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.

2 thoughts on “What it’s like to grow up with Asian parents

  1. Hoang , I really enjoyed this article you wrote about what it’s like to grow up in an Asian family. It was very educational to me. One thing I have thinking about a lot lately is my own view of people of different color or race.

    There was only one black girl in my high school and I never gave it a thought that she was black. Considering I grew up in a very conservative, primarily white ranching community, I wonder why I never felt prejudice? Although, stupidity and ignorance really drives me nuts!

    I just recently read an article about Kelly Marie Tran, the first Asian female to have a lead role in a Star Wars movie. I was just blown away by the harassment she has had to endure and the feelings of low self-worth. I never gave it a thought that she was Asian when I saw this movie. It just never crossed my mind. But it is obviously something she has to deal with every day. I have included a link to the article for you to read.


    Thank you for sharing.


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