Early in May this year, I watched the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Heart of Stone” for the first time and was quietly moved to tears. There is a very particular way I feel about my relationship with my immigrant mom, and I saw some of it reflected in Aron Eisenberg’s performance in that episode as Nog. I was lucky enough to share these thoughts with Aron before he passed. I shared them with him on Mother’s Day during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and he listened.
At the core of my being, I know I am the daughter of a Pilipina immigrant. There is enough packed in that identity to define a person for the rest of their life. And yet, I did not know the words to begin to describe it until adulthood when I first saw this idea:
“My parents were tasked with the job of survival and I with self-actualization. The immigrant generation gap is real. What a luxury it is to search for purpose, meaning, and fulfillment.” – Bo Ren
A particular dynamic exists between many immigrant parents and their children. As a kid, I only recognized it as an unnamed force coloring the way I looked at the world. Because when you are the child of an immigrant – in my case, the native-born American child of a brown Asian immigrant – you grow up playing an advanced role in your household. You grow up making significant contributions to your family’s livelihood, because we help our parents with job applications and bill payments, we help them make sense of contracts, and we make phone calls for them when they feel insecure about their accents. We grow up with parents who cannot hide the world from us, because we are their main connection to that world. At a young age, we are already the buffer between our parents and their fears.
When I entered school, I understood it not as the beginning of my individual journey but as a contribution to my mom’s quest for our survival, whether I could live up to that or not. But school is where we are fed lessons soaked in the American ideological belief that life is about finding one’s own personal fulfilment, lessons validated by the songs we hear on the radio and the shows we see on television. Children of immigrants eventually come home from school with a new internal conflict – Is life about more than just surviving? Can life ever be about yourself? Can my life ever be about my self?”
For me, these conflicting ideas of survival vs. self-actualization never mixed well. What I have been left with is feelings of guilt. I feel guilty that I can dare to dream for myself but my mom could not. I feel guilty that any of her suffering might be in vain depending on how I turn out. And most of all, I feel guilty because if anyone deserves self-fulfillment, it is my mom.
It is one thing to feel this way. It is another to feel this way alone. When Asian-Americans yearn for nuanced representation, we are really yearning to not feel like we are bearing our experiences alone. We are yearning to see reflections of ourselves in society, yearning to hear stories that can help guide our own. And as strange as it sounds, one of the first times I ever felt seen was in Aron Eisenberg’s performance as Nog in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Heart of Stone.”
In “Heart of Stone,” we see a teenage Nog work to convince Captain Sisko to write him a letter of recommendation for Starfleet Academy. There has never been a Ferengi in Starfleet, and at this point in the series, the most we know about Nog is that he is a trouble-making Ferengi kid going to school with his human best friend. Sisko is not sure how to interpret Nog’s request, especially whether or not to take him seriously. So he backs Nog into a corner to find out what is really going on, and Nog finally reveals what he has been hiding: he wants to join Starfleet to redeem the unused life of his father.
When I first watched “Heart of Stone,” it felt like more than just television. It felt like the show was explaining something to me about myself, and I remember thinking through tears, “Is this what it feels like to be represented?” It was Nog pushing himself, driven by the realization that his father was not living a life worthy of his potential. It was the fact that Nog was carrying the burden of that realization alone. It was Nog seeing Rom’s potential and knowing exactly what he should be, and having to watch him be exploited by Quark instead.
It was Rom who, as far as I know, has never said a word about it. It was Rom understanding that his son was going through something at the other end of this dynamic, and being proud of the decisions his son was making for himself. And it was Rom and Nog, parent and child, owing parts of their lives to each other, just like my mom and me.
In my memories of Aron Eisenberg, I remember a person fueled by the positive experiences he was able to give people as an actor and as a person. I remember someone with a thirst to improve the world and someone who took great joy in doing so. I remember a listener. And I will always remember what he gave me in “Heart of Stone” – a reflection of myself when I didn’t even know there was something in me to be reflected.
My condolences and love to his wife and family.