Jennifer, a dear friend of mine, recently told me that she was considering moving in with her partner. I interpreted that to mean they were willing to wake up to each other’s morning breath and put up with dirty laundry…day, after day, after day. I can barely look at my own face in the morning (for much of the day in fact) so I’m not quite sure why anyone would willingly do it with another person.
Nevertheless, cohabitation has become increasingly common for the average American couple. “In 2011, the Census Bureau reported 7.6 million opposite-sex cohabiting couples in the country with a separate report listing the number of cohabiting same-sex couples at 514,735 as of the 2010 Census” (as reported by Wikipedia). No big deal, right? Right?
Wrong! A big fat WRONG!!! It is a big deal because most life decisions for Asian-Americans need to be run through our parents first. Jennifer is Vietnamese. Her plan was to introduce her parents to Steven, her boyfriend, over dinner. She was nervous about telling them what was on her mind. Why? Before I answer my own question, let’s take a step back.
When I lived in Cambodia you couldn’t even hang out with someone of the opposite sex without a third party to chaperone. It’s like the Holy Spirit was busy that day and someone else needed to sub in. “Sopha, eat rice already?” That’s how it would translate from Khmer. “Do you want to have lunch together?”
“Ok. Let me see if my extended family is free to join us.”
“What a delightful idea Sopha! Your family can observe our strictly plutonic and professional lunch to make sure there are no improprieties.”
Can you imagine what moving in with someone must take? There are a lot of social norms that guide dating, romance and marriage in many Asian cultures.
- No kissing;
- Don’t hang out alone where no one else can see you;
- First dates are also the last date, then you marry;
- Wedding first, house second, kids third;
- Absolutely no living with the opposite sex before marriage.
There’s no simple explanation for why these cultural norms exist; it dates back many centuries and is very complicated. At the most basic level, Asian cultures see the realms of men and women as uniquely separate. Sometimes this comes out in really charming ways, like when my dad is expected to buy the car so that my mom can drive it (works out great for her). Other times, and quite commonly, things don’t go so well and women are oppressed and abused. They’re expected to run the house and raise the children while men can go off and get drunk. It’s basically Sunday Night Football every single day.
I admit these are extreme examples, but they illustrate why it’s hard for young Asian-Americans (man or woman) to cohabitate. Cultural norms are deeply ingrained into our thoughts and behaviors. Sometimes, we don’t even recognize it, and it may be difficult for other people to understand.
“My parents prefer that I marry a Vietnamese guy,” Jennifer said. Steven is White. For younger Asian-Americans, not a big deal at all. But I think Jennifer’s parents, along with many refugee and immigrant families, are concerned about the perceived language and cultural barriers.
“So how did it go when you told them you were thinking about moving in together?” I asked.
“Not good at all.” Apparently, Steven offered to cook dinner for everyone but her parents insisted on bringing something instead. It was a trap; her parents secretly wanted Steven to cook anyways because it’s a sign of being a good host. That never happened though. It was totally awkward and uncomfortable. Perhaps out of frustration, or maybe even disappointment, Jennifer’s mom finally suggested they just order pizza. For anyone not familiar with Asian culture, try to imagine the inverse scenario—going to a Chinese restaurant in New York City on Christmas. Alone. Get it now? It’s that bad.
I felt terrible for Jennifer and Steven and pondered what I would have done in their situation. If anyone is thinking about telling their parents they are moving in with their partner, here’s some advice that may help.
1. Don’t ever tell your parents you’re going to cohabitate! Just kidding. I’m a firm believer in having an open, honest and direct conversation with your parents about this important life decision, but you may have to massage it a bit. Reframe the news so it appears to benefit your parents too. “Mom, living together may actually improve my GPA and future earning potential. By sharing the cost of rent, I can save money now and invest that into a PhD program. I’ll become a doctor, and then both of our dreams will come true!”
2. Tell your partner to bring fruit. I’m dead serious. If your partner wants to show respect, they need to bring the gift of fruit. Mandarin oranges (cuties), mangos and pineapples are extremely popular choices. A cutie tells the parent, “I was at the grocery store and thought of you,” while a pineapple says “I could be your future son-in-law.” Choose wisely, but don’t go overboard. A single piece of fruit will go a long way. Trust me.
3. Take it one step at a time. I’ve learned many Asian parents need to take news in small doses. For example, before I began my career in non-profit, I joined the Peace Corps so that my mom would get used to the idea that I’d never make a doctor’s salary. The same applies to living with your partner. Talk about how expensive rent is, how you feel lonely at night, how the noises outside your window are terrifying, how cooking for one person is so hard, etc. Then break the news that you’re moving in with your partner. Of course, the potential risk here is they want you to move back home with them. Don’t do it!
4. Whatever your parents say, do the opposite. In Jennifer and Steven’s case, when her parents said they didn’t want Steven to cook dinner, it actually meant they did. Asian parents are tricky like that; you have to read between the lines. “Sweetie, I don’t care if you have children or not.” Translation: They expect 10 grandkids. “Being a social worker is a wonderful profession.” Translation: You are a failure and we need to boost your self-esteem before we crush it. “You and Steven should definitely move in together.” Translation: You two will live in our house and Steven will have the downstairs guest bedroom, far away from you.
5. Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. Finally, sometimes it takes a little finesse; give and take. Think about what you’re willing to give up in order to get what you want. “Look mom and dad, if you let me and Steven move in together right now, one of you can live with us after you retire.”
“Hmmm, you drive a hard bargain, but I dunno honey.”
“Fine, both of you!”
When I later asked Steven about his experience, he said “I feel like I was set up for failure.” It was rough, but I really admired what he said next. “I’m trying to put myself in her mom’s shoes. They just want the best for their daughter, ya know?”