The Bittersweet Joy of Being Professionally Eclipsed by Your 9-Year-Old

When my son became a prime-time TV star, ‘Hudson Yang’s dad’ became my most prominent title

Illustration: Fran Caballero

There’s no getting around it: I’ve been eclipsed by my son.

I mean this both physically and metaphorically. At age 15 and a sturdy 6-foot-2, Hudson quite literally blocks me completely from view when I stand behind him. But since the tender age of 9, he has been the center of attention for another reason as well: He’s a child actor, a star of the ABC TV show Fresh Off the Boat, the first prime-time sitcom featuring an Asian American family in two decades, and the launchpad of stars such as Constance Wu (of last year’s trailblazing blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians) and Randall Park (of Netflix’s well-received rom-com Always Be My Maybe).

I have had a long and successful career as a culture writer, but these days, Hudson gets keynote address invitations and awards from organizations I’ve been a part of for decades. When we go out, he’s the red-carpet VIP, and I’m his driver and “plus-one.”

So yes, it’s not just that his future seems bright — his present is already bright enough to outshine mine.

That’s exactly what any parent wants, isn’t it? We live and toil and sacrifice for the successes of our kids. But the process usually takes decades, giving us plenty of opportunity to get used to the curve of our children’s growth crossing that of our own aging and decline. As parents we grow grayer, weaker, more mortal. Our kids surpass us — first hesitantly, then with the urgency of a relay runner being passed a baton.

I remember the first time I realized I’d caught up to my own father, at least in one aspect of life. My dad, a trim 5-foot-six even now that he’s in his 80s, has always loved to swim, and is as comfortable in the water as out of it. He’s a lap swimmer, not a racer, but still, whenever I went with him to the pool as a kid, we’d pace one another in parallel lanes, wordlessly competing. Year after year, his steady, powerful strokes quickly outstripped my frantic paddling, letting him smoothly glide past me. But when I was 14, I lost my baby fat and grew five inches. That year, I saw him for the first time struggle to stay ahead, grunting at each turn in spite of himself. In the years that followed, he fell a foot behind, then two feet, then a half-lap.

It was a bittersweet change in our relationship, but it came at a natural and expected time in both our lives. For Hudson and me, that shift came suddenly and alarmingly early.

My son was still a little boy, in third grade, when — intent upon impressing a popular girl in his class — he declared to me that he wanted to “be on TV.” Back in the dark ages of 2013, when Asians occupied just a tiny handful of roles on the small screen, this felt akin to him announcing that he wanted to grow wings and fly to the moon. But I humored him anyway, taking him to auditions, running lines with him, and waiting for him to decide whether acting was a whim or a vocation.

And then, out of the blue, he was offered a part. Not just any part, but a lead on a network sitcom. Even more shockingly, the show became a hit, renewed for season after season after season. (The sixth season begins shooting this fall.)

I’m thrilled about the unique experience he’s getting and the impact he has made at such a young age. But beneath the shine, there’s shadow.

Hudson’s amazing opportunity led our whole family to uproot and move to Los Angeles. I got permission from my job as a culture columnist at the Wall Street Journal to work remotely from the West Coast, which was initially not an issue — until my editor told me that I was going to be constrained on what I could cover, due to potential conflicts of interest.

“You can’t write about anything connected to Disney, because ABC is owned by Disney,” he told me. “And you can’t write about anything connected to Fox, because your son’s show is produced by Fox.” This put half of the pop culture world I was interested in — Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, Disney Animation, and more — off limits. With each passing season, journalism became harder to maintain as a full-time job, until I finally accepted that I had to put my chosen profession on hold.

As my career went into suspended animation, I found myself spending more and more time on Hudson’s. I turned into the guy triaging requests for his appearances, standing at the end of press gaggles waiting for him to finish interviews, snapping pictures of him with breathless fans. I got used to being referred to as “Hudson Yang’s dad,” a title that seemed to carry more weight than any others I held.

I couldn’t be prouder of Hudson. I’m thrilled about the unique experience he’s getting, the representation that he has been a part of, and the impact he has made at such a young age. But beneath the shine, there’s shadow.

I’ve worried about how our circumstances might affect our parent-child dynamic — having seen other “stage parents” cede authority to their kids, or push so hard to retain their parental clout that they’ve over-disciplined or infantilized them, or simply lost their own identities. “It’s a huge thorn in my side,” one friend with a successful actor daughter told me. “I’m constantly accused of living vicariously through my kid, or of trying to ride her coattails.”

More practically, I’m also worried about the reality that as Hudson’s life extends into areas far beyond my range of knowledge and experience, I’m losing the ability to provide him with sound guidance. The more he asks me questions that I can’t answer or seeks counsel that I don’t feel qualified to give, the more my status as an infinite source of parental wisdom implodes, and my uncertainty about helping him make the right choices balloons.

I finally admitted my anxieties to my own father this past Christmas, on our annual visit back home. I thought he might give me the same response he usually gives — to seek advice from a higher power instead, like my mom, or God. Instead, he told me that he understood my situation. I was no child star, but parenting me hadn’t been so different, he said.

“I was raised to work hard, stay quiet, not take risks,” he said. (He’s a veteran of the Taiwanese armed forces where, he offhandedly once mentioned to me, he was his unit’s best sharpshooter.) “My parents knew what they wanted me to do, and I did what they asked me to do. But when you told me you wanted to become a writer, it wasn’t what I wanted, or anything I could help you with. You chose to go in a direction I didn’t understand. But I was proud of you anyway, and I supported you the best I could.”

Even if they could never comprehend my world, they would always be able to give me what I could never get anywhere else: a place of solace, away from the chaos of my life.

Indeed, while my memories are sharp with his harsh skepticism over my decision to pursue writing as a career, the guilt expertly wielded like a scalpel, the long debate-arguments about whether it was even possible to survive in that career — beneath those there was always a bedrock of love, care, and welcome. When I was a freelancer with nothing in my pockets but maxed-out charge cards, I knew I could always retreat home for a hot meal and sleep in my childhood bedroom — complete with Batman curtains that my parents still haven’t removed.

Even if they could never comprehend or be a part of my world, they would always be able to give me what I could never get anywhere else: a place of solace, away from the chaos of my life. A respite and a retreat. A safe place to find my focus and renew my dedication. And it’s still there.

I love watching Hudson practice his craft and rise ever higher, even if I’m sometimes afraid of where his wings will take him. As big as he is, and as mature as he’s getting, Hudson still demands hugs. Still jumps into my bed on Sunday mornings with his younger brother, wrestling me awake. Still looks for affirmation when he has done something worth applauding, and hangs his head when he has made a mistake.

The one thing I know I can always give him as a parent is warmth, comfort, peace, and privacy. I can give him space. And on more days than I can count, that’s enough.

columnist, @CNNOpinion (https://www.cnn.com/profiles/jeff-yang) & Inkstone (https://www.inkstonenews.com/author/jeff-yang); cohost, @TheyCallUsBruce podcast

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