success. It’s a web of obligations that makes internal sense.

As Americans, we do very little of this. Young people take out their own student loans. Older people, ideally, save for their own retirements and buy long-term care insurance. We do not live in the same web of obligation.


Let me also throw this out there: Would you be asked to do this if you were a boy? If not, and you say yes, you are caring for your loved ones, yes, but also perpetuating the patriarchy. Which puts you in a difficult position.

Maybe your sister is being an asshole, but most teenagers are assholes. I was an teenage asshole. I once (notably, after reading Atlas Shrugged) told my mother that no one should have children unless they have at least $100,000 in the bank. Nice.

You need to forcibly provide your sister with some perspective. I mean, your sister has also been deprived of parents, as have you, but she is undoubtedly comparing herself to other teenagers she goes to school with, many of whose parents undoubtedly indulge their every whim. So your sister probably feels like she got a bum deal. From the perspective of your family, she’s an ungrateful brat, but from the perspective of her peer group, she’s a poor, deprived orphan who already lives with the elderly. Your frame of reference really matters on this one.

You might point out to your sister that most people have to go through the long, slow, painful decline of their own parents. Here is a piece from Slate from a writer who feels put-upon because her mother had her at age 42, and now is growing old before the writer feels ready to care for her. But many commenters point out that it is no easier to take care of your aging parents when you’re in your forties or fifties and often have your own children’s problems to deal with as well. It sucks no matter when it happens.

You and your sister have to do this really early. But then, unless I’m missing something about your situation: you won’t anymore. It’ll just be you and your sister. Sure, if either of you marry, you may end up partly responsible for a spouse’s aging parents. But mostly, the two of you will get to spend your later decades with one fewer huge responsibility.

It’s hard for teenagers to see terribly far in the future. At 17, I could scarce imagine having to pay back my own student loans, much less having to be responsible for anyone else. So it might take a very forceful talking-to to clue her in that the two of you need a plan for dealing with your grandparents.

There also needs to be a serious talk with your grandparents, or just your grandfather. Do they both have living wills? See this New York Magazine piece — the lack of frank talk with the writer’s mother and the mother’s doctors has led to his terminally ill mother being trapped in medical purgatory, with everyone feeling unsure and guilty. You don’t want this.

What do you think your grandma wants? It sounds like maybe she’s not in good shape to answer that, so you’ll have to use your experience to figure it out.

Does she want you to sacrifice your career prospects? Is she maybe one of those older ladies who is tickled pink, even if slightly jealous, that you have all these opportunities she never could have dreamed of? Is she just a sweet lady who wants you to be happy? I’d think about this. What your grandfather wants you to do in regards to your grandmother may not be what she would want, and she matters too.

Since you don’t live near your grandparents, one suggestion would be to write your grandfather a letter with some things you want to talk about, so he has time to think and prepare. And then next time you visit, you have the talk. You must insist on living wills. You find out whether they have long-term care insurance. Maybe it is not too late to buy some. (I think I know so much about this because I’ve been reading O Magazine.)

If you do decide to provide some in-person care, do not agree to anything without an end date. For instance, if one of your grandparents has surgery, you could agree to come and help for a month. Before the surgery, make sure your grandfather has a plan for what will happen when you go back to Abu Dhabi or Shanghai or wherever.

And then please, dear god, go make a lot of money. You feel that you don’t have the credentials — you want this masters degree — but I suspect that this masters degree is for people who want to do what you are already doing. You know what you have that your classmates in Kansas mostly won’t? Balls. The lady kind. Ladyballs. YOU MOVED TO CHINA. You refused to work for free. YOU WIN THE LADYBALLS CONTEST.

On Ameliorating This Problem By Building — Not Sacrificing — Your Career

Look, maybe this section of this article isn’t for everyone. Some people are no good at making money and have no willingness to learn. They refuse to accept that it’s a skill that can be learned like any other. They’ve self-identified as someone who doesn’t make money. They hate wealthy people and fear becoming what they hate. Or they’re just limited in their abilities.

For some people, the right choice is to go home and dedicate yourself to essentially becoming a home health care aide.

If that were the right choice for you, you wouldn’t have written to me. I think you have the mojo to work your way through this.

Money solves SO MANY PROBLEMS. Let me give you some numbers. If you move to Saudi or UAE, you can easily charge $200 an hour to tutor people. A home health aide in Kansas costs something like $20 an hour. DO NOT GO HOME TO KANSAS. The numbers make a fine argument for lifestyle arbitrage. One hour of effort in the Middle East will pay for ten hours of someone else wiping your grandmother’s ass. (And I don’t know your grandma, but you wouldn’t want your son or uncle being your gynecologist, right? There’s something to be said for leaving intimate bodily care to professionals. Professional strangers.) Money will also pay for food delivery services. And visits during which you can actually enjoy your grandparents’ company rather than feeling guilty and stressed the whole time.

Importantly: Money is not proportional to effort. It is related to where you put the effort. I cannot emphasize this point enough. Some people empty city trash cans all day long. I’m sure it is very hard work, and yet it pays very poorly. Working harder at emptying trash cans will not improve the situation.

GetBullish 20 Day Money Reset Journal resting against a sandy background


You can dedicate all your efforts to making the most money with the least effort. Then, give a lot of effort. You will make a lot of money. This is what 80% of dudes are doing. And maybe 15% of women. I think a lot of women feel unnecessarily guilty for making (or trying to make) more money than they think they “deserve.” Money is a point system and a game that has a limited correlation to effort and value.

One good way to make the most money with the least effort is to go where very rich people are, and make their lives better or easier. You can be paid very handsomely for this.

Maximizing the amount of money you can make solves 90% of problems. It does. I can tell you this firsthand. I have read study after study wherein multimillionaires are asked how it feels to be rich, and they always say, “Good, but not as good as I thought,” or, my favorite answer, “Like average sex.” Such articles try to make the rest of us feel better: See, being rich isn’t that great.

But these articles ask the wrong question. I don’t want to know how pleasurable it is to be rich; all pleasures fade over time. I want to know how many things a multimillionaire truly worries about.

Things they do not worry about: paying for health care, child care, education, housing, food. If they get in trouble, they’ll hire a lawyer. If their house burns down, they’ll buy a new one. They still have to worry about their kids’ choices and their health and the meaning of life. For mortal human beings, that’s the best it gets. It sounds great, right? This writer comments about being rich, “I don’t walk around all day thinking about being wealthy. It’s like air to me or health, it’s just mine.”

Money solves 90% of problems and gives you time to think about the other 10% of existential quandaries.

Keep in mind that your responsibility here, as a granddaughter, is fairly limited. You do not have to solve every problem your family has, nor can you. Your goal is to be helpful. You can do that. And that is all you can do. Even if you succeed in being a very good granddaughter, this is still going to suck. That is the human condition and you cannot solve it.

Keep that in perspective.

Please also remember that you are a very privileged person. You may not feel like it, exactly — you don’t have parents — but you were able to go to college and move to China, and you’re good at what you do. There’s no point in throwing away privilege.

If you figure out how to make a lot of money and you use some of it to help your grandparents, you’re not just building your own future, you’re also creating jobs (in the home heath care industry, and then maybe eventually in the education field). And then eventually you make enough that you can really meaningfully donate to charity, and boom, now you’re a well-traveled, brilliant, successful gentlewoman.

First published on The Gloss


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