The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie rightfully states in her TEDTalk that ‘the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete’. So when I say that I’m Asian, you can safely assume that some of the stereotypes about my family dynamic that spring to mind are partly, or completely, true. You may be able to also guess how university has affected these relationships.
Being from a family-oriented culture has been beautiful and enriching and healing, but it has also been difficult, suffocating and frustrating. I remember my childhood fondly: family walks to the park, playing PS2 with my siblings, cooking for our annual lunar new year feast, wholesome trips back to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. But with time comes growing, with growth comes change, and with change comes fear. In bucket-loads.
Perhaps one of the biggest stereotypes about the Asian family is the ‘tiger mum’. This centres on a heavily controlling approach to parenting whereby children are given little freedom, and success (particularly academic excellence) is prioritised above all other non-essential needs. Neither of my parents fit this extreme caricature, and for that I am grateful, but there have been times when I’ve felt limited because of the cultural beliefs of my parents. Family comes first, above all else, then comes health, and third, comes education, says the unwritten laws of Asian culture. At times the boundaries will blur, but these three aspects of life are always the most important. So what happens when your child heads off to university? Begins to lead and build an independent life, away from family, away from their hometown? Begins to call a new place home?
I will always feel proud of my family-oriented culture, and appreciative of the strong family relationships that I hold, especially since I know so many with strained or absent families. But this pride and appreciation begins to dwindle when I am expected to always miss home and yearn to return at every opportunity; when I have to rearrange or cancel plans with friends because I am expected to spend time with family instead; when I am excluded from decision-making processes that affect me; when I begin to feel my personal growth and development stunted by the demands of these cultural expectations. My Asian friends and I routinely discuss and bond over the knowledge that we were delayed our ‘glow up’ and self-discovery until we left our parents’ homes at eighteen for university. The Asian household can too often muffle self-expression and experimentation with identity, whether it intends to or not.
We are no longer the children who need protection and shielding from the reality of the world, nor the learning preteens who needed their hands held through a rough patch; we are firmly into adulthood and no longer fit the moulds that were made for us at birth by unspoken Asian laws created before our grandparents were born.
Intergenerational trauma has become a buzzword in recent years. It refers to the unresolved trauma passed down from generation to generation which perpetuates because the trauma is undiscussed. Part of the issue with the common Asian family dynamic is that it leaves little room for open, honest, mature conversation, especially about sensitive topics. It is difficult to talk about emotionally-trying subjects in a calm and collected manner, but in a culture where you must respect your elders above all else and watch your tone when you speak to your parents, no room is allowed for such raw, emotional conversation. This is how the Asian kid learns not to communicate, or disagree, or give voice to their thoughts and feelings, and this is what leads to so many Asian teenagers splitting off from their families or being disowned as they begin to come into themselves and build their own lives. This is not the solution for all, but for some, it is the only and the healthiest.
I may belong to a loving and generous and inspiring family, but I also belong to myself. Growth is good, however scary, and more importantly, it is inevitable and necessary. I am unsurprised that it has caused tension in my family relationships, and hopeful that by challenging cultural expectations and facilitating difficult conversations, I will be able to overcome this tension and establish a new, healthier family dynamic. If you are in this same situation, know that you are not alone, that you are understood, and that you are supported. Know that your parents may suffer from intergenerational trauma, but that you are not responsible for this and that their projection of this onto you is wrong. Invite discomfort and allow yourself to be vulnerable in conversations. Prioritise your physical and emotional needs when you feel these are being violated. Leave when you need to.
And to Asian parents out there, I will say to you what your child wishes they could:
I want to grow. Please let me. You may not trust the world, but you should trust me. I can protect myself.