What it’s like to grow up with Asian parents

The other day, I was graced with an article in my inbox that describes perfectly the feelings of one adult Asian towards her parents and her culture. In “The Bitter Regrets of a Useless Chinese Daughter,” Jianan Qian begins the story about her mother getting sick, and how she had a stroke with the ways in which she failed to disclose the information to her daughter, for the sake of inconveniencing her. Ironically, the same sentiment arises halfway through the story, when the author realizes that she needs help in order to get her mother into the best care possible.

“The only friend I could think of was my dorm mate, Y.C., but like my mother, I felt reluctant to inconvenience her. She is pregnant. And I didn’t want her to face the same moment of truth I was facing–have I made “useful” friends that I can ask for a favor?”

This story is not just about sick parents, or grown children with sick parents–it’s about changes and identity, and how growing up in a certain culture can cultivate that identity or dismantle it.

As someone who has been alive for the past thirty three years, I’ve always pondered the possibility of what it would’ve been like had I grown up in America. Would my parents still be the same parents, with the same thoughts, ideas, and beliefs? Or would they merge and assimilate with the place that they live in? I know my mother falls into the first category.

My father is no longer around to speak for himself, but as for my mother–she falls perfectly center in the “traditional Asian parent” category. Not so much a tiger parent, mind you, but pretty close. She’s a tough cookie, and still is, and what one outsider might mistaken for love, I would call it “tough love.”

Growing up, I was taught that hard work, dedication and an education can get you far. In other words, I needed to get more educated than my parents. Their whole life and how others view them through the social lens depends on what their offspring is currently doing. For example, a child studying at Yale is clearly more impressive than a child living at home, working part-time at a restaurant, paying for his own bills, and going to a community college. Not surprisingly, a lot of Asians try to get into Ivy League schools, simply for the status and for the opportunity to impress their parents.

I felt a lot of pressure to do well in school, but I was never particularly interested in Ivy Leagues. I knew that I wanted to be far, far away, but not so far as to have to spend more than four hours flying home. Thus, I settled on a state college that was a 3 hour drive from home; later, I transferred to a public university in town and graduated there. I don’t regret my decision at all, but I wish that I hadn’t bought in so much on the idea that there are only specific jobs appropriate for an educated Asian person–doctor, engineer, lawyer, accountant, or executive. With perhaps the exception of an accountant, all other jobs require long hours and travel, making the possibility of having a family much less malleable.

And if you grow up in an Asian family, you’d know that relationships are everything. As a collectivist culture, Asians focus a lot on the social relationships–from maintaining the ties in their family to the ones in their community–it all comes down to economics. Who can help you in case of emergency, when you’re in a dire situation and you need help, whether it be financially or emotionally?

Ironically, the pressure embedded in their children–to succeed, to make lots of money, to obtain a higher social class than so-and-so’s child–do not allow ample time and opportunity for these children to cultivate meaningful relationships. For if one is so inherently focused on making money, traveling for their job, being on call 24 hours a day, how can one find the time to have coffee dates or go out to lunch with a friend?

Of course, Asian parents don’t take this into consideration. They see money as a status symbol, sometimes shown through what type of cars that you drive, and the size of your house. Never mind the fact that you may not have much money in the bank left after paying your bills, it’s the fact that others see you with these things, and thus you must be successful.

The lack of social relationships is mentioned in the article, and I definitely relate to what the author feels. It is difficult to maintain a relationship when geography is involved, but also because in this day and age, social relationships are less likely to be in person and more likely to be online. Time is of the essence here. Everyone’s busy. Not many of us have a lot of time to sit and ponder what to do with our days every single day. After all, we have to go out and make the money, right? So we can get the fancy car, and buy the fancy house and host fancy dinners.

No other place is this concept more evident than in popular culture. The current Hollywood blockbuster hit, Crazy Rich Asians, plays into this quite well. I finished reading the book earlier this month, and was blown away by the author’s descriptions of the drama encased in these rich Asian lives. Although I will never know what it’s like to belong in a rich family, I do know the cultural commonalities, such as marrying into one’s kind, respect for elders, and tight money management. I think perhaps as a fault and an advantage, Asian parents want the best for their kids, and some of them will stop at nothing to get it. Sometimes this can translate into an overbearing necessity to meddle in their children’s lives. The price of independence is a hard one to pay when you’re in an Asian family, with a traditional Asian parent.

As a parent raising her kids in America, I feel that I have to take bits and pieces of what I was given as a child and mold it to my own preference. I know I can’t force my child to become a doctor if she’s the artistic type. And I know that I can’t force my son to be a big shot executive if he’s more interested in a mid-level job. I know I have to instill a sense of good faith, and push my children a little bit, and help them figure things out on their own.

When it comes to exercise, it’s all in your head

Recently, on a Sunday afternoon, my husband and I experienced a strange occurrence–we were both off work for the day and our kids were in the care of someone else (my mom). I can’t remember the last time it happened–where we were both by ourselves with no children – because it happens so rarely. So, what is a couple to do when left to their own devices?

They play tennis.

We trooped on, happily skipping to a nearby tennis court, not believing our luck. (Well, technically we drove the car, but what’s the difference?). We felt giddy with excitement, not just because we had time to ourselves during the day but also because we’ve been meaning to play tennis for awhile. It’s a sport that we can both agree on.

While in the car, I asked my husband when the last time he ever played tennis was. He replied, “Never.”

I found this hard to believe –perhaps he might’ve forgotten all those early experiences in PE in middle school, or perhaps he was more into other things, say, track and field, which is what he did in middle school to lose weight. Or perhaps he does not associate any memory with tennis because he hardly played it.

At any rate, I confessed that it’s been awhile for me as well. “So we’re both newbies at this,” I said. He shrugged.

Turns out, tennis was way more fun than we expected. Who would’ve thought? In middle school and high school, when physical education was required, I don’t remember playing tennis very much. It was usually a mix of basketball, baseball, soccer (sometimes), volleyball and track. Oh, and dodge ball. How I hated dodge ball, due to the fact that I hated being hit by a ball coming at me with such high velocity. It felt like one of those times where it’s socially acceptable to hit each other in the name of sportsmanship, when in reality, such a blow in a classroom would’ve landed you in the principal’s office.

Not surprisingly, these unpleasant experiences in PE classes are reminiscent of a recent study done at Iowa State University, recently wrote about in a New York Times article here, about people’s attitudes towards physical fitness. The authors of the study concluded that based on a long questionnaire recalling one’s memories of the past, the participants who had negative memories grew up to associate exercise with being a chore, not a fun activity. Conversely, those who had great experiences in PE grew up to enjoy exercise.

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Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

It’s a pretty obvious assumption, and one that doesn’t really require a study, I think. There are also limitations to the study, such as the reliability of one’s memories. I can safely say that I have some memory of PE classes, but not in specific details. I just knew that I didn’t enjoy being pummeled with a ball and I couldn’t hit a ball to save my life (thus, you can guess that I didn’t enjoy volleyball either), but as far as hitting a ball with the aid other things…I discovered that I can be a really far hitter in tennis, a surprising element to my physical ability.

I do think on the general consensus, we can all conclude that there is some degree of truth from our early days with the way that we view exercise as an adult. Unfortunately, many of us have sedentary office jobs; thus, those who do enjoy exercise may not get the chance to do so.

Personally, I’ve found that the process of getting sweaty is quite unpleasant and as soon as I start to sweat, I’d want to get rid of it immediately. However, after the game or exercise is over, I am always glad and grateful that I did it, because my body is filled with so much adrenaline and feel-good hormones that I can hardly contain myself.

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Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash

Since that first successful tennis session, my husband and I have tried to do it again…albeit with the kids in tow. However, we’ve discovered that with two kids next to us, and one of them providing background noise in the form of whines doesn’t make it a particularly fun activity. Perhaps next time we’re alone together we’ll attempt it again. Or wait until they’re old enough to be left alone together. At any rate, I’ve discovered that my attitudes about exercise in general has changed dramatically since the beginning of this season, as evidenced in this post. I’ve come to enjoy getting sweaty (to a certain degree) and would not hesitate to try again with my partner in crime.

What I’ve learned from the past seven months about myself

This year in February, I turned 33. Eek. I cringe just typing that number. It didn’t feel like I was born that long ago. For my birthday this year, I didn’t have any expectations or know exactly how I wanted my thirty third year to turn out. What I didn’t want was to get on the scale and learned that I was 131 lbs, and I’m not even pregnant. For someone to be that weight, and only 5 feet tall and Asian American, it is definitely a concerning number. I was tipping the scale into overweight territory, and for the first time in my life, I felt great doom about my health.

One part of me could’ve avoided it altogether. She could’ve compared herself to other overweight people of her generation and say, “Well, it’s not so bad. I mean, look at everyone else!” But the other part of me was tired of comparing myself to others and didn’t want to base my level of what’s normal in terms of health against what I currently see. I realize that too often we do that–compare ourselves to what’s current as a way to rationalize our own behavior and lack of self control and to desensitize ourselves from what we don’t want our future selves to be.

I decided I had to face my problem head on. So I began with resisting sweet treats at the end of February, right after my birthday. I was inundated with baked goods for several months, and I heartily accepted…which was probably what added the pounds on my body. When I realized that baked goods are the devil until I can lose 10 lbs, I had to say no.

Then, in March, I began an exercise routine. Mind you, I’ve never really been an exercise fiend at all. I barely survived PE in high school. I do enjoy a game of kickball or badminton now and then, but as far as exercise for health is concerned, I’ve always been blessed with a metabolism that allowed me to pretty much eat anything I wanted without gaining weight. That metabolism got fed up with me and said goodbye last winter, and I was left to deal with the error of my own ways.

I begrudgingly said to my husband, “I want to start exercising.” (grumpy face). Even though he wasn’t technically overweight, he was feeling the seasonal depression too, and thought that exercising might help, so he agreed to be my running partner. From March until June, we ran every other night after the kids went to bed, because that was the only time we had to ourselves.

I’m not going to lie–the first few weeks were incredibly difficult. So difficult that I wanted to quit. But whenever the thought of quitting entered my mind, I also rebutted with the thought of not wanting to be overweight at all whatsoever. I wanted to be in the normal range again. I knew that the only way to lower that weight was to exercise.

End of story, right? Not so much.

After a month or so of running, and realizing that it’s not so bad after all, I ran my first 5K–an amazing feat, one that I will call a personal achievement, because never in my life did I ever think that I could complete a 5K. EVER. With all this excitement about completing a 5K, I thought I could just continue what I was doing–running for 30-45 minutes four times a week. But the weight didn’t come off…at least not as fast as I’d hoped. After several more weeks of running, I realized that I barely lost 2 lbs. I felt very discouraged.

So I started reevaluating myself. Is it what I’m eating? I wondered. I discussed this with my husband, and after doing some research, came to the conclusion that in order to lose weight quicker, I’d have to amp up the protein, fruits & vegetables, and crank down the carbs and the starch. Rice was my biggest vice. I love, love, love rice. I grew up with it, and can never part with it. That’s why I eat it almost every day for dinner. Heaping big scoops of rice, possibly two cups of that beautiful starch regularly entered my stomach.

I learned that the amount of rice I was eating was adding on hundreds more calories than I needed and that in order to lose the weight, I’d have to burn more calories than I took in. Thus began another journey of resisting rice. Two cups became one quarter of a cup–a dramatic difference on a plate. Again, it was excruciating, like waiting for the results of a genetic test to find out whether you have the chromosomal abnormality for cystic fibrosis.

As painful as it was to give up that much rice, I started to see results right away. Combine that with the exercising, I was able to lose the weight in just three months. These days, the pants and shorts I wear are so incredibly loose that I can put two hands into it and still see plenty of space around my waist. My husband can also do the same.

These days we don’t exercise nearly as much anymore. We decided to take a little break for now. I am currently in a state where I’m happy with my weight. Temptation rises all the time, especially nowadays at my new job where there are treats all around all the time. Sometimes I can resist the doughnut. This morning I didn’t though.

But what I’ve taken away from the past seven months is this: it’s unrealistic to compare yourself to others, given that the standards in which others live their lives are not the same as yours. If I had ignored my angel side telling me that it’s a good idea to exercise, I would’ve joined the millions of people in America who are overweight and can’t find the inner strength to exercise or eat healthy.

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Look, I’m not trying to generalize or put people on a certain pedestal, but I am saying that once you let go of what others around you are doing and saying and thinking and start listening to yourself and your own values, you will realize what’s important to you. As philosophical as that sounds, I think that rule can be applied to just about anything, not just health. Letting go of preconceived notions and self-doubt was purely life-changing for me. Once I started thinking of myself as an able-bodied person who can do things and should probably do things, then things started happening beyond what I expected.