Manipulation, Guilt & Control: Normal in Indian Families
If you’re an Asian millennial you’ve probably seen the Asian dad meme where the stereotypical Indian or Chinese Dad assumes their kid will become a doctor, or threatens them if they don’t get straight As in school. They’re funny as f*** and I love them, as do thousands of other brown kids like me, not least because the internet’s finally given us an outlet to revel in our private in-jokes that no white kid could ever get but because of the comfort we find in knowing that we’re not alone. Misery loves company, but misery loves a bit of masochistic humour too.
The meme tidily presents an entire culture, a lifetime of internal anguish, known only too well by anyone who was born brown. But it only shows one side of the story: the expectation. The other side is how the expectations are ensured to be met — through an anxiety-inducing cocktail of manipulation, guilt, and control. Yup, it’s great to laugh at a shared experience of being expected to get straight As at school — but what happens if you don’t? You see, what Indian parents/grandparents view as “parenting”, psychologists would describe as abusive and controlling behaviours.
When completely normal things such as choosing your own career or introducing your partner (who may not be the religion/caste/race that your parents/grandparents approve of) gives you anxiety in your home, then there is a problem.
I’ve spoken with several Asian friends about things they’ve experienced growing up or as adults that they would describe as being controlling or manipulative. Here are some ways that abusive behaviour is normalised in Indian/Asian families:
- Control is everything
This isn’t just about grades and making sure you’re on the predestined pathway to pre-Med — your choice of life partner, friends, and your reproductive choices are not up to you. All of these are basic human rights in other societies, but in India adults are often treated like children (See: Pinjra Tod) and basic autonomy outside the family structure is frowned upon.
2. Microaggressions and actual aggressions
Microaggressions include the silent treatment and remarks like “What will people think?” Aggressions include actual physical, verbal and emotional abuse. Putting you down by criticising you, or comparing you to other people are also aggressions.
There are people who will refuse to say the name of an adopted child in the family, or refuse to meet their son/daughter’s spouse if they do not approve of them. There are people who will cut you out of their life completely. That’s their loss, and they are just punishing themselves.
3. Guilt is also everything
We as Asians have been conditioned to feel guilty about not being the perfect child/brother/sister/mother/father. But nobody is perfect, and it is okay to screw up or not fulfil society’s expectations of you. Grandparents and parents may use the “I’m so old and fragile” line to guilt trip you, but it’s not your job to be someone’s emotional slave or crutch.
4. Controlling other people’s perceptions of you
The abuser will lie about you to other people or tell only their side of the story. This means that they will be able to control how others perceive you and manufacture a version of you that isn’t the truth.
When they’ve made sure that other people have an unfavourable view of you, this will isolate you making you feel alone. So, naturally, in order to make you feel better you will have to do the things that they want you to do in order to be accepted back into the community/society or family.
6. Financial control
A lot of people seem to think that if they give you financial help or even a gift that they own you. This is incredibly unethical and wrong. Nobody can own you no matter how much financial help they’ve given you. This does not excuse their bad behaviour towards you, and it certainly does not mean that they can tell you what to do.
The increasingly unstable world we live in and the economy means that not everyone is financially independent. This means that you may be forced to live with your abusive family members. It’s okay — you are not a failure and you do not have to be their punching bag.
On the flipside: They might be dependent on you. Which means that you’re stuck in a situation that you can’t control and they use it to their advantage.
8. Using religion as a means to control
Using religious guilt as a means of control is as old as the Bible itself. “Who will pray for me when I’m gone?” and similar remarks are intended to send you on an all-expenses paid guilt trip for one. God (if you believe in Him/Her) is more forgiving and loving than your abuser.
9. You’re not allowed to defend yourself
“Talking back” or simply defending yourself is seen as an act of insolence or disrespect when all you wanted to do was make your case. The abuser will make it seem as though you defending yourself is a personal attack on them or a transgression that can never be tolerated. You have every right to speak up for yourself.
10. People will defend your abuser
This is the worst one. Most (if not all) of the time, people will end up on the abuser’s side even if they know the damage they are causing. People will make excuses for the abuser’s behaviour (“they’re just an old lady” or “He just cares about your future”) or they will ignore the issue because What Will People Say? This can also happen if the abuser has lied about you to others, so you look like the bad guy (“ungrateful child” or “off the rails”). This can also happen if others in your community or family have the same crappy beliefs as your abuser.
11. Keeping the status quo is more important than your mental health.
This f***ing sucks and I’m sorry, but this is how it is in desi culture. The abuser’s behaviour will be excused if they are an elder, just to keep the status quo intact.