The Negative Things Asian Parents Say

“Why didn’t you get full marks on the test?” “Why do you always come home so late?” “Why no discount on the chicken today?” These sentences are often the music to the average Asian kid’s ears, the average Asian kid who lives with Asian parents.

Sometimes what our parents say to us might actually be meaningful and make a lot of sense. If we stop to listen. Photo: Mabel Kwong

Sometimes what our parents say to us might actually be meaningful and make a lot of sense. If we stop to listen. Photo: Mabel Kwong

Truth be told, a lot of things Asian parents often say are weighed with negative undertones. It’s downright demoralising to chide a kid when they tried their best on a B-graded test, isn’t it? What’s wrong with buying a kilo of chicken when it’s not on sale? Nothing. At the same time, what Asian parents say can be rather humourous.

I giggle at many of the pessimistic things my mum verbally spews out (in Cantonese) about my meals. Like many other Asian parents who want their children to be well-fed, she makes eating at home almost a chore and a rushed experience through such phrases:

Eat faster or your rice will get cold.

Eat faster. I want to wash the dishes.

Put an egg into your Maggi noodles. More nutritious.

My mum does offer to cook for me quite a bit. But when she does, it’s evident in her choice of words that she is an Asian parent overtly keen on watching over their kids, full-fledged adults, like a hawk:

Do you want to eat the kai lan or the gwei lo broccoli?

You’re coming home? OK. I will fry more rice. #friedrice

Apart from criticising my eating habits, my mum also constantly finds fault with my appearances and choices affecting my physical safety. It’s fair to say Asian parents arguably coerce their kids into being vain and self-centered individuals with not a care for those around them:

Pin your hair up. Your fringe is dripping down your face. That’s so ugly.

When you get on the tram, quickly grab a seat. When you’re standing and the tram moves, you will easily fall down.

Then there are the times when my mum doubts what I achieved and what I want to do. Maybe it’s because I’m an Asian girl. Or maybe it’s because cautious, typical Asian parents don’t usually want us to try new things but prefer us to stick to the tried and tested routine. As my mum bluntly says to me on many occasions:

You published an article (found a special coin, won a voucher etc.)? Show it to your brother.

Can you do it? You better not do it.

Many migrant parents living in Western countries hold their own opinions about Caucasians. Sometimes, they turn their noses down at those who are white. As my parents have said:

(With respect to ghost town, shut down Melbourne city over Easter and Christmas) The sei gwei lo. They really like to enjoy themselves.

Those gwei los. When they age and become old, they get fat.

It’s evident what my mum and what other typical Asian parents tend to say sounds brusque and callous. But what they say is usually straight to the point. And they do make valid points. For example, scoffing down piping hot meals devoid of MSG but made with love at home will give us the nutrients to become fat. Healthy. Looking out for ourselves and making sure we are physically and mentally-abled only means we’ll be more capable of helping others when the time arises. Practising piano or mental calculations repeatedly according to a schedule might be mundane, but such routines serve to drill into us that working hard is what we need to do to achieve anything.

Just as kids will be kids, parents will be parents. Asian parents who have sacrificed so much, saving every penny slaving away at low-paying jobs day-in and day-out in developing towns, just want the best for their naïve kids.

I suspect most of the time the things Asian parents say to their kids are greeted with silence. That is, we don’t talk back but keep quiet when our parents criticise us or tell us off. I do just this as I believe in listening and learning from everyone’s side of the story – even if their words hurt my feelings. No matter how disappointed our family are with us, they will always support us.

Home In Between EditWhat are some of the things that you hear Asian parents say? What are some of the things your parents say?

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21 thoughts on “The Negative Things Asian Parents Say

  1. Asians will never talk about death openly. It as a taboo subject. When I first migrated to NZ, I could not help but felt very uncomfortable when I heard younger generations saying things openly such as ‘when his/her parents die, he/she will inherit the house, etc etc’. Recently while sitting in a spa next to an elderly lady, she was talking about not knowing if anyone would die while sitting in such a hot spa in Hanmer Springs and her daughter replied ‘You could be the first one’. No Asian parents or children would even hold such a conversation. Another thing about Asian parents (or my mum in particular) when receiving compliments from their friends on their children, they would always play it down saying her friends kids are prettier, better, more successful career-wise etc etc. It is only lately that Mum learns to say ‘thank you’ to any compliments about her children. So when young, I heard more ‘Nos’ than ‘Yes’ from my mother. However, we all know that some “no’ uttered with a smile are actually silent yes. 🙂

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    • So true, Little Borneo Girl. Death is something Asians shy away from talking about; they believe that if they chat about it, death will be imminent to someone around them. I guess it’s something many Asians fear, and possibly associate with bad luck. Sometimes, I get the feeling some Asian parents play down compliments from their friends so that their friends will throw even more compliments at them. And when they receive more compliments, they sit there quietly basking in their glory. Just my two cents’ worth on this topic 🙂

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  2. Good write up, but, I think, over generalised. Asian parents also say a lot of positive things about their kids. The Yin and Yang always work together. Asian kids do not grow up more negative than non Asians, do they? Or are they more positive on the negative?

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    • I’m sure there are Asian parents who say positive things about their kids. They do so quite a bit in front of their friends/acquaintances/siblings who have kids too – saying how great their children are at school, at music etc. This is bragging, but I’m quite sure deep down Asian parents are proud of their children’s achievements or else they won’t say it our loud. I think it depends on the individual as to whether they are a positive or negative person – our surroundings and what we see and hear influence or perception. For me, I used to be a very negative person and it was until after leaving Asia and living in Australia for a few years (seeing how the Western way of life is and works), I’m staring to become a more positive person 🙂

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      • There is no doubt that Australia has better educators and more positive educational domain. The traditional upbringing may lag, but is compensated by good familial support, generally. Good to know that Aussie education has made you more positive.

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        • Aussie classrooms are so much more positive given that students are encouraged to verbally speak up and share ideas – everyone and the teacher has an equal say in the classroom. Don’t think it’s Aussie education that has made me more positive. More like the laid back lifestyle and different people with different perspectives here that have made me inclined to adopt a more optimistic outlook.

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  3. I agree with wonkywizard’s comment. This might be too generalized. I think the words from parents show that they worry about their kids. And how they say them (negatively or positively), it depends on their habits, not their races.

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    • That’s true. Parents sometimes are strict and naggy because they care for their kids and look out for them. For example, there is a tendency for Asian parents to be concerned about their child’s education, pushing their kids towards studying law or medicine. Some kids might think their parents are being overbearing but in reality, I’m pretty sure they want their kids to be more than just sub-par wage earners so that they can live better lives 🙂

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  4. This post reminds me a lot of the book I mentioned in my last post, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” by Amy Chua. I agree that your post just as that book may be overgeneralized, but you still make some really great points. Some of the things your parents have said to you, or that Chua’s parents said to her, shock me as a Western child. And yet I do not necessarily think that the oftentimes more lax Western style of parenting is better than its Asian counterpart. I believe balance is necessary… I really love the way you ended it, though. Sometimes we get hurt at home, but unlike other places in our lives, we always have a seat at the table… Great post, Mabel!

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    • I feel that sometimes in this world, we often overlook the most generalised things and laugh at them. I agree with you that balance is necessary, sort of like the phrase “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. I keep hearing this book that you mention. I think I will check it out sometime and its right up my alley in terms of interest. Often I find it a struggle to end posts (you seem to do this very well in yours – punchy!) and feel my posts fizzle out. But it’s something I’m working on!

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  5. There are pros and cons to Asian’s style of parenting. The pros are that the kids may become more hardworking, disiplined, less selfish. The cons will be that kids may become conformists to rules and authority, killing any creativity genes in them.

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    • Very well said, can’t argue with that. Sounds like the Asian style of parenting is a double-edged sword. I guess you can say this about the Western parenting style – kids may turn out more confident, opinionated and creative, but can also turn out to be obnoxious and overly relaxed. No style of parenting is perfect, I suppose. But these different styles of nurturing creates people with different personalities, making each of us interesting human beings.

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  6. I’m not so old that I don’t remember rebelling against my parents; but as a young parent myself now, I see things very differently.

    Children don’t come with rule books. No parent actually knows what they’re doing. All they can do is their best with what they’ve got; and in the majority of cases, they don’t have a lot to work with. And all any parent wants for their child is for them to learn how to grow and thrive on their own.

    While I sympathise with a lot of what you’re saying about negative comments, I can’t say there’s anything fundamentally wrong with it. In fact, it’s character-building.

    I don’t waste my rice. I take advantage of sales. I save money where I can. And yes, I do find it amusing that people who throw their money away on trivial things wonder why they can’t afford a house or to pay the rent.

    Every culture has its quirks. Asians are no different. As an Asian raised in Australia since 1980, I’ve chosen not so much to reject my Chinese upbringing, but to embrace it and build on it so that my children will be all the worldlier.

    There is nothing wrong with adopting multiple cultures and languages. Taking up your parents’ mother tongue should be easy compared to other cultures.

    Close yourself off to other cultures st your peril.

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    • Thank you for your thoughts, IdiotWithCamera. Parents have every reason to be concerned about their kids; kids are naive and sometimes put themselves in so much physical and emotional peril in everyday. Asian parents are no exception. I think it depends from person to person and how each receives negative comments. Such comments only have the potential to be character-building if one chooses to listen and reflect on them.

      Adopting multiple cultures and languages definitely has its pros. The more we learn, the more we see and hear and the more we can understand how people think and act. Which can help in interacting and getting along with them.

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  7. My mum often says to me in Thai that I’m not eating well so she is unable to look at my face (as it doesn’t look healthy). She also asks me to do a task for her as I’m sitting around doing nothing. In Thai it’s not meant harshly but when translated it sounds awful! Good job I know she has good intentions and loves me 😉

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    • That is a very strange thing your mother says about your face not looking healthy and she won’t look at you because of it. Maybe it’s a superstition thing. Haha, my mum also likes to ask me to things for her when I’ve got nothing to do at home, in Cantonese. I guess Asian parents have their similarities 😉

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  8. Wow… your words really hit me, and I am glad I am not alone. Due to recent events, I think I have a better understanding of why parents tend to think this way, but I do have to admit that it is hard to hear their words sometimes. My mom can very blunt, and she just says how she feels without taking account into anyone around her. And you mentioned about how asian parents have these thoughts towards causians, aw man, that was so on point. So now here are my questions to you: what impacts could the parents undertones have towards their children? How can we change this attitude in order for the children to have social skills to care for people instead of being vain and self-centered? Tell me what you think and let me know! Again, thank you for the article, I really enjoyed it.

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    • Thank you so much for reading and for your nice words, fungak. I think how a child could be impacted or responds to their parents’ undertones depends on their individual character – and this individual character is often shaped by who they go to school with and in general their life experiences. Perhaps a child who is more sheltered may take their parents’ comments to heart more as opposed to a child who learns to be a leader at school.

      As for the second question, I think social skills is something that is learnt. We all learn how to make small talk and network as we get older, and experience opportunities that come our way. It is usually inevitable for each of us to go out there in the world and find ourselves at some point.

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