Lesson One: SHE CASTS OFF EXPECTATIONS
We know very well what it's like to live with family expectations breathing down our backs:
Get married! (and to the right man)
Have children! (meaning more than one)
Make money! (and lots of it)
Can't you be like ________? (Fill in the blank with the name of your nerd cousin, valedictorian friend, or other mother-appointed rival.)
When we don't live up to expectation, we don't need words to know. It's Asian mother telepathy. We can see it in their faces. The downcast eyes, the wistful, concerned look, the deep breath. No matter how much we try to ignore it, it still hits us hard. What do we do with the heavy burden of family honor? And do we ever escape it? Let's start with a story.
My mother and Rita were like sisters. They grew up together in Taiwan. They came to America together on a lark and found a way to stay here by enrolling in nursing school. They slept in the same bed in a cramped dorm room, head to foot, for a year. And Rita's feet stank like smelly cheese! my mother adds. They doubledated and ended up marrying two Chinese American guys who were also best friends. Their children grew up together. And when Mom and Rita hit forty-five, they shared their stories about disappointment and sometimes even depression.
After a while Rita's calls to my mother started to spin out of control. Rita would wail about whether it was worth living anymore until her gentle husband took the phone out of Rita's hard-clenched hand, apologized, and hung up. Rita said that her kids never did what she asked. She didn't know what had gone wrong. Her son was living with a hippie and smoked pot. Her daughter had two babies with her American boyfriend, didn't marry him, and left Rita to take care of her children. Rita told my mother that she had started to take Valium to calm down. And then her calls got wilder. She'd call my mother sounding drugged and crazy, again saying that her life had been worth nothing.
One spring about ten years ago, we got a call from Rita's husband, telling us that Rita had died. It seems that her nightgown had caught on fire while she was making tea, and despite her husband's desperate attempts to smother the flames that engulfed her body, Rita had burned to death. My mother and I often wonder if Rita killed herself, or was so drugged with Valium that she fell asleep on top of the stove. My mother ends the story sometimes by saying that Rita's tormented soul is really what killed her.
Rita's death showed me in a heart-wrenching way what can happen to a woman who is isolated and desperate and whose cries for help go unanswered. It showed me how our self-destructive sides can get the better of us, no matter how happy and carefree we might once have been. But for me, Rita's death carries even more of a punch. It has become for me a parable about disappointing one's Chinese parents. That is how deep expectations run. Don't live up to them and you run the risk of your parents going mad and dying of disappointment and shame.
Expectations: A key word in the Asian American coming-of-age lexicon that I have come to know so well. As the older of two daughters, I became the stand-in son that my parents never had. In those shoes, I received the windfall of their expectations and, to the detriment of my very deserving younger sister, the greater part of their attention. I also had to bear the crushing weight of their hopes. So what did I do with all that expectation? I did what any self-preserving person would do I tried as hard as I could to duck it.
At eighteen, I chose a college clear across the country and left my suburban New York home, ending up in the San Francisco Bay Area, home of the counterculture, hot tubs, and acid parties, the place where I pushed through some very important rites of passage and finally came of age. My choice to attend school three thousand miles away wouldn't be the first time that I would perplex my parents, and it certainly wouldn't be the last time I would disappoint them. When it became clear that I was not, in fact, going to Harvard (through no choice of my own, although filling out my application with a fat, blue Magic Marker pen probably didn't help my chances), I think they finally realized that they would have to begin to accept compromises in their American Dream daughter. So for the next twenty years, I have pushed the envelope of their willingness to compromise, pushed them to accept progressively more incomprehensible choices, like my decision to write these stories. That choice will mean having to deal with the fallout that will no doubt accompany the decision to write them as true stories, without the safety net that fiction can provide. Take it from this well-seasoned prodigal daughter: There is often nothing worse than not living up to parental expectation, and yet, when on a path to self-discovery, there is absolutely nothing better. That must be the tiger blood in me. Always stirring up trouble.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR LIFE?
"Aiyo! Ah-Phee! Why do you write those bad things? People will think you are either stupid or crazy!"
That's Mom talking, the relentless voice of reason. She has just read the past few pages and is justifiably freaking out about her daughter airing dirty laundry.
"I want to connect with women that I care about; that's why I'm writing this book, Mom." I'm trying to explain a philosophy to her that I can already feel she won't understand. It's an American idea, this truth-telling process, probably grounded in some Christian notion of absolution. To my mom, truth is pretty useless unless it helps you get ahead. She believes in images, specifically, the image of her successful lawyer daughter, and that my salary and status should pave the way to a life free of problems. Certainly free from the necessity of writing what she surely views as a scathing tell-all, like something Roseanne would write.
"We have to have the courage to talk truthfully to admit that we have questions and that we're fallible. Saying so can be an act of power." I'm still not getting through to her. I give her a publisher's legal waiver and ask her to sign it.
"I am trying to create a special language of activism for people like you and me who need it, and to do that requires honesty."
"Let someone else connect and do activism," she says. "You worked too hard, you have such a good resume. You're throwing it all away! Oh, and by the way, if you're really going to write this book, I hope you're not going to write bad things about me, too. Are you?"
I begin to get a sinking feeling that we are in for one of our long discussions that pits me against her. It is the same dynamic that has kicked in every time I have reached a turning point in my life, where, instead of choosing the path of least resistance she lays out before me, I choose a dusty road of questionable adventure, strewn with rocks and potholes and thieves.
I have made a life out of defying Mom. She wanted me to go to a college close to home, so I found one as far away as I possibly could. She thought that I should go straight to law school after college, so I took a backpack and went around the world on five dollars a day for two years instead. When I hit twenty-five, she thought it was a good time to settle down with a nice Chinese boy. I decided to move in with a guy from southern Italy who chain-smoked. Now I was about to defy her one more time, by leaving the legal profession, the coveted prize for a mother's job well done, so that I could join a bunch of young writers with little in their bank accounts to publish a magazine for Asian Americans. I thought it was the opportunity of a lifetime. My parents thought I had gone off the deep end.
The struggle to meet the demands of fulfilling family expectations while still living lives of our own choosing causes a great deal of stress for many Asian American women and often creates situations where compromise is impossible. Yukiko, a Japanese student who has spent the last four years attending a rural college in Illinois, brims with energy and self-confidence. She shared this story with me over the Internet one day, exhibiting the ever-present guilt that comes along with choosing independence over family responsibility:
After I graduate from college, I probably have to go back home to be near my family next year. I know I don't have to go back, but I feel like I have to look after my grandmother and parents. I know they want me to be near them, but will I really be able to help them just because I'm near? I want to travel and experience other cultures around the world (and I haven't told them yet, but I already bought a ticket to Guatemala!). I feel guilty myself somehow. I really love my family. But if I have to stay close to home, I could not satisfy my life. So I will probably go my way even if my family doesn't accept it. THAT IS ME. I'll never ever regret my life. I wish to live with satisfaction.
The ache of striving to be oneself amid all the noise around us telling us to be something different can be wrenching. For many of us, one of our first opportunities to follow a self-defined path comes when we select our college majors. Our decisions to pursue our studies in art, literature, communications, or philosophy, may not necessarily generate the most positive feedback from family. As Phuong, a Vietnamese American community worker told me: "They don't understand what 'social work' is. My uncle says, 'What are you studying, and why does it take such a long time to study that subject?' The expectation of me is to be the emotional support of the family not the intellectual."
When I casually mentioned to my mother that I would be majoring in English literature, she took a deep breath and then threatened to pull the purse strings. "What's this English literature? You don't have to go all the way to Berkeley to read novels. You can do it closer to home. You study business or engineering or something useful, or you come home!" was her ultimatum. So I
studied business, took the least number of courses possible in that major, and loaded up on as many English classes as I could handle. Yes, I can have my cake and eat it too, I insisted. But it meant that I would have to work twice as hard as everyone else, doing what was expected while pursuing my own path, at the same time.
Expectation pressures follow us into the workplace, as increasing numbers of us choose career paths off the beaten track, as was the case for Carolyn, a poet from Hawaii: "My mom once asked me, 'Why you spend three thousand dollars on a computer for? You can't make money on poetry.'" Others, such as Prema, a lawyer-turned-funder, have explained their unpopular choices in terms that her family can respect and understand: "I told them I'm not a lawyer anymore. I do fund-raising. They said, 'Fund-raise? What's that? Is that a job?' So I told them, 'Okay, I do charity work,' which they understood. Luckily for me, charity work is seen as a very noble 'hobby' for a woman of status and wealth in India."
And when we start families, some of us are exasperated yet again that we are not living up to mother-standards, as was the case for Monique, whose mother is Chinese and whose father is Caucasian: "I thought my mother would be overjoyed at my pregnancy, even more so because I was expecting a baby boy. Instead she said to me, 'I'm a little disappointed. I wanted a girl.' Go figure. When my Chinese American friend told me she was pregnant recently, also with a boy, I told her not to expect her mom to be elated. She called me later and told me that her mom had the same reaction as my mom did. She couldn't believe it!"
In a 1987 study by psychologists Robert Hess, Chih-Mei Chang, and Teresa McDevitt, marked differences were found in the ways that Chinese American mothers accounted for their children's successes and failures as opposed to European American mothers. For instance, while the study found that European American mothers were more likely to attribute academic success to good school training, Chinese American mothers were more apt to credit good home upbringing. If Chinese American children fail, however, their mothers were more likely to attribute it to poor home upbringing than their European American counterparts. While success is not praised or outwardly acknowledged, failure is personalized and attached to family honor. It can create a feedback loop that conditions us to see success as a minimum standard.
Cheryl is Korean American, a publicist in the fashion industry. She tells a story about her childhood that many of us may remember well:
It seemed that I could never do enough. I always got A's in Catholic school, except for that one B I always got in religion. That B was all my parents ever focused on. I'd tell them, "But look at all the A's I got!" and they'd say, "Of course you got A's. That's what you're supposed to do." So the message was pretty clear. Instead of getting excited about my successes, I learned instead to fear not meeting their almost impossible expectations.
As my survey responses bear out, the pressure of expectations in our families comes almost solely from our mothers. For better or for worse, our mothers generally define our family spiritually and serve as the main communication link to their daughters, passing on to us their own ambitions. And while our fathers may cheer their children's accomplishments from a distance, the raw pressure to fight and perform is our mothers' turf.
Generally, our mothers are more willing to give us their blunt, if not imprecise, advice on how to lead our lives. Lora, one of San Francisco's most prolific labor attorneys, remembers working in a garment factory with her mother every summer since she was eleven. From dawn to dusk, they would sit behind sewing machines to earn the money the family needed to pay the rent and put food on the table. There were times when Lora would work during the school year as well. Working at that young age allowed her to understand the powerlessness of being used as cheap labor, as her mother would remind her constantly. At home, Lora again confronted her powerlessness as, night after night, she witnessed her father's gambling addiction. He'd raid her small savings and steal from her piggy banks when he had no money of his own. Lora remembers her mother's advice to her and her sisters when they were young:
My mother used to say, "Don't let yourself be treated like a girl-child slave. If you were in China, your father would have sold you a long time ago for money." She used to say that to us when we were seven, eight, nine years old. Basically, my association with being a girl and a child is with being a slave.
But how was Lora to figure out how to avoid this "girl-child slave" predicament? How was she supposed to fight for herself and be strong? Her mother had told them the situation to avoid. Yet as a young girl, Lora was faced with the problem without a clear way out. Lora, like many of us, was well aware of the goals that had been set out for her. What our mothers usually don't provide, however, are the step-by-step instructions on how exactly to get there or where exactly we should be going. Their expectations, though ominous, end up being imprecise, and daughters can wind up grasping at straws, understandably frustrated in trying to fulfill them.
When asked why we frequently forgo our own wants in order to fulfill our parents' expectations, many of us respond with reasons that incorporate notions of filial piety and reverence for our elders. I was taught at an early age the nature of that exchange. My parents worked hard to ensure that I'd have the good life I now enjoy, and I was to repay them by concurring with their wishes. "Be a good daughter, marry a man who can control you," my mother once said. "Have children and get a good job that won't take you too far from home." And what she implied: "in exchange I will give you everything I can all my attention, my money, my being, my honor, and my dignity. Your performance will be linked to my very life, and because of this, I know you will comply."
Women such as Hoai are familiar with this exchange. Her parents have worked for decades in their grocery store in Colorado, and much of what they've earned has been put into their four children's college educations. Recently, Hoai
found out that her parents' store had once again been robbed. Even after several robberies in the past, and even after Hoai's mother had narrowly missed a bullet in one of those incidents, her father refused to install a security camera because he felt it was too expensive. "I somehow feel responsible for their situation. They've worked their whole lives for us, and so when I told them that I quit my job to become a filmmaker, all she could say was, 'Now I'll never be able to retire.' This was supposed to be a major joyous decision in my life, and all I could feel was guilt. By trying to be myself, I was letting them down." For weeks, Hoai was racked with violent nightmares where rage, dismemberment, and chaos were recurring themes.
"Filial piety" is often synonymous with payback daughter's guilt and obedience in exchange for a mother's undying but tacit support. Our guilt can come in many currencies. Guilt for having the privilege, choice, and mobility that she deserved but never had. Guilt because her talents were never fully recognized and rewarded due to her heavy accent, because she had to make compromises, because she was seen as a little Asian woman. Guilt for feeling that she might be jealous, not of us, but of our opportunity. Guilt for telling her that she has no right to feel proprietary over our lives.
We need not fall into a cycle of guilt and dependence that locks us into aspirations, lifestyles, and dreams that are not our own. But to avoid this requires that we take responsibility for our choices. Reverence for our elders does not imply a blind obedience to their wishes. Respect, if genuine, must be mutual, even in Asian families. Filial piety cannot become a cultural excuse that absolves us from having to determine who we are and what our lives stand for.
I realized that I could no longer rationalize my own fear of self-determination and risk taking by blaming the heavy expectations of family. After all, they have always wanted only what they thought was best, given their own experiences. How could I have expected them to know what more was possible? Had I lived in lock-step compliance to their wishes, I would have grown resigned and resentful. Instead, I took the chance of losing approval and followed the paths that spoke most powerfully to me. And for that, I can now live the life I have always dreamed of, with a fluid schedule that allows me to travel and work when and where I want to, and a relationship with a man who doesn't feel he has to control me as much as share his life with me on equal terms. Through it all, I have learned a valuable lesson if what our parents want for us is success, then they will grow to understand that our best chances for succeeding will be in doing what we truly want to do.
The truth is that if family bonds are loving and true, they are also unconditional. Our parents will learn to understand this, even if it may require our defiance and heartache to get there.
As much as she has tried to dissuade me and disapproved of the many choices I have made, my mother always ends up, albeit reluctantly, as my staunchest supporter. When I became the publisher of A. Magazine and had no money to hire staff, she would come into the office on her days off and stick stamps on envelopes, alphabetize my Rolodex in some very odd ways, and organize the office. She would get lunch for me and clean the office, saying as she wiped the desks in mock disgust, "This office is filthy dirty." As much as she grumbled about me and my stupid choices, she seemed happy to participate in my dream, or at least she may have been fearful enough that, if she did not help, my failure would rub off on her as well.
She may still think I'm crazy. She may still question why I chose to join a band of young renegades fresh out of college to start a magazine that had big visions with no budget. She saw no 401K plan, no business card, no secretary "and no salary either!" she adds. For a long time, she probably thought that the word "entrepreneur" meant someone who doesn't make any money. Yet through it all, she brought me Tupperware tubs of home cooking every week, sticking them in the freezer as she murmured under her breath, with love, "My kids are spoiled rotten. See? They can't do anything without me." Her thoughts behind these words might be these:
I was trained as a midwife in Taiwan, and brought many babies into the world before I even entered a formal day of nursing school. In my hands I held babies that I knew would be cranky, ones that I knew would be gentle. It is in the way they move even while they take their first breaths. If I can see this in the children of strangers, I must know about my daughter. I held her. I watched her grow up. And she thinks because she is grown up now that I can only see what she wants to show me, I know more than she thinks.
Yet, my daughter thinks that I don't know her. She thinks that I don't understand or believe that she is strong enough to do anything she wants, even if I do think she makes the wrong decisions half the time. She's my daughter after all, even if I do call her a dreamer. We have the same spirit. We trust and we believe in things. If she is the way she is, I must have taught it to her. I must have been responsible for the way she turned out. Crazy. I would never tell her this, but no matter what she ever decides to do in her life, I will always help her out and support her, even if I do try to talk her out of her choices.
That is the irony of expectation. Defy it and most of us will still receive our mother's love and support, because in our willingness to answer to what calls us, we show them the strength that is there for two. There comes a day when daughter breaks from mother and becomes a woman. And as it was our duty to listen and learn when we were young, so it becomes our duty to catch the wind and fly out on our own. Our lives are ours to learn from.
HOW TO OPEN UP A DIALOGUE
We know that it's never that easy. Dealing with family expectations can be oppressive, regardless of our age. We may be convinced that our families will disown us for making unpopular choices. Or, despite knowing that the outside world treats us as adults, that we will never escape the role of "child" to make our own decisions. The intensity of the family bond and "our-daughter-must-pay-back" mentality can make our choices very difficult. But to the extent that we can move toward as opposed to away from, the emotional issues of family, we move toward a more solid self as well.
"You'll Always Be My Daughter"
Psychologists refer to the intense period of self-definition and self-imposed distance from parents as a process of individuation. Among Asian families, studies show that individuation processes may not take place until we are thirty or even older. "My children will always be my children," is how one Korean great-grandmother put it. As a thirty-four-year-old Filipina American told me, "I thought that when I had my first child, my mother would finally see me as an adult. No chance. Now she's got a new set of instructions for me how to bring up my baby the Filipina way."
"In my Hmong community, a woman is not seen as valid until she marries. I am over thirty and I am still not married. My Hmong community still treats me as if I am a little girl," one respondent wrote. Until we are viewed as adults (or at the very least, not as children), it will continue to be difficult, though not impossible, to begin an honest, equal dialogue about what we want from life that may differ with our family's expectations of us.
We need not wait for our parents to decide when that time will be. We can begin to develop that dialogue for them. Find a calm time when you are feeling good, or set up a specific day or activity for a talk between you and your parent, one on one. There need not be an agenda. All that is important is that you try hard not to be reactive when your buttons are pushed, listen without judgment, and express your opinions confidently without reverting into a child's role. As psychologist and author Harriet Lerner advises, "When we define a new position in a relationship we need to focus on what we want to say about ourselves, not the other person." According to Lerner, we need to be less focused on the other person's reaction or countermove or on gaining a positive response. You are beginning to establish a new dialogue that welcomes you in as a fully capable and responsible adult.
Considerations for Daughters and Their Families
When a daughter claims her status as an adult member of the family, power dynamics will begin to shift. For daughters, being treated on par will mean taking on certain responsibilities for ourselves, including recognizing and then letting go of younger patterns of behavior sulking, withholding participation, complaining that we are treated like children while still expecting mothers to cook our meals and do our laundry. When we are the daughters of immigrants, we can have such control over our parents, holding them hostage at times to American Dreams and to links to the future, and it can be difficult not to use that control to manipulate. Can we begin to give as adults, rather than to receive as children?
For parents, letting go of the role of nurturer can be very difficult. As parents, we see our children as extensions of ourselves. They are what our lives have stood for. They represent the hope and promise of all our work and sacrifice. Our generation provided the sweat that gives them opportunities that we never had. Our choices were made for their benefit, not ours. "How is it," one mother asks me, "that my daughter can be so ungrateful?" Is it possible that as parents, we may have given away too much of ourselves in the bargain? Or that the hopes we place on our children might have absolved us of our responsibility to wage our own battles? Can we take a step back and refrain from feeling that we will always know what is best for them? Can we let our need to control fall away so that our children can grow?
The Other Person's Shoes
When Jennie Yee, a psychologist from North Beach Asian Mental Health Services in San Francisco, mediates intergenerational conversations, she helps families to find common ground: "Daughters and sons have to understand that in most cases, parents only want them to be happy. They just come from a very different set of experiences." According to Yee, nonsympathetic listening can lead to all sorts of miscommunication: "Parents may goad us to do well in school and enter traditional jobs because they see these as insurance policies for our futures. Their children might interpret this as their parents' lack of confidence in their judgment or abilities. In another example, parents may push their daughters into dating relationships that 'preserve their Asian culture' because they feel their daughters will be more comfortable in the end. Their daughters might read that as 'prejudiced.'" Yee attempts to have family members acknowledge their concerns and speak from their own point of view, without assuming the response of other family members. If parents are concerned about their daughters' future, those daughters might have to prove to them that they can provide for themselves. If they are concerned about their daughters' choice of person for a relationship, daughters might invite their parents to spend individual time with their partner so that they can begin to know one another, on their own terms. As Yee points out, "Sometimes, all parents need is to understand."
Dialogue is a beginning, and results are never immediate. In some cases, a family member's mental health or behavioral patterns may require professional intervention, and dialogue alone cannot solve much. Even in the most open of Asian American families, changes in stature and shifts in family power dynamics will be accompanied by anger, frustration, and feelings of futility. Asking and answering the questions that matter will entail moments of miscommunication, the dredging up of memories, and accusations. So it is important to anticipate them and to know that good results will be gradual. Slowness, deliberation, and patience are all part of the process of developing a new level of relationship. The more intense the issue, the more slowly one should move. Keep in mind that big proclamations or sudden emotional cutoff are destructive to this communication process. As Lerner advises, "You cannot learn to swim by jumping off the high dive."
It may help to set small goals together. It may help to develop an understanding of what our personal boundaries are, and hold fast to them. We may have to assure our families that the distance we need does not imply abandonment or disrespect. Inevitably, yet gradually, truths emerge that will allow change to occur more easily. When we take the time to let our families know who we really are, we begin to move our family stories forward in the most remarkable of ways.
Copyright © 1999 by Phoebe Eng