Understanding and dealing with overbearing Asian parents
December 2009 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
I assert that Asian parents' obsessive emphasis on grades, test scores, and college rankings originate from their upbringing in a poor, oppressive, and politically-unstable third-world society. I then encourage kids growing up under these overbearing parents to try to understand why their parents feel so strongly about such issues, and then try to accept them for who they are rather than rebelling against or trying to change them.
This article is for young kids and teenagers growing up in a household with overbearing Asian parents, the sort that I describe in my Attention: Overbearing Asian Parents article. In the three years since writing that article, I've received lots of email responses and discussion forum messages from the perspective of young adults who have been oppressed by their parents. This article attempts to explore the other perspective—the parents' motivations and feelings—to help kids better understand and deal with their own parents.
Disclaimer: A reader has written the following blog post criticizing my articles, so in response, I've agreed put up the following disclaimer, directly quoted from one of our email exchanges:
"You mention nothing at all about getting high school or university counsellors, or Child Protective Services (or the local equivalent), or even the police involved, but for many people in abusive relationships, getting an external authority involved is the right thing to do. I think that all your articles on authoritarian parents should be prefaced with a warning to seek professional help. As someone who grew up with abusive parents and who has undergone professional counselling, I think that the advice you give to abused children to "understand" their parents is extremely damaging. Abused children have already been told their whole lives to essentially suppress their natural emotions, and have heard the excuses made by their parents or on their parents' behalf every time their parents hurt them. The fact that you list the options available as "rebellion", "reasoning", and "understanding" shows that you don't truly appreciate the nature of the situation. In an abusive relationship, there are no options: the only thing to do is to leave, and if that isn't possible, to seek protection."
Purpose of this article
Three years ago I wrote an article called Attention: Overbearing Asian Parents, which is now one of the most widely-read articles on my website. Readers regularly write me email responses (summarized in a follow-up article) and post their own stories in the Asian kids and parents discussion forum.
My original article portrayed some Asian parents in an extremely negative light, but it never explored their possible motivations. It presupposed that they were harsh and overbearing, and sternly warned that their parenting style would harm their children. In this article, I want to attempt to get into the minds of the parents I had previously maligned, to speculate on why they might feel so strongly about topics like their children's choices of college majors and careers. I've drawn much of the material from conversations with and about Chinese immigrants in my parents' generation. Of course, my insights are far from scientific, so the usual disclaimers about anecdotal evidence apply here.
Three options for dealing with overbearing Asian parents
So you're a kid currently growing up in a household with overbearing Asian parents, the sort that probably:
Life at home sucks for you, and you can't wait until you can get out of the house. Until then, you have three sets of options:
I'll briefly talk about Options 1 and 2 and then spend the majority of this article on Option 3, which I feel is the only reasonable choice.
Option 1: Rebellion
I think that Option 1 is the dumbest of the three, because the person most hurt by your rebellion is yourself. By engaging in dangerous activities that could leave permanent physical and psychological scars, you could be throwing away your chance at living a healthy adult life once you grow up and get out of your parents' grips. If you think that you can get your parents to change their ways by simply rebelling, then you will be in for a rude surprise. Your parents will likely blame American society, the media, your friends, and especially you for your rebellious behavior, but they won't ever blame themselves or try to adapt to cater to your needs. If your parents were reasonable people, then you wouldn't be reading this article in the first place.
(One more tip to remember for your future: Please don't go ass-wild as soon as you start college, as so many of your fellow Asian-American youths do. I know it's tempting to go absolutely nuts as soon as you are able to escape your oppressive Asian household, but c'mon, it's so damn cliched, and your peers will think that you're pathetic.)
Option 2: Reasoning
I think Option 2 is noble but destined to fail. Why? Because your parents will never take your words seriously. In traditional Asian culture, age equals wisdom, so since kids are young, then by definition they have little wisdom, and hence their opinions should not be taken seriously. Your American friends might get to have open discussions and back-and-forth debates with their parents, but you will never get to do that, since your parents will never consider you as an intellectual equal. Despite the fact that you know far more about how things work in American society than they do, they will still stand firm by their antiquated 'old-world' Asian views.
Option 3: Understanding
So that only leaves Option 3: Try to understand why they feel the way that they do, and come to accept them for who they are. I will spend the rest of this article helping you to understand why your parents might feel the way that they do about teenage social life, grades, and college, and why they can't help but feel that way (no more than you can help feeling how you feel about being a teenager in American society).
Even though this article focuses on your parents' feelings, I'm ultimately on your side, not theirs. I'm not trying to excuse their callousness or abusive behavior; I'm merely trying to explore where their strong convictions came from.
If you can empathize with their viewpoints and motivations, then you have a better shot at accepting them for who they are rather than trying (and failing) to change them. Hopefully this understanding will also make it more bearable for you to remain in their house for the next few years until you can escape away to college (and prevent you from going ass-wild once you do start college).
Why can't your parents understand why you want to have a normal American teenage life?
Short answer: Because they never experienced anything remotely resembling a normal American teenage life when they were growing up
Slightly longer answer:
Your parents grew up 30 to 40 years ago in a poor third-world country. I don't care whether they came from China, Korea, Vietnam, or any other Asian country—chances are that they grew up much poorer than the parents of your middle-class (probably white) American friends. Even if your parents were part of the middle class back in their home country, their quality of life paled in comparison to the comfort and stability experienced by middle-class American families right after World War II.
A little history lesson: In the decades immediately following World War II, pretty much every Asian country was decimated by the war, still in the Stone Age, led by an oppressive dictator who jailed and killed people at will, or some grotesque combination of the three. Meanwhile, America was more prosperous than ever! Your American friends' parents were going on dates to drive-in movies, grabbing milkshakes at the local diner, dancing to Elvis music, and had no troubles finding employment in their teens and early twenties, regardless of whether they went to a good college (or any college at all, for that matter). No wonder your friends' parents are so chill! No wonder they encourage their kids to go on dates, to have an active social life, and to just go to some college but doesn't matter if it's a top-notch one. Because that's exactly what they did while growing up, and they were still able to earn a decent middle-class living as adults.
Your parents grew up in a hell-hole compared to their American peers! Middle-class life in Asia was far worse than middle-class life in 1950's and 60's post-war America. Even though their day-to-day lives might have been acceptable, they were in constant fear that their government might suddenly be overthrown or that they would lose all their money for some unjust reason. They likely saw people starving on the streets or unfairly thrown into jail. They likely knew people who were well-off one day and then in jail the next, with all of their assets seized.
Your parents didn't grow up with any of the social justice, human rights, personal freedoms, or peace-of-mind that your American friends' parents took for granted. I won't bore you with melodramatic stories from the Third World, but the bottom line is that no matter where your parents came from, they didn't like what they saw in their home country. Why not? Because they got the hell out of there and immigrated to America! It takes a lot of balls to uproot yourself and move halfway around the world, so people don't just do it when things are okay at home. They must have thought that their homeland sucked, so they risked everything to get the hell out of there!
By this point, I hope you can understand why your parents will never have the same attitudes about teenage social life as your American friends' parents do. American parents grew up in a stable, affluent society where teenagers could actually enjoy themselves and try to find happiness by hanging out with friends, dating, and having fun in general. Your parents grew up in a turbulent, backwards third-world society where personal happiness and fulfillment were non-issues—there was only duty to one's family, doing whatever needed to be done to survive day-to-day. If that meant spending all day babysitting one's siblings and doing household chores, then so be it. If that meant working in the factories or fields to help put food on the table, then so be it. There were no drive-in movies or dates at local diners.
Why are your parents so obsessed with grades and college rankings?
Why are Asian parents so obsessed with grades, standardized tests, and getting their kids into top-ranked colleges? Because when they were growing up, that was a matter of life and death. Ok, maybe not so extreme, but in Asia when your parents were growing up (and, to a lesser extent, even today), there was a huge difference in quality-of-life between kids who got C's in school and those who got A's in school. In an affluent society like America, C-average students can become rich-ass company CEO's, rich-ass celebrities, and even presidents like George W. Bush. In third-world countries, C-average students end up becoming unskilled field laborers and sweatshop workers. I shit you not!
In poorer societies, there are far fewer opportunities for social advancement without the proper credentials. Due to various historical Asian cultural roots, there is an enormous emphasis on grades, standardized testing, and college reputation (far larger than in America). If you get bad grades in school and low standardized test scores, then you won't get admitted into a good college (nobody cares about your extracurriculars, character references, or sappy personal essays ... it's all based on scores). And if you don't go to a good college, then you simply can't get a job that makes a decent living. This concept is nearly impossible for Americans to understand, but listen up, chumps: In traditional Asian societies, if you don't go to a good college, then you simply cannot get a job that makes a decent living.
Every year, millions of high school seniors across China, Korea, and other Asian countries freak the hell out cramming for and taking the grueling several-days-long college entrance examinations. There are countless panic attacks and at least a dozen suicides each year around exam time. People don't freak the hell out if their lives weren't on the line! This is serious shit: The students who do well on that exam will go on to lead far more affluent and comfortable lives than their peers who do poorly on that exam.
In contrast, there are plenty of opportunities in America for starting your own business, for working your way up even without a formal education, for being a 'self-made' man or woman, but those opportunities simply don't exist in poorer, less open, less free societies. That's why it's called the 'American dream' and not the 'Cambodian dream'!
When your parents were growing up, the only people who lived somewhat comfortable lives were either corrupt government bureaucrats or the well-educated elite who went to top-ranked colleges. Chances are, your parents didn't have insider connections to government bureaucrats, because otherwise they would've been living a comfortable life back in their home country and wouldn't have wanted to get out of there. That means, in their eyes, there was only one path that could lead to a comfortable life in the future: Doing well in school and getting admitted to an elite top-ranked university. This isn't just idle speculation, either. Your parents actually saw what happened to their classmates who got bad grades and were unable to get into a good college—they are now ass-poor, living in unhealthy wretched conditions.
Seriously, this is no joke. When your home society doesn't provide any opportunities for personal advancement, the only way to make a decent living is to play by the rules of the establishment. And when the establishment relies purely on grades, standardized test scores, and college reputation for assigning jobs, then no wonder your parents are so obsessed with those things! They don't realize that in America, the C-average students who went to community college can actually live a decent life rather than rotting away in sewage-ridden slums. No matter how many times you tell them that you won't be homeless even if you don't attend a top-ranked college, they will never genuinely believe it; their traumatic childhood experiences left a far more powerful impression than your words ever will.
Back to the topic of getting good grades being (metaphorically) a matter of life and death for your parents: It was literally a matter of life and death during the Vietnam War. I'll never forget the story that a middle-aged Vietnamese man close to me told about his childhood. He said that he grew up being sort of a slacker and never taking school seriously. But when the Vietnam War started, the government drafted boys to be in the army. The only way to get out of the draft was to get high enough grades and test scores to be admitted into an elite high school (the government wanted to spare the smartest boys from war so that they could instead be groomed to be the scholars and leaders of the next generation). Since going to war was pretty much a death sentence, he and his youngest brother studied their asses off in school and for their standardized tests, and did well enough to be admitted to an elite high school. They had 4 other brothers who didn't do well enough—all of them were sent to war and died. Many of his other friends who didn't do well enough on those exams also died in the war. No fucking joke! How could people who grew up in such a horrific environment not take education seriously?
Of course, this Vietnam War anecdote is extreme. Chances are, your parents weren't threatened with imminent death if they didn't do well in school, but they were threatened with something almost as bad: Knowing that only the top-ranked students in school could make a respectable living while the average students lived a lifestyle that was, well, quite average. But quite average in a third-world country is unfathomably bad by American standards. In a rich society like America, there isn't much of an income difference between someone who got straight A's in high school and went to an elite name-brand university and someone who got straight C's, went to community college, and works in a local business. Maybe the Harvard elitist makes twice as much money, but it's not like the guy who works as an accountant in a small town is withering away in poverty (he's probably doing just fine). However, in a poor third-world country, the straight-A student might make 10 or even 100 times as much money as the straight-C student, and actually live in semi-modern conditions while the straight-C student withers away in a shit-hole.
Why do your parents want you to become a doctor, lawyer, or businessperson?
Ok, so hopefully now you understand how your parents' childhood experiences led them to feel so strongly about the importance of getting good grades, high standardized test scores, and going to an elite name-brand university. But surely they must realize that things are different in America, right? You might be thinking: Haven't they been living here for decades now, working in American corporations, hospitals, stores, or other businesses? Don't they see that you don't need to be a straight-A student who went to an Ivy League school in order to make a good living in this country? Wait, aren't they making a fine living doing their jobs, without having gone to an elite American university? What the hell?!? Wait a minute. They're such hypocrites! They didn't go to an elite American university, yet they can still make enough money to live in middle-class suburbs and send me to a good public high school (or private prep school) where my classmates are typical American teenagers whose parents grew up going to dates at the neighborhood diner. They seem to be making a fine living, right? So why are they nagging me so hard to go to a top-ranked college and to major in medicine, law, business, or some other boring 'practical' major?
Well, on the surface, yes, your parents are making a decent middle-class living, but think about how happy they must be with their work. Chances are, they hate their jobs. Okay, maybe hate is too strong of a word, but chances are that they are unhappy at work (read My plea for a more compassionate work environment to find out more about how unhappiness at work leads to unhappiness at home). Because they are foreigners who are unaccustomed to American culture, they have probably hit a 'glass ceiling' in their workplace where they cannot advance to become leaders in their organization. They are forever subordinates no matter how old they grow.
Even worse, their American bosses are likely much younger than they are, which is humiliating for someone coming from an Asian culture where with greater age necessarily comes greater respect. In contrast, older people in modern-day corporate America are obsolete dinosaurs who can be replaced by young hot-shots. Your parents' bosses are probably thirty-something MBA-wielding yuppies with no respect for the wisdom of the elderly. Your parents and their Asian immigrant friends can be laid off on a whim when the US economy dives into recession every 5 or so years; with each round of lay-offs, it becomes harder and harder for them to find their next job, since they are older each time around.
Your parents truly care about your well-being, despite the fact that they don't know how to display their affection in the highly-visible way that American parents express it. They don't want you to feel the helplessness and oppression that they feel everyday at their workplace. They want you to be in charge of your own law firm, medical practice, company, or even a division within a large corporation. Every day when they are sitting in their cubicle having to politely smile at and bow down to their callous bosses who treat them as nameless interchangeable parts, they dream of the day when their children can one day be the bosses rather than the subordinates.
Your parents want you to someday be the boss, so that hopefully you can feel happy and in-control at work. And the only way that they can fathom how to achieve that goal is by pushing you to get the best grades, the highest standardized test scores, and to attend the most elite name-brand college. In the society in which they grew up, there was no other way to make it to the top other than by relying on name-brand credentials from top-ranked universities and graduate schools (another way is through nepotism and other back-door paths into the corrupt government, but clearly that wasn't an option for them).
Hopefully now you can understand why your parents push you so hard to study a supposedly-practical major like science, engineering, business, medicine, or law when you get to college, rather than an enriching liberal arts or humanities major. They see college only as a stepping stone for you to someday be the boss of your medical practice, law firm, science lab, or corporate division. They can't see how the liberal arts and humanities could possibly lead to that goal. In fact, back when they were growing up, there was no room for luxuries like the liberal arts and humanities! Since there was so little money back then, every penny spent had to be on something of immediate practical value. They are not going to be happy pissing away tens of thousands of dollars so that you can feel intellectually enriched!
But it's not fair, you decry, because your American friends' parents are okay with them studying anything they want in college. Yeah, because they grew up in a stable wealthy society where there was a place for the liberal arts and humanities, and where college was viewed as a time of personal enrichment and growth, the most fun time of your young life! For your parents, though, going to a good college meant the difference between living a comfortable life and living in poverty.
I hope that this article has prompted you to think a bit about why your parents feel the way that they do. They might be unreasonable or irrational in your mind, but in their minds, given their third-world upbringing, they are perfectly reasonable and rational. Deep down, they do have your best interests at heart—it's just sad that the world in which you are growing up (present-day middle-class America) is nothing like where they grew up, so their gut feelings and guiding principles are largely useless for you.
Again, I think it's futile to try to change your parents. As a child or teenager, you are far more open-minded than they are, so you stand a much better chance at accepting them than they do at accepting you and America in general. I wish you the best of luck.
You may directly respond to issues raised in this article by posting in the Asian parents discussion forum.