UCLA grad goes viral for TikTok video on expectations on first-generation immigrants

In a moment of vulnerability, 27-year-old Thea Pham posted an emotional video on TikTok. 

"I feel trapped and betrayed by my own culture and my own family. I am the retirement fund, college fund for my younger siblings and I feel trapped," she said in the video. 

Pham is a first-generation immigrant from Vietnam and she came to the United States at the age of 15.

She’s a biotech entrepreneur and was the youngest person in her class at UCLA to graduate with a Ph.D. in Neuroscience. Her family knows she is driven and successful and cultural tradition calls for, "It's your time, you made it, it's your time to pay it back," she explained.

USC Clinical Professor Annalisa Enrile says this is the plight of many first-generation immigrants. 

"The truth about it is this is really about expectations within the family and lack of communication," Enrile said. 

"You have to care for them and I would love to. I love my parents but there are no boundaries because I am just a wallet now, I am solely a wallet now," Pham said tearfully in the social media video. 

Her video went viral and garnered millions of views. That’s when she quickly realized there are many first-generation immigrants with similar stories, such as those with African, Filipino, and Brazilian heritage. 

Professor Enrile says it’s extremely difficult to break a generational and cultural tradition. But it is possible. "The only way we're going to do that is through clear expectations, open communications, and good boundary setting that says, 'you know, I love you, but I can't do everything that you're asking me to,'" she said.

Pham says her parents are furious she made a private matter so public. And while her intention wasn’t to hurt her family, she said she doesn’t regret posting the video.  

"It shouldn't be a transactional love that you gave birth to me and it's time for you to pay it back," she said. 

Pham hopes her video will get people talking about mental health and establishing boundaries in immigrant families.