October 24, 2016

ON MY MIND | Loving Asian Parents

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Photo Courtesy of ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images

Put a group of second-generation Asian Americans together in one room. Get them to open up about their childhoods, to describe what it was like growing up in their household, what their parents were like. I guarantee with 95% certainty that, at some point in the conversation, someone will probably say something along the lines of:

“You know, it was always, ‘Keep your head down,’ or, ‘Don’t rock the boat.’ You know, stuff like that.”

And in case you were wondering, here are some typical refrains from my childhood, too:

“I don’t care if all your friends are going. You have 사모님 on Friday. You know that.” [사모님: Korean title for a married woman – a.k.a. my piano teacher]

“야. 똑바로 앉아.” [Hey. Sit up straight.]

“87?! What happened??”

“Alex Chi 형 went to Harvard. Do you think you’ll go there too?” [형: older brother/older male friend]

The first thing I want to do is clarify who/what I’ll talking about for this article. You might be thinking, Asian parents, obviously. But that’s a pretty broad category. There are lots of different kinds of Asians, and I don’t want to make any more generalizations than I already have. So here’s my disclaimer: I’ll mostly be drawing from my personal experiences as a Korean American, what a few people have told me, random Buzzfeed or Buzzfeed-esque videos I’ve seen on Facebook, and some rudimentary stuff I’ve retained from certain classes I’ve taken in the past 1.5 years. Not enough to make a strong case for or against anything.

Plus, I’m already like, 1/3 through this article anyway.

Some personal context: My mom – the single parent in my single parent household – was born in South Korea but moved to Argentina with her family at a young age and grew up there. She came to the U.S. as a college student.

The reason why this matters is because, when I was younger, I used to think that the only reason my mom said “I love you” so much was because she had that Argentinian side of her. The implication being, of course, that Asian parents don’t say “I love you” to their kids. No, Asian parents are supposed to do stuff like:

  • reprimand you for getting any grade below an A,
  • force you to practice piano/violin for 4 hours straight every day,
  • eat dinner in silence,
  • not let you watch TV or stay out past 9 pm,
  • drive you to SAT prep school on Saturdays,
  • make you do (win) spelling bees and math competitions,
  • take you on an all-Ivy campus tour at age 12,
  • encourage you to apply to all the Ivies (plus one state school as a safety),
  • expect you to study pre-med, pre-law, or engineering,
  • disown you for doing anything else,
  • etc.

When we picture the prototypical Asian parent, these are the sorts of things that come to mind, right? Because Asian parenting = tiger parenting. If you look up “Asian parents” in Google images, nine of the top twelve results are variations of that one stupid meme. And as the individual who chose to write about this in the first place, I’m in a weird position where I don’t want to say – “All Asian parents do all of these things and it’s the best thing ever!” – or – “All Asian parents do all of these things and it ruins their children’s lives!” – or on the other hand – “Not all Asian parents do this stuff so stop stereotyping us!” Like I said earlier, “Asian parents” can be a misleading, broad term. What I will say, though, is that I know a lot second-generation Asian Americans who have highly contractual relationships with their parents – i.e., I came to this country and paid for your education so you have to pay me back some day – just as I know many Asian Americans who don’t.

In her study and analysis of Korean and Chinese immigrant families, Dr. Angie Chung describes a complex family dynamic that, at times, views child-rearing as an economic investment rather than a space for social and emotional growth. Even so, Chung doesn’t paint Asian immigrant parents as cold, loveless machines. Lack of explicit verbal communication skills doesn’t necessarily equal the absolute absence of emotion, and more importantly, love can have different meanings.

In cases where immigrant parents might face certain language barriers, especially, parental love tends to be intuitive and action-oriented rather than explicit and verbal. By “intuitive”, I mean that parental love is usually assumed but not typically stated. And so intuitive love, as I understand it, expresses itself through reciprocal, indirect cues like body language, intonation, caregiving practices and honorific titles.

What that means for you (if you’re a second-gen Asian American) and me and for people like you and me is complicated. For instance, it could mean that you’re more likely to internalize your emotions than express them openly (which can be detrimental to your mental health). It could mean that you’re taught to exist within a strict social structure of patriarchal hierarchy, economic utility, and unconditional respect. That’s one side.

But it could also mean that, even if you can’t remember a specific time when your parents actually said, “I love you!”, you find traces of their love in other gestures, such as:

  • telling you not to go to bed with wet hair (you’ll catch a cold! you’ll get arthritis!)
  • reminding you to open the window if a fan is on (fan death is serious! look it up! there are news articles about it!),
  • sending you Korean (or whatever your ethnicity is) snacks in the mail,
  • putting on skin care products together,
  • buying weird foreign nutrition pills to help you grow taller (that don’t work),
  • taking you to get acupuncture,
  • scooping out your earwax,
  • clipping your fingernails,
  • massaging your fingers before a big swim race,
  • taking you out to dinner and giving you half of their plate,
  • calling you every day (or at least every week) to ask if you’re eating enough,
  • etc.

In the end, it would be impossible and even disingenuous for me to make any sort of definitive claim about the positive/negative effects of any style of parenting. Sure, I may be taking Intro to Sociology 1101, but knowing who Annette Lareau is doesn’t make me Annette Lareau. I’m not trying to argue that Asian parents are any better than other parents, or any worse (I will say that I have a particular distaste for parents like Amy Chua, though). It’s also not my intention to draw a hard cultural line between Asian Americans and “regular” Americans. There’s a lot of overlap. Not every Asian parent is a tiger parent who robs their child of a healthy, balanced upbringing.

I guess what I am saying, if I’m saying anything (please let me know if I’m not), is that I am someone’s son, and that someone is a person who cares about me very much, and therefore that someone is a person to whom I will always be grateful. It might sound weird when I say it, but it makes sense in my head.

I love you Mom! 엄마, 사랑해!