When you come from an Asian family, there are usually strict cultural norms to live up to. On the occasions you don’t, chances are you probably disappoint your Asian parents.
Different Asian parents, and parents in general, have different expectations of their children. But the benchmark tends to be high in Asian households.
Growing up Asian in Australia, my migrant Chinese parents were strict with a traditional Chinese mindset. They wanted me to be top of the class, work a high paying job and be a smiling demure Chinese girl well-liked for her polite mannerisms. For most part I never lived up to these expectations, much to their disappointment.
The Cambridge Dictionary describes disappointment as ‘the unhappiness or discouragement that results when (hopes) or expectations have not been satisfied, or someone or something that is not as good as you had hoped or expected’. That is, when you disappoint someone, that someone disagrees with your behaviour. In turn you probably feel guilty and you’re not enough for that someone. It’s a feeling that lingers.
Strict authoritarian (and authoritative) Asian upbringing has been discussed a fair bit – from Amy Chua’s memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother discussing endless piano practice sessions after school to studies showing Asian parents holding high regard for educational attainment. There has also been recent research exploring the possibility of diminishing obedience by young adults of Asian background towards authoritarian Asian parents.
Often the pressure to be obedient when you’re Chinese stems from familial values and cultural conditioning. Filial piety, essentially respecting and caring for your elders, is a virtue silently expected to be upheld in Chinese families. So is ‘saving face’, whereby you do not diminish your family’s reputation around others and instead maintain pride by keeping up traditions.
I felt this pressure to be the perfect Asian kid throughout my life, conflicted between living up to expectations of being Chinese and my own personal values.
The examples I share here aim to illustrate disappointing Asian parents in small, everyday ways – when cultural norms don’t cross your mind for a moment, and then they do. They also aim to show different ways of looking at and seeing beyond what you’ve probably always felt about cultural norms.
And so here are some occasions where I’ve disobeyed and disappointed my Chinese parents.
1. Not becoming a doctor, lawyer or accountant
In line with the concept of saving face and responsible family ideals in Confucian Asian societies, it’s a marker of success in Chinese culture to have a steady job and provide for yourself with ease. It’s Asian parent pride to raise you to be self-sufficient, especially if they were immigrants who started life over in a country with barely anything.
I love writing and English was my favourite subject at school. When I got my O’Level results, the equivalent of middle high school, my heart sank as I saw the ‘B’ for English.
‘That doesn’t matter!’ my dad exclaimed excitedly, peering at my results over my shoulder. ‘What matters is you got A+ for maths and physics!’
That didn’t deter me from completing an arts degree. After university I became a freelance writer supporting myself with varying income, enough to get by. However my Chinese parents constantly let it be known, ‘See, you studied arts. Now can’t get good job!’
Part of me felt guilty: maybe I really should be setting myself up for the future. But who’s to say you have to follow the straight and narrow. The sense of competitive urgency that comes from a typical Chinese mindset can certainly motivate you to move forwards. But this stress can be suffocating when you are learning, growing and finding your way at your own pace.
2. Not being a girly girl
Traditionally embodying femininity and appearing attractive to the heterosexual male gaze is expected of Chinese women. There’s the pressure to be submissive and docile to uphold patriarchal and nuclear family standards. When you don’t blend in this way as a Chinese woman, you tend to be seen as difficult and lose face.
‘Don’t sit with your legs open!’ my mum yelled each time I read a book on the couch after work, lounging with my legs apart. ‘You’re a girl! Sit properly!’ When I was a teenager my folks also didn’t take a liking for my all-black wardrobe either, saying ‘You’re inviting dead people!’ with my dark ensembles. I refused to wear dresses and skirts, and according to them I looked ‘so ugly in blue jeans’ attending big Chinese wedding banquets where everyone dressed up.
On these occasions I felt like a rebeI, never cared much for conventional gender norms or looking a certain way. While there’s always time and place to shrug on manners and keep the peace, there’s also owning your power to carve your own person free from expectations and be who you feel. You could be anyone from anywhere and be whoever you want, look however you want and speak your truth to make an impact.
3. Walking in front of my parents
As a child, my parents insisted on holding my hand everywhere we went, be it to a new town miles away or to the nearby store for mundane weekly grocery trips. Being a curious kid who liked discovering things on my own, I’d often rip my hand free and eagerly skip ahead to the unknown.
‘Come back here! Mabel, come!’ my dad would shout immediately without a beat. ‘Don’t let go of my hand!’ This happened until I was about 14 or 15 in front of my classmates who took the public bus home from school. Seniority is deemed as superior in Chinese culture: normalisation of the masculine patriarchal protector in front with eagled-eyed view, deserving of calling the shots.
In these moments of pulling my hand away and shouting ringing in my ears, I went from feeling like a daredevil to small fry in a flash. Certainly the world is dangerous with situations and people you should avoid. But too much of staying sheltered and following the leader, you only know what you’re told to do.
4. Not greeting my parents
When I was younger, the moment my parents came home and walked through the door, they expected me to greet them right away.
‘Mabel! Where are you? Come out right now!’ dad would exclaim before the door slammed shut. It didn’t matter if I was reading in my room or taking a dump in the bathroom. Not being right there at the door to welcome them home was already suspicious or a failure, reminiscent of a servant getting into trouble and punished by the Emperor in a Chinese imperial drama. This happened so often that I simply got used to it.
A lack of respect for your personal space, privacy and boundaries is common in a stereotypical Chinese household. At times seniority desires control and ownership of everything within the household and so nothing really is yours, in line with the natures of patriarchy and collectivism. Arguably it can come across as impolite to ignore someone when you see them. But some need their space and not be bound by rules to feel a sense of inner peace.
5. Not serving the rice correctly
Food and eating well is a big part of Chinese culture. There’s this Chinese saying that goes, ‘Disease comes from the mouth’ – be mindful about eating for your health in other words.
Rice accompanies Chinese family dinners alongside the meat and vegetable dishes. The rice has to be served just right. Not undercooked, watery or raw for a Chinese dinner at home, as comedian Jimmy O’Yang wrote in How to American: An Immigrant’s Guide to Disappointing Your Parents.
Each time my mum scooped the steaming rice out from the rice cooker for dinner, she ordered, ‘Mabel! Call daddy from over there to sik fan (eat) now! Now! Or else the rice get cold! Call louder!’. I would obediently call for my dad to come to the table. Sometimes he didn’t walk over immediately – maybe he didn’t hear my soft-spoken voice. Maybe I was to blame.
Of these times when my dad finally sat down at the dinner table, he’d take a bite of rice. Mouth chewing rice, dad raged, ‘The rice is not warm enough! It’s cold! Take it back to the pot!’, slamming his chopsticks down on the table. Silence echoed through the house.
During these occasions eating at home felt small and unappetising. Having a meal hot or cold is something to be thankful for. But no matter how good the food tastes or how cosy the ambience, you’d probably never forget the unhappy diner who sat next to you.
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Strict Asian parents arguably show tough, practical love and it comes from a place of care. They hope for opportunities and a comfortable future for their children, shaping them to be tough to face the world and its challenges. Often they put their own interests and more importantly their own time aside to make sure they learn life’s lessons.
Different people have different wants and needs, different reactions and feelings in each situation. The constant insistence to conform to cultural expectations certainly has its consequences on your personality, emotions and mental health – your individual outlook and how you feel about yourself.
In her book Quiet is a Superpower, author Jill Chang writes that ‘finding your core values is never an easy journey, especially in Eastern societies’ and especially when you’re introverted too – but such values can be developed independently over time through work or broader society. Research on psychological behaviour shows Chinese American individuals tend to value emotional suppression to preserve interpersonal harmony but this may not be the case in Western cultures. A study also found disempowering parenting and intergenerational cultural conflict creates mental distress among Asian youths.
In other words, the collectivist mentality and hegemonic power dynamics in Asian cultures can considerably suppress individual identity and confidence to speak and live your truth. At times, such culturally commanding actions borders on abuse and leads to long-term trauma, intentionally or unintentionally.
In general, people don’t want to upset each other if they can avoid it. That includes not wanting to disappoint your parents – and you may get stuck in the cycle of the fear of disappointing others. Aside from feeling guilty and struck by fear of being the cause someone is unhappy, you might constantly focus on avoiding disappointing your Asian parents – submitting to cultural stereotypes and unable to see past what you’re being told behind closed doors or see what’s possible elsewhere.
You can’t please everyone all the time as everyone will have their opinions. As self-care coach Cheryl Richardson wrote in The Art of Disappointing Others, you have to learn to disappoint others to live a life of meaning. But moving forward amidst the criticism of not living up to cultural values can be easier said than done – because those cultural values may actually be who you are.
For one, you may desire and feel the pressure to make it without the help of your family. If you don’t be successful on your own as how you imagined, you might be horribly disappointed. More specifically, disappointed in yourself alongside that perfectionist side within you, which likely stems from the strict cultural values you’ve always known and a place of lack.
Being creative and a writer doesn’t always come easy to me. While I love writing, I struggled to articulate my voice. It took time to unlearn feeling unimportant amidst the discouragement ingrained within me and believe in writing, which includes setting boundaries with both yourself and others, surrounding yourself with supportive people and finding middle ground between you and those who disagree – keeping in mind this last suggestion isn’t always achievable. This is something I write more about in my upcoming book, and part of this post was an excerpt.
Sometimes you might disappoint your parents. Sometimes if you don’t follow your own truth, you might disappoint yourself even more.
Have you ever disappointed your parents?