Why it feels like Asian parents are bullies

I recently had a conversation with my colleagues about bullying among teens and adolescents. Bullying, as defined by stopbullying.gov, is unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance, and is repeated over time. We talked about how social media and the Internet have intensified bullying, since you can now post anonymously online without any accountability. As a youth service provider, bullying is a very real and important issue for us.

“You know who else is a bully?” I asked the group. “Asian parents!” It’s true. My own parents used to give me lunch money for school just so they could take it away. Let’s use the definition provided to explore this idea further.

Do Asian parents exhibit unwanted, aggressive behavior?

A character from the book Catch-22 sums it up best: “Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them.” He must have studied the art of Asian affirmation.

Among many young Asian-Americans I’ve talked to, there’s a mutual understanding that our parents will never tell us they are proud of us. “You got a B+ in English? But you were born here!” As punishment, you’d be forced to write the entire alphabet one hundred times while balancing a bowl of rice on your head. If a single rice grain fell, you’d have to start over.

It feels like the only time Asian parents express pride is behind your back—usually when they are gossiping with their friends. “Your child got a regular B in English? That’s too bad. My little James got a B+! I’m so proud of him.” The euphoria is brief. For soon Auntie Jun enters the room proclaiming that her daughter got an A in English and can balance three bowls of rice. “Ooo, the perfect child…” all the other parents comment.

Children work hard to impress their parents, who rarely display any overt signs of affection in return. Instead, they only say nice things about you behind your back, but get mad if you don’t give them anything to brag about. It’s a Catch 22.

Is there an imbalance of power between Asian parents and their children?

I think the Joy Luck Club popularized this idea that Asian parents are cold and rigid when their children don’t meet their expectations for school or career. My parents once grounded me for an entire month when they found out that I worked at a non-profit.

Among younger Asian Americans like myself, it’s almost become a running joke. While we know it’s not true by any means, many of us feel distant from our parents because of the lack of affection, and also because our parents don’t always include us in the decisions that impact our lives. When I was young, my dad would say “because I said so” to quash any further questioning of their authority. We know our parents want the best for us, but certain life decisions parents and children must make together, like where we go on family vacations or whose turn it is to coin mom when she’s not feeling well. My career and profession is not one of them.

Does the bullying happen more than once?

Imagine being subjected to constant haranguing for every single thing you do, over and over again. “Don’t know your multiplication table yet? Fail.” “Didn’t score a touchdown in your baseball game? Fail.” “What!? You don’t play baseball!? Fail.” It was so frustrating that I often wished I had a White family. White kids have it easy; all they need to do is remember to wear sunscreen and recycle.

The Verdict.

Many of the behaviors that Asian parents display, at some point or another, certainly fit into the definition of bullying; it’s both verbal and social. But notice that the definition has no assumptions of intent. School yard bullies and Asian parents have very different intentions. The former to have power over someone, and the latter to have power…over someone….ah crap, bad example. Ok, school yard bullies are just punks who purposefully go out of their way to humiliate other people.

Asian parents, like all parents, are well-intentioned and sincerely want the best for their children. I recognize that my own parents have endured many hardships to provide a good life for my sister and me. I appreciate their sacrifices.

Yet regardless of intention, the impact of school bullies and Asian parents can be the same. Kids who are bullied can experience anxiety, increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy. It’s unrealistic to always expect straight A’s from Asian children. It’s also discouraging for children to not feel supported when their dream is to become a musician, writer, social worker or other profession. Every parent wants their child to be successful and happy, but there is no cookie-cutter way to achieve this.

Recently my mom told me that she was proud of me and my sister. “Even though you work in a non-profit, I’m glad you are helping your community.” My initial thought was “Your parents would be ashamed of you for telling me that.” After her words sank in, I appreciated the support and affirmation for my interests and work. It was a rare, albeit brief moment where my mom showed vulnerability. Of course, not wanting to miss a golden opportunity I quickly capitalized on her moment of weakness and told her that also I never want to have children and will probably put her in a senior home when she’s older. Whew! That felt really good to get off of my chest.

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