What we owe our parents - Taiwanese-American Edition
October 7, 2021 10:23 AM   Subscribe

I'm first generation Taiwanese-American. My parents are conservative, I'm not. I've lived far away from them my entire adult life, which has enabled me to live my life according to my own values. During the pandemic, we started trying to improve our relationship with weekly calls; their response to my opening up about my life has generally been horrified worry and confusion. Most recently, I accidentally revealed that I had a tattoo in our last call, and both my parents were extremely hurt - my mother left the room crying. Our values are so different that I don't need or want their approval, but I hate the fact that my choices hurt and worry them, and I feel guilt for living so far away from them and not being a part of their lives. In general, I feel that I've sacrificed my relationship with them for my lifestyle, and I don't know how to navigate this - the American side of me thinks that I should stand up for myself, but the Taiwanese side of me thinks that I've been pretty selfish. I don't really know which side of me is right, at the moment. Can you suggest resources (doesn't have to be Taiwanese-American specific) to help me have some perspective on this?
posted by rhythm and booze to Human Relations (17 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
As a person who has gone through this exact process and come out pretty successfully? I think? - here is the core principle of what worked for me:

Think about a time when you had a good time interacting with your parents, when it was easy, when everyone felt okay with themselves and comfortable with one another. It doesn't have to be a whole day or even a whole hour. Sometimes there are just moments, quick 2 minute interactions, that just went ... easy.

Make a point of noting these moments.

Then try to interact with your parents more on *those* topics or in *those* ways or whatever makes those moments of ease possible. Create opportunities for ease and comfort.

The idea is, when you have built up a muscle-memory of feeling calm and relaxed in each other's presence, that's when you can begin to explore each other's inner identities more deeply. In fact you won't even have to do it intentionally, that deeper connection is something that naturally unfolds when a secure and comfortable connection has been created via repetition and practice.

I will also add that this process not only took way more time than I thought (~2 years) but also it was emotionally draining and frequently frustrating for me, because it sometimes felt like I was suffocating or like I was being fake or like I couldn't push back when negative stuff happened. But I had a therapist to lean on who was guiding me the whole time, and I was able to shift my understanding of what "creating a safe and comfortable interaction" means, little by little ... mostly by repeatedly fucking up & then debriefs with my therapist after fucking up & learning how I might do better next time. A lot of it was learning to value my own comfort in the interactions, rather than solely focusing on keeping *them* comfortable. Learning to listen for little pings of positive feeling inside me, and to pounce on them, and follow their trail, and learn to repeat them. And I couldn't have kept doing this without the help and support of my therapist.
posted by MiraK at 10:39 AM on October 7, 2021 [34 favorites]

I don't know if this is helpful but your phrase "horrified worry and confusion" stuck out at me because I've also been getting that from my immigrant parents & extended family simply for posting things on Facebook they felt were too personal. Even though I've never done anything to upset them before & have done everything else expected of me, horrified worry & confusion is what I get for stepping one toe out of line. I think it's just their go-to reaction for anything they weren't expecting. There is no way we can be considered guilty of selfishness just for doing something they just didn't expect, as long as it was legal & didn't hurt anyone. I'm only sharing this because I think this particular reaction is something we're tuned to pay attention to and put a lot of importance on but it doesn't mean they're right or that we really did anything wrong.
posted by bleep at 10:48 AM on October 7, 2021 [9 favorites]

MiraK said it much better than I could, but I came to say that you need to pick your subjects. Not immigrant parents, but I came to realize that there were certain things in my life, and I am sure in theirs too, that were better left unsaid. What they don't know won't hurt them. You have to train yourself to be disciplined about what you open up about. I assume you wouldn't tell them you got laid last night. Why tell them about a tattoo that is likely to cause agita? Sometimes you don't know what will or won't cause an issue, but try to err on the side of caution. There was a long time where my parents knew all about my town's weather and latest gossip kerfluffle. We would have long conversations about nothing. I learned about my mother's card partners. Slowly a trust was built up and we both opened up more and more.
posted by AugustWest at 11:07 AM on October 7, 2021 [9 favorites]

Bleep is spot on - a large part of what used to stand in my way in eliciting those easy, comfortable interactions with my parents was my fear and guilt and even shame about all the ways my life had diverged from my parents' values. As a child, my parents' disapproval ruled my life, it had so much power, it was literally a matter of life and death. But now, as an adult, it was a learning process for me to let go and allow my parents to disapprove of me. It's okay for them not to like what I do. It doesn't have to be the end of our relationship. I don't have to force them to support my choices! I don't have to be angry with them just because they disapprove. I get to have my choices and they get to have their feelings.

But that was really tough to learn. I had to deal with these feelings as a separate issue in therapy, working through it on my own time without my parents' involvement, and not allow that separate issue to get mixed up with Operation Build Good Relationship In The Present.

As bleep says, the reality is that you have no reason to feel fear or guilt. You're not doing anything wrong, and neither do they have any power over you anymore. Also, even though your parents' horror was very scary to you when you were a child, the reality is that they are fully capable of getting over themselves. They're not going to do the soap-opera thing of dramatically having a heart attack because you got a tattoo, you know? Their horror doesn't need to loom so large in your mind anymore. What you're feeling is all remnants of the past: your parents clinging to the notion of you as still their small child whom they can control, you clinging to your outrage of your loved ones trying to force you to be someone different. Your parents haven't accepted that you're a grown up, and you are struggling to grasp the reality of your adult power and freedom, as well as your adult's understanding of the power your parents actually have. We all take time getting used to these things.

Whenever I bring these feelings of fear and guilt into my interactions with my parents, I am on a hair trigger. The littlest things they say can set me off, make me angry, make me start yelling, "Ugh, you people will never change, you're still trying to control me and treat me like a child!" On days when I successfully leave these feelings to the therapy room, I am less reactive. I feel less put upon by their little insinuations or their outright tiresomeness. I am able to stay in the present and react well even when they say something that belongs in the past.

Concrete example that actually happened:

Dad: You got a tattoo? I hope you don't get any more, you should not become like those American women...
Me: UGH, Dad, gtfo, just because you said that I will spend my entire paycheck on full body tattoos, you can deal with it or you can FIGHT ME.

(six months later)

Dad: *sigh* you got another tattoo. You know, it's really not suitable in our culture, especially not for girls...
Me: Hmm, yeah, I don't think any of our relatives have a tattoo. Did you ever have any friends with tattoos? You used to hang out with some wild people when you were younger.
Dad: No, no, never, none of my friends were so wild as to get a tattoo. You don't understand, it's just not done in our culture, nobody has a tattoo.
Me: Huh. So, like, what sort of thing DID your friends do that was considered wild? What trouble did you all used to get up to?
Dad: [Starts telling a fun story about his youth]
posted by MiraK at 11:24 AM on October 7, 2021 [34 favorites]

Response by poster: MiraK said it much better than I could, but I came to say that you need to pick your subjects. Not immigrant parents, but I came to realize that there were certain things in my life, and I am sure in theirs too, that were better left unsaid. What they don't know won't hurt them. You have to train yourself to be disciplined about what you open up about.

To clarify my question, as it seems like I wasn't clear - this paragraph above describes my original relationship with my parents. The tattoo reveal was an accident (I didn't realize how much of me my mother could see on camera) and not something I would have brought up at all.

Before this year, I made sure to pick and choose topics that I knew would not upset them. We had a good relationship because we did not know one another. I have been trying to change our relationship - at their prompting - and open up to them, but this has been going very poorly. I'm trying to decide what about my life needs to change at this point - should I go back to covering most of my life with little white lies and evasions (for example, I can't tell them I was at a bar until midnight without causing concern, so I always have to remember to pretend it was a restaurant), or should I stop doing some of these things that make my life enjoyable so that we can have a closer relationship?
posted by rhythm and booze at 11:39 AM on October 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

IMO avoiding the topic doesn't necessarily mean you pretend you were at a restaurant, it means you sidestep the usual routes the conversation takes after you mention the bar. YMMV based on the topic of course. I still can't mention my post-divorce dating life to my parents except in the vaguest terms. But I suspect this avoidance, too, has more to do with my own fear than with anything they are actively doing to me.

(edit: and holy shit, no, please don't stop doing the things you love just to please your parents!!!)
posted by MiraK at 11:44 AM on October 7, 2021 [9 favorites]

Do you have to tell them about the time frame or specifics i.e. is the location vital to the story?

I don't have a very good relationship with my parents now days but I also don't live near them, so interactions are mostly on a schedule. The three core topics I have for my mother are: animals, travel and interior design. Sometimes I test the water with other themes, however if they don't go well the first time I'll make a note to sidestep them in future (jobs, income, relationship, family planning).

Things got a lot easier when I realised I was never going to persuade them to understand my view point, it's a choice they need to come to themselves.
posted by socky_puppy at 11:48 AM on October 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Hi, 1st-gen Chinese-American here. My experience is that there is never a definite answer to your question of "which side of me is right," not even for a single person, because it fluctuates so much across time. Part of why it used to feel so important for me to answer that question, though, was that having a clear-ish answer helped to manage my feelings of guilt and the wish to appease when those parental reactions came up, of horror and confusion and disapproval and whatever else is part and parcel of the bicultural immigrant kid experience.

Moving past it on the one hand involved me just trying it out both ways, i.e. actually seeing what it was like to try giving up or not doing the things that concerned my parents. Some things I found were actually fine to not have anymore (e.g. recreational drugs, though parental relationships weren't the only motivator for this one), but the majority...not so much (e.g. ranging from "sleep with the air conditioner on overnight" to "being queer"). So that then led back to a questioning of how to gracefully finesse around these parts of my life (which some other commenters are giving good ideas on) that it really just made more sense to elide for the sake of the relationship. What these parts are is going to be unique and singular to every individual, so that's why I don't think there's a way to shortcut it around "try it out" (within reason, e.g. I didn't try telling them about being queer because I can reasonably predict it won't be worth it). And it's kind of dialectical, sort of shifting back and forth until you find a good balance.

On the other hand, moving past it meant being confronted with a loss that I had to address. The loss of that closeness, the loss of a kind of relationship that I felt like kids should be entitled to with their parents, and a whole lot else. To avoid getting into this in a lot of detail, where I ultimately came to was the existence of a connection between not processing this loss and the intensity of the guilt/wish to appease in response to the parental horrified confusion/anxiety about how I was living. Once I came to terms with that loss, I found the guilt not absent, but much, much easier to take in stride. I can't say what an equivalent process would be for you (mine involved therapy and connecting with those with similar experiences), so I guess I'll just leave it at this: it's very hard to untangle this specific problem without untangling for ourselves our own position in the very confusing experience of being a bicultural adult child of immigrants. It's unfortunately not a quick process, but it has been important and worthwhile for me to undertake, because it also produced positive effects in so many other parts of life.
posted by obliterati at 12:04 PM on October 7, 2021 [15 favorites]

Response by poster: Do you have to tell them about the time frame or specifics i.e. is the location vital to the story?

I generally try to evade specifics, which means that I avoid any subject where the details are vital to the story, but we've started having hour long Zoom calls every week and I sometimes get cornered after we've exhausted the safer subjects and are trying to find other things to talk about. Even a question like "Did you have dinner yet?" can cause trouble if I make the mistake of saying that I hadn't eaten because I was out with friends; any follow up questions about where and with whom generally need to be lied about.
posted by rhythm and booze at 12:08 PM on October 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

Maybe cut the call when the conversation flags? Pressuring yourself to get to 1 hour even though you're feeling uncomfortable and unsafe during it is counter-productive to the goal of building up a sturdy stack of comfortable interactions with your parents.
posted by MiraK at 12:13 PM on October 7, 2021 [6 favorites]

This may not be helpful in your case, but one thing that I found really valuable for managing my once-difficult relationship with my dad (who used to have a serious drinking problem that he's now swapped for opiates, which are still an addiction but not nearly as hard on the rest of the family..) was to call for 5 minutes on my walk to the train station almost every day. That way, we checked in often but I always had an easy endpoint for our calls when either they went sour, or I just got where I was going. The regular, short, chatty calls also meant that I didn't need to have epically long catch-up calls every week or two. My sister has a similar approach of calling our parents (and me, too) while she's in the car on her way to/from work. The moment something rubs her the wrong way, she says "Okay gotta go!" really brightly, and hangs up on you. Honestly, it's a great strategy.
posted by knucklebones at 12:24 PM on October 7, 2021 [10 favorites]

On a very practical level, it sounds like you need some more 'go-to' topics with your parents. Something that can occupy conversation for a while and be a kind of connection without being about you and your lifestyle. It's not exactly the same, but I often try to get my in-laws onto the topic of their childhoods or early working life. Partly because I'm genuinely interested, partly because they're happy to talk about it and partly because it's not difficult or likely to cause conflict.

Otherwise, I think yes, coming to terms with the idea that you probably aren't going to be a certain kind of close with your parents. They won't be grateful if you cut down and prune your life to fit their preferences. Some people are very much like their parents, with similar values, expectations and lifestyles. Other people are not, and don't get to enjoy the same kinds of relationships with their parents. But that doesn't mean that you can't care about each other. If you are different from each other, you will have a different kind of relationship, but it can still be meaningful and important.
posted by plonkee at 12:34 PM on October 7, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: My thoughts on this, as a fellow TCA (Taiwanese-Chinese-American), is that you should assure them that despite some different turns you've taken in life, you are still their child, and that doesn't change your love for them, that you haven't forgotten your origins 沒忘本, and you haven't turned into a banana (i.e. yellow outside, white inside).

I think their worries are mainly about how much you have diverged from their expectations, that they are afraid that they lost you to the Western ways. It is indeed a difficult subject to approach.

Think about writing them actual letters, not calls or emails, where you can put more thoughts into your prose. You are clearly upset that they are upset. Put that all into the letter.
posted by kschang at 1:27 PM on October 7, 2021 [9 favorites]

As a fellow Asian American who lives far from her parents, I suggest you switch to talking on the phone. It is psychically draining to show your face for hours-long conversation.

Also, try switching the focus to their lives. My mom will talk for a hour about her friends, cooking projects, crafts, shopping... Dad will talk politics, his friends, his health, the weather... I barely reveal anything about my life except in the vaguest terms.
posted by olopua at 4:10 PM on October 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Even a question like "Did you have dinner yet?" can cause trouble if I make the mistake of saying that I hadn't eaten because I was out with friends

If ever you need a quick diversion, I've found that getting them into teaching mode is an easy way to use up time.

"No, I haven't had dinner yet... oh that reminds me: you know [that savoury thing I loved as a child]? I was thinking of making some but [I can't find real ingredients/it keeps coming out soggy/all the youtube recipes are by americans/etc.]"

Caveat: I've only used this for one-on-one phone calls.

In a similar vein, if you pick an aspect of culture one or both of them have an interest in, you can make it a sort of shared project over several weeks - e.g. watching a classic film/reading a chapter of classic literature each week and sharing your thoughts. If neither are big talkers, take up a wholesome adventure and regale them with photos and stories - e.g. every Friday you set out to eat one animal from the Chinese zodiac. Something that makes it clear that you're actively connected to the homeland. kschang's letter idea is excellent.
posted by Freelance Demiurge at 4:34 PM on October 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

For me I told my mom I was cutting her off for a few months and did exactly that - no phone calls, no emails, no communication at all. When I decided to re-establish contact I'd gained enough confidence to set my own boundaries and she was much more willing to accept them.
posted by bendy at 10:29 PM on October 7, 2021

Best answer: My Asian parents are not your Asian parents (I'm 2nd gen Chinese-Canadian) but some of this sounds familiar. I have more issues with my mom than my dad and what I've noticed is that she is pretty negative, critical, judgey, defensive, black-and-white thinker, gets hurt easily (she's gotten better over the years). Yours may be too? Your parents have told you they want a better relationship with you, but their definition may not include wanting to get to know you and accept you for who you are. It's possible they just want more frequent contact, and what they really want to hear is that you fit into their expectations.

r/Asianparentstories is another good place to talk about this stuff.
posted by foxjacket at 6:10 AM on October 8, 2021

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