Child of Asian immigrants seeks ways to understand the family dynamics
November 8, 2012 8:30 AM   Subscribe

How would you respond to these situations?

Background: My parents immigrated to the U.S. from an Asian country, both seeking to make better lives for themselves and their future kids. My sister and I were born in the U.S. speaking only English (at the time, my parents chose not to teach us their native language because they thought it would confuse us as kids) and divorced from many of the traditions and culture that they came from and still continued to experience through their large individual families.

Of course, there's a generational divide between us and of course there's a cultural divide, but something happened recently which made me wonder about the sociological implications of both of those divides.

I got a text message from my older sister (I'm in my mid-30s) asking me to call her later in the afternoon. For the record, my sister almost never initiates text message conversations with me, except for holidays (if anything), so I thought this was unusual enough to want to know what's going on right away.

When she answered the phone, she told me that after a check-up, she learned that she is borderline diabetic. This came as a huge surprise to me because out of me, my mom, my dad, and my sister, she's got the healthiest lifestyle. She runs, she watches her intake, she knows how to mix things up nutritionally. One of her vices is that she and her husband enjoy wine and beer a lot, but I don't think they overdo. And even if they overdo, they run or exercise afterwards to make up for it.

She told this to me, and also mentioned that it might be genetic because our dad has it and maybe one or more of his siblings has the problem as well. She admonished me to get myself checked out, adding (and I'm paraphrasing), "You should really take this seriously, because you don't want to ruin your health and make [your significant other] a widow again, do you?"

This is a very familiar tactic that my mother used to use with me all the time to try and get me to see her side of an argument about things I was or wasn't doing in my life of which she didn't approve. Her most recent admonition revolved around a snotty glurge/spam my dad sent to several of my family members, where I "reply all"-ed and said it was tripe. (For the record, it was the email version of this text.)

Mom's response was to let me know that I had alienated the family and (I'm paraphrasing again), "If you ever need an organ donation, your liberal friends and/or Obama aren't going to go give you one, so you'd better think twice about alienating the family and being disrespectful over politics."

My questions are below:

* Am I alone in thinking that of all the things you could say to your parent or sibling, that's a pretty fucked up thing to say?

* If you're also a liberal-agnostic child of parents who immigrated to the U.S. from a conservative-religious family, have you ever had times where your parents or siblings have said something like that to you? If so, what did you do and how do you cope?

* Are there any books I could read that can help me try and understand this cultural and generational divide more? Please, nothing about Tiger Mothers; my childhood was not as extreme as that.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not Asian, nor am I from recent enough immigrant stock to feel like there's a clear-cut cultural divide I can relate to in a similar way (to the extent I even know my genealogy, I can trace back ancestors in this country at least to the civil war, so...)

I *am* religious, and probably only a shade more liberal than most of my family, which is also religious, but probably not unusually so for my part of the world.

And yet, my family does this kind of wacky shit too.

So - no, you're not alone (or wrong) to think that your sister's comment was inappropriate and unnecessary. An appropriate response would be "thanks for the heads up. I try to take care of myself for my own sake, but no, I don't want to make my wife a widow, because that would mean that I'd be dead." Or leave off the second sentence, because really, this kind of person isn't going to take the second part to heart regardless.

I don't know how you cope, but I don't think the problem is isolated to immigrants nor liberal-agnostics. I think the older generation tends to try to be controlling of the younger, because they/we* think they/we know better, and if they/we see a handle we can pull on, they/we are going to be tempted to pull on it. Those of us with more education and awareness of rhetoric and propaganda are going to try to be more principled about what arguments we make, the other 90% of the world is going to say whatever comes to mind.

*I've got kids, so I've become part of the "they" we're talking about here, much as I'd like to deny it.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:46 AM on November 8, 2012

1. No, it's not all that fucked up. Women have a tendancy to view their health concerns as minor, and will put needs of family first. Therefore, you must appeal to a woman's sense of family to get her to pay attention to her health, if not for her, for her family. That's just marketing. Now, if your SO suffered the loss of his first wife, it's a bit insensitive, but it did make you sit up and take notice. BTW, diabetes is not always a lifestyle thing, so go and get checked out.

2. I'm lucky in that my sister and parents share my liberal political views. My friends, not so much. I find that it's ALWAYS the better part of valor to just ignore spam/crap-to a point. For example, Husbunny's cousin is VERY fundamentalist Christian. He posted on FB some crap about Mitt Romney and Mormonism being a cult. I usually let this stuff go, but when it veers into hate speach, I do mention it. My reply was, "There are many reasons to object to Mitt Romney, his religion isn't one of them." My MIL followed up with something stronger. These things don't usually need a reply, especially if it's disrespectful, you can imagine how much stuff I let go. I just defriended someone for posting disrespectful things about my candidate. If you have an issue with something your dad sent out, the better response would have been: "I don't agree, and I'd love to have a constructive conversation about this, in person." I would only have sent that to my Dad.

My mother loves to send the usual Snopes disproved crap in email. I just ignore. She sent something about how Jews invented all kinds of stuff, but Arabs hadn't. We're Jewish, and I thought it was offensive. I replied only to her email and said, "Getting Racist there Mom?" She replied, "You Bet." I made my point, but I'm not going to win her over.

You have to let your parents maintain 'face' in every altercation. You can shine them on, it costs you nothing.

3. I don't know that you need to understand the cultural divide so much as your needing to cultivate the relationship you can deal with. EVERYONE'S parents are weird like that. You can let it go. Older, traditional and entrenched folks are probably not going to be changing their minds about anything, any time soon, accept that, and steer clear of topics that lead to contention.

Be sure to tell your family that you love them and value their traditions. You don't have to follow everything that they do.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:47 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

These situations don't seem comparable to me. I have read the question several times.

To your sister: "Thanks for letting me know. I'll get checked out ... and lay off the drama, okay?" She can only act like a know-it-all parent if you let her.

As for your mom: I think it's acceptable to not correct relatives' crackpot theories for the sake of family harmony sometimes. But, yeah, that's a terrible thing for her to say. Maybe turn the family loyalty thing around on her and say, "Mom, it hurts me when you threaten to stop loving me over politics. Our family ties are stronger than that."
posted by purpleclover at 8:48 AM on November 8, 2012

Your mom is being annoying and guilty-trippy and controlling. It is fair to have very little tolerance of right-wing email forwards.

However, your sister is mentioning something to you that is actually quite serious and important. The #1 complaint I hear from doctors about their diabetic patients (or those suffering from other chronic conditions) is that they don't take care of themselves and manage their illnesses. I know hearing, "you don't want to leave your SO a widow, do you?" sounds shocking, but it is something you have to think about. When it comes to your health, it's not just about you. Other people depend on you.
posted by deanc at 8:51 AM on November 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

At the risk of generalizing, having lived in Asia for a long time and having many Asian-American friends, I have noticed that many traditional old world Asians find it normal to put down and even insult their children. It seems to be about making them humble and even humiliating them so they will be respectful. I think it's pretty awful frankly, but it's common. You can either suck it up or tell them to take a hike, but either way, just remember you are certainly not at all alone in facing this kind of treatment. There may also be the shame culture vs. guilty culture dynamic at work here. By the way, diabetes is a huge problem among certain Asian groups, for example Indians, in many cases not so much due to diet and lifestyle but rather due to genetics.
posted by Dansaman at 9:01 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here's the crazily freeing thing about guilt trips: just because someone says things intended to make you feel guilty does not obligate you to actually feel that way! It is instead more about them than it is about you.

I love my Asian mama dearly, but it took me awhile to realize how much she was using guilt as a tool to get either the reaction or behavior she wanted from me. When whatever kinds of behaviors - normal behaviors on my father and brother and my part - would upset her, she would couch her reaction in terms of "this will break my heart" or, much like the reasons your mom gave you, "this will hurt someone you love and break their heart, and then where will you be?!"

These days when my mom says things like that, I think that this guilt tripping behavior come s directly from her core belief, culturally rooted or not, that the WORST thing a person can do on a human scale is hurt a family member. Family members "eat bitterness" for each other. This is her ethos. There is no moral scale that matters besides what a family will sacrifice for each other. To her, a nation or a community means nothing; the family unit is the only one that truly matters to her. Maybe it's an Asian thing - whatever it is, I get it.

In effect, every time she pulls a guilt trip on me, I say to myself, this is not a threat to ME so much as it her TELLING ME ABOUT HERSELF. She is telegraphing that a threat to her family is her biggest fear. And my response, then, is not to actually go ahead and feel guilt about whatever thing we're talking about or even necessarily address said thing, but to say to her cheerfully, "I know you love me! I feel it! You love your family more than anything and that's what makes you such a great mom, and I appreciate that and I love you back."

And then I move blithely on, secure in the knowledge that her fears are her fears, and I have my own, and they don't have to overlap just because she insists on it. So far, it's working ok.
posted by sestaaak at 9:09 AM on November 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

* Am I alone in thinking that of all the things you could say to your parent or sibling, that's a pretty fucked up thing to say?

It's pretty bad by American standards, but apparently quite normal in the context of Asian culture. (At least my family's culture... you are born with duties, and you should perform them, and if you don't, you should be shamed into it.)

Also, your sister probably learned it from your mother (or other family members). She may even hate it and not realize that she's doing it.

* If you're also a liberal-agnostic child of parents who immigrated to the U.S. from a conservative-religious family, have you ever had times where your parents or siblings have said something like that to you? If so, what did you do and how do you cope?

Yes, I've had this happen. I walk out of the room. I'll say, "I think it's time for me to go" and just leave the conversation. At first, my mom protested, but now she understands that this is my way of avoiding being dragged into the drama. Or yelling session.
posted by ethidda at 9:16 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't think that what your sister said was fucked up or even a 'tactic'. I think she's just trying to tell her younger sibling to take care of their health, albeit rather insensitively and clumsily. You say she rarely initiates texts; is she introverted or not very communicative? If so, she may have just had a hard time expressing her concerns to you. She's also probably upset and worried, having just out about her diabetes.

Your mom's statement is offensive, but don't take it at face value.* In my culture, this kind of hyperbolic, over-dramatic language is normal. So is the reverse, a kind of fake self-deprecating speech.** It's about humility, like Dansaman said. I think you should just let it go.

And in your mom's defense, she may have felt like she lost face when you sent your reply, especially if the email included extended family members and elders like aunts and uncles. You say your parents tried to assimilate into western culture, but I think that Asian reverence for family and elders is pretty ingrained.

*I'm a left-wing atheist child of Asian immigrants to Canada and would not put it past my mom to say something like this--if she were really angry. My mom has said some crazy-ass stuff in her lifetime, even worse than this.
**I have memories of people telling my mom that I was pretty, and she would say, "Oh no, she's not!" (It sounds cruel, and maybe it is by our western standards, but I was used to it as a teen.)
posted by methroach at 9:17 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding Sestaaak - as the kid of a Tiger Mom (Yes, yes, I know you own my soul until you die, it's the Chinese way!), it's all about control and projection (often to soothe personal anxieties.) In my mom's world, anything that can't be controlled is threatening and MUST BE CRUSHED.

Things got a lot easier when I realized that her techniques (guilt, shame, etc) were only as effective as I let them be. I underwent a lot of confusion and tooth-gnashing about this throughout my 20s, but things are much easier now. I have developed my barrier of polite teflon, and if she starts down that path, I simply listen and say, "Thanks for bringing it up", gently redirect her by changing the subject, or say that I'd rather not talk about ___ right now. She used to throw some tantrums initially, but has resigned herself to the fact that this is how our interactions are going to be. In the worst case scenario, I just laugh things off, because none of it is as urgent or heavy as it's made to seem.

Sestaaak's approach is lovely, and I will certainly try to adopt that attitude, also.
posted by tanuki.gao at 9:30 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not Asian, so I can't relate to the cultural aspect. But I have been in your sister's shoes in the sense that I go sick out of nowhere.
She thought she had a healthy lifestyle. She worked hard on it. She got some pretty serious news. It is scary. Her family members are also at risk. She has to let them know.
I think she's more in shock & scared than you are giving her credit. And making SO a widow[er] is a pretty realistic thing that could happen in her relationship (at least more realistic than she had previously assumed). She just got some bad news, it's more to do with her than you. Please consider that aspect. She needs some compassion.
posted by Neekee at 9:43 AM on November 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Have you read "The Woman Warrior" by Maxine Hong Kingston?
She's Chinese American and the book is a literary exploration of stories told by her Chinese family (some of which contain the kind of hyperbolic language you mention in your question). There's a lot in there about the relationships between parents and children. Plus it's just a really well-written book.
posted by tuesdayschild at 10:34 AM on November 8, 2012

"Her most recent admonition revolved around a snotty glurge/spam my dad sent to several of my family members, where I "reply all"-ed and said it was tripe. (For the record, it was the email version of this text.)"

I have a relative who sends stupid, crazy (hardline rightwing wingnut) political spam. I have my e-mail so that anything from this relative that has the word "Obama" in it automatically filters into the trash so I never even see it. I just delete anything else from them that the filter doesn't catch, without reading it.

The most obnoxious thing in the world is when some well-meaning non-insane relative also on his list "replies all," which makes this stupid shit pop back into my inbox and forces me to pay attention to it. It's even worse when it starts a family fight.

Tell the sender to stuff it if you must, argue if you must, but please, please don't CC everybody. Most of us are trying to just ignore this kind of crap.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:14 AM on November 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm not Asian but have very conservative parents who sound like yours and I'm an older sister.

What your mom said is pretty offensive, if you take it at face value. What I've done with similar things my mom has said to me (she loves getting in those little digs about my politics) is to reframe it in my head as how it reflects her worries and fears. Like sestaaak said above, this is about her: maybe she's afraid that your liberal beliefs will mean that you won't help her when she's sick? And like Eyebrows McGee said, don't CC everyone. A lot of us are ignoring those things.

As for what your sister said, I would be mortified if one of my siblings called me on this stuff - I can totally see myself doing this and then my sibling saying 'Um, thanks Mom!'. I just picked up a certain paternalness from my parents, especially my mom (somehow 'maternal' doesn't conjure up the right behaviours), that I really have to work against. Which is even more ridiculous now that my younger siblings are all old and more responsible than me. I'd cut her some slack - maybe laugh at her a bit if you think she wouldn't take offense. Plus, do get checked out.
posted by hydrobatidae at 1:33 PM on November 8, 2012

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