Stereotypes have some truth to them, but often breathe life into larger demons. I’ll begin with a stereotype we’re all familiar with: Asian women are largely viewed as docile and obedient. Harmony remains one of the greatest virtues of East Asian culture, which draws largely from Confucian principles of maintaining propriety and peace in familial and social spheres.
However, these values are slightly lost in translation within a nation that prides itself on independence and freedom of speech. A hesitance to disturb the social balance can be perceived as a weakness or inability to advocate for oneself, and as such, these harmful stereotypes follow us into our careers and personal lives.
As a second-generation Asian-American woman with immigrant parents, Eastern values were widely perpetuated in my family. From a young age, I fought this esteemed notion of a soft-spoken and agreeable woman with a conviction, determined to remain at the foreground of my own narrative.
However, I felt vastly alone in the battle as I bounced between widely homogenous middle-class suburbs in Connecticut, Tennessee, and even New York. Growing up, most of my friends did not look like me, much less share the same upbringing. As such, it was easier not to divulge my identity conflict. In what sometimes felt like a tightrope balancing act, I often hid major facets of who I was from both my friends and family simply to get by. Not until late in my teen years did I become fully aware of subconscious actions I had taken to fight familial expectations of me as well as the constant feeling of otherness.
I’m now writing to honor the young girl who was constantly looking for a sense of belonging, for the current woman who still grapples with gratitude and guilt, and for the future self who will hopefully have a better understanding of identity. She is any daughter of immigrants, and she is me.
I’m writing in hopes that I can find authenticity and forgiveness within myself, and as always, that one more person out there feels seen and understood in their experience.
As someone who actively seeks to mentor colleagues and friends in their personal and professional journeys, I can now understand the source of my fervent desire to support others unconditionally. I struggled to receive this type of support throughout my childhood, and was often instructed rather than guided.
I still vividly remember the first time my parents scolded me at the age of four for laughing too loudly, that I was far too “wild” dancing in front of the TV, in Fujianese dialect that held much more damning weight at the time and even today. This would be the first of countless times I was told to make myself smaller to fit the mold of traits deemed desirable.
For some time, I abided. Upholding these rigid expectations of ladylike behavior, I began to recede into myself, losing touch with the jubilant and often unreserved child I was. I became extremely shy and self-conscious for many years, unsure of what I should or should not say within our home’s walls and beyond.
Such expectations were coupled with a traditional collectivist notion that family should always take precedence over friendships. As was common in my parent’s native Fujian, trusted social circles were primarily comprised of immediate and extended family. Their ubiquitous distrust of strangers combined with an uncertainty of American culture meant that they did not see the need for me to set roots in social communities beyond the family either. We moved homes frequently for my parents’ work, and I became used to uprooting any budding connections and starting over. All of these factors made it difficult to maintain meaningful long-term friendships, especially those that might foster a space for difficult conversations such as the topic of identity.
For years, art was my escape. I channeled the words I needed to say into my music, art, and writing. However, I was an extreme extrovert at heart, and eventually the need to feel authentically heard overshadowed any sense of dogmatic obligation.
Thus began a rather tumultuous time in my relationship with my parents, as I became adamant on living the life I envisioned for myself rather than the one they had planned for me. Forty years ago, my parents and grandparents emigrated from Fujian, a southern coastal region in China across from Taiwan. Like many immigrant families, they set out to provide a life for their children with opportunities they weren’t afforded.
Though well intentioned, this aim places second-generation children at the nucleus of their parents’ lives, and the spotlight is unforgiving. We are a direct reflection of our parents’ successes and failures among their social circles. In Chinese, the phrase 丢脸 (diū liǎn), directly translated as “losing face,” refers to the public shame imposed upon your elder when you commit a cultural faux-pas. It’s utilized both as a threat to deter wrongdoing, but also as an ex-post scolding. Luckily for my parents, I was guilty of this quite often.
I often told my friends as much, to which I received an incredulous response: “But you are the top of your class! You’re involved in X, Y, Z…” enumerating a list of my hobbies. Though academic and extracurricular successes are inarguably important in the immigrant household, they only encompass a small portion of the standard we are expected to uphold.
I was and to this day remain too outspoken, too ambitious, too independent, and wholly too much for the culture and role I was born to play. I was expected to inherit all of the new opportunities America afforded, and none of the cultural attributes that came with it. For the remainder of my teenage years and into adulthood, I would be various iterations of the young girl swaying without inhibition, only to be reprimanded for her carefree and unbecoming behavior.
Around that time, my newfound conviction that my parents were repressive and backwards tangoed dangerously in tandem with a strong denial of my culture. I harbored a deep sense of shame surrounding aspects of my life I wished I could change, spanning from the ethnic foods we ate all the way to the lucky red knot decorations that hung from our car’s rear view mirror.
Though much of this conflict was internal, I would be naive not to mention that this stemmed from societal rejection of ethnic culture, especially at the time. Any person of color can tell you that kids are especially brutal, and the classroom imposed the harshest restrictions on what was acceptable. Often, this didn’t include ethnic traditions.
I began to distance myself from my family and origins further out of survival instinct — only responding to my parents’ Chinese in English, spending as much time as possible away from home, and even keeping a distance from potential friends who I saw reflected too much of my own familial life, which I am especially not proud of.
Looking back, I can acutely see the cognitive dissonance — I sought reprieve from familial dynamics and cultural pressures in order to find my authentic self. Yet, simultaneously I rejected my authentic self in favor of who I envisioned as the ideal American female.
I am still unsure of what I was searching for at that time, and I cannot truthfully say that I’ve found a complete balance in identity. I now believe that being born in America and having parents native to another country and set of values will always lead to some nomadic sense that we do not quite belong anywhere.
Entering my twenties, I felt as if an internal pendulum had swung the exact opposite direction. As strongly as I had harbored shame, I now felt guilt for harshly judging my parents.
Upon entering America, they adopted a uniquely difficult role, responsible for the wellbeing of three generations: their parents who could not speak English (my grandparents), their children, and themselves. As American children, we are often encouraged to chase our dreams, and to always think bigger. Naturally, my parents would have loved for me to become a doctor or lawyer, or any profession that ensured financial stability. Instead, I gravitated towards economics and international relations, fields that orbited human development and decision-making at the core — or, as my parents would argue, fields that did not translate directly to a job. My parents could not understand my desire to forgo stability in the pursuit of greater social good, or at the very least, intellectual interest.
As a child, I stubbornly declared that becoming a musician or journalist was my calling, and challenged them: “Didn’t you have a dream? What was your dream?” My mom simply replied that she couldn’t have such a thing. In an immigrant family looking to make ends meet, there wasn’t room for trivialities such as dreams.
I grew ashamed of my entitlement and failure to understand the complexities of their psyche as immigrants and as my parents. They had given me all they knew how to give, and how could I blame them for that? Out of interest in getting to know them, I dug deeper into my own roots, taking Chinese classes at Berkeley and encouraging phone calls home only in Mandarin and Fujianese. I was convinced that if I met them halfway, then the rest would fall into place and our relationship would be restored.
Our family travelled to China for the first time in over twenty years, and I did my best to set aside preconceived notions and simply absorb my parents’ homeland. I was struck by the generosity and unfaltering loyalty experienced in Fujian, both between and beyond family members. I came to better understand the sense of community my parents felt they had lost.
These years were marked by gratitude and smoother waters in our relationship, but one that was long due for growing pains. Our dynamic was still one where I could not be my authentic day-to-day self with my loved ones. Far from acknowledging repeated conflict, we shared an unspoken agreement to concede and avoid sensitive topics, spanning from identity all the way to our outlooks on life. This pattern was both exhausting and unsustainable as old wounds inevitably resurfaced.
For years, I focused my energy on uncovering who or what was to blame for my fragmented relationship with my parents. If I could identify the source of the problem, it seemed natural that I would find the resolution from there.
Only recently, I began to view the cyclical pain points exactly as they appeared — old patterns in new contexts: depending on anyone outside of the family, pursuing a career that didn’t ensure financial stability, and losing touch with my “true” origins. I was able to put a name to the irrational fears I was also instructed to fear: these were the unmistakable markings of intergenerational trauma.
Overwhelming and unresolved conflict can be transmitted between family members over time, both through story-telling but also through unspoken cues and anxieties. The fears my parents and grandparents held subsisting in an unfamiliar country were never resolved, and as their children we are expected to withhold this discourse from the public eye while quietly redeeming and upholding our family’s origin. However, by not acknowledging areas of tension, they surfaced in paradoxes that looked like my patterns of denial and guilt, and an overall confusion surrounding my identity within the family and beyond.
I began to focus less on my parents’ or even my perceived failings, and explore the trauma that had been passed on through my family’s story. This meant taking the ideas I’ve been wrestling with my entire life, and becoming more intentional in my search: Who am I to my family? Who am I outside of my family? What patterns do I want to put an end to, and what kind of emotional ties might that action sever?
This process has been slow and it is certainly not passive.
It comes in the form of exhausting and heated exchanges with my parents that can feel like we’ve taken one step forward and two steps back. It comes in the form of deep empathy and a shared lifetime of experience with my cousins and brother. It comes in the form of taking a hard look in the mirror and owning up to areas where I fell short.
Though sometimes defeating, the non-linear path these conversations take is also a promising sign that our relationship is gradually shifting, and I am not merely an extension of my parents or their experiences. I can forgive them for the ways they may not have known how to support me, and I can forgive myself for the actions I took to distinguish myself from my family. I can respect their journey and still choose differently for myself.
I’m still learning, and ultimately knowledge is power to break toxic cycles of family enmeshment, unclear boundaries, and outdated traditions upheld for traditions’ sake. Nothing can change without friction, and it is with a hopeful heart that I set out to break the cycle.