Asian Parenting vs. Western Parenting

Asian Parenting vs. Western Parenting

I was on the phone with my friend Coriander, a social worker in Pittsburgh.  We grew up together in the deserts of Utah in a coal mining village.  Growing up in a remote desert location makes for some unique experiences, but even more so when you throw my mom — a refugee from Vietnam — into the mix.  

Coriander has fond memories of my mom bringing plates of fruit and cups of tea to us during our middle school playdates, but he also remembers the constant frustration and fighting that would play out in front of him as my mom and I struggled to communicate with each other through an invisible, but powerful cultural barrier. 

It was refreshing talking to Coriander twenty years later and with a clinical therapy certification under his belt.  As a newly minted adjunct professor at a University in Pennsylvania in Social Work, he was now an even more legit source of truth when it came to the cultural contention between my mom and I.

“The Asian guilt kills me Coriander,” I sighed, recounting a fight I had with my mom.  “She cooks dinner for my brother and I almost every night, although we tell her she doesn’t need to cook, and then later she guilts us about how ungrateful we are for her cooking and how we force this hard labor on her.”

“Oh yes,” I added.  “I can’t forget how she always guilts me for being born.  Every time we fight, she screams at me and says I have to do whatever she says because I put her through so much pain with a c-section childbirth.”

Coriander laughs at the childbirth story, knowing full well that it is typical for the Asian parent to use childbirth as a tool of guilt.

“Sorry to laugh at your story Mary, but seriously, recent immigrants can’t seem to shake the old- world values, which can be really difficult to deal with.  The stories of your mom remind me of my Italian grandmother — and in a way, these traditional values are almost like a form of narcissism.”

Asian Parenting — A Form of Narcissism?

“Narcissism?” I cocked my head.  “Asian culture’s focus on humility and lack of self seems to be the opposite of narcissism.”

“I know, it’s quite interesting actually,” Coriander continues.  “Narcissism is actually the act of projecting yourself onto others and expecting all their actions to be for your own self-benefit.  It’s almost like you extend your sense of self onto everyone else, and you have this irrational expectation that everyone is working for you.”

I thought of my friends in China and the stories they told me about their parents.  The general gist of the story is the same: Chinese parents work hard and save money to have a baby, to which they then pour their entire financial, physical and mental existence into the upbringing of said child.  The child is then forced to deal with an immeasurable amount of stress and pressure from the parents to financially succeed in society.  Lastly, Chinese parents want the ultimate return on investment after years of “suffering” for the child: a retirement package that includes cherubic grandkids and red-carpet caregiving in their old age.

I think it’s safe to say that Chinese parenting very much falls into the definition of narcissism: projecting your sense of self onto your children and expecting them to work on your behalf.

“Western societies emphasize the gains of the individual, which can be both a good and bad thing,” Coriander added.  “Western parents focus more on enabling their kids to find a sense of self, to find their own way, and to be their own person and individual.”

I thought back to my father, who always told me to pursue my passions and to find my own path in life.  Perhaps to my detriment, he never pushed me onto a set-path or expected some return on investment from my education.  He just wanted me to be self-sufficient and happy.  

Before the dementia hit, my dad told me that the last thing he wanted to do was emotionally burden me in his old age — which is essentially the polar opposite expectation of the Asian parent.

The FOG Method of Parenting

“My Italian grandmother was just like an Asian parent — in fact, I think Southern Italian culture has a lot of intersections with the Chinese family dynamic,” Coriander said.  “Italians tend to be obsessed with wealth and materialism, societal prestige, the dynamic relationships of the family, and continuing the family lineage…”

“And all of this is driven by what we therapists call FOG.”

“Fog?”  I asked.  “What does that mean?”

“Oh, I have a story from my grandmother that explains FOG really well,” Coriander cleared his throat and dug into his memories.  

“When I was about 5 years old, I was with my grandmother around the holidays.  I sat down with nona and she told me, ‘look Coriander, don’t get me a Christmas present, because I’m going to die soon anyway.’”

I laughed in response, “I think my mom said something similar to me yesterday — ‘Mary, I don’t need you to take me to the dentist, because I’m going to die soon anyway’… something to that degree.”

Coriander chuckled, “Exactly the same sentiment.  Now this is how FOG comes into play.”

“You see, as a five year old kid, my grandmother instilled FEAR in me because she told me she was going to die soon.  She also succeeded in giving me OBLIGATION to get her a Christmas gift despite what she said, since I knew that it might be her last Christmas.  Finally, she GUILTED me into the act of feeling sorry for her and getting her a Christmas present, because I thought her time on Earth was coming to an end.”

“FOG: fear, guilt, and obligation — it’s a common tactic that Asian parents and, apparently, Italian grandmothers do to manipulate surrounding loved ones.”

Cultural differences vs. Toxic parenting

As someone who has lived abroad and had to assimilate into other cultures, I tried very hard not to label my culture as “right” and ‘their’ culture as “wrong.”  For example, I thought it was bizarre that Chinese women didn’t wash their hair for a month after childbirth. It may be odd to me, I thought, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a bad thing.  

I applied this same mindset to parenting.  Asian parents may be different, but it doesn’t mean their method of parenting is necessarily bad or toxic.  I told myself that there are many positive traits to the Asian family dynamic (such as stronger family ties and a reverence to the elderly), but like anything, there were bound to be downsides as well.

Yet after the passing of my father, I started to find my tolerance for Asian parenting slowly wither away.  After years of putting up with my Vietnamese mother’s demands and constant criticism from my Chinese in-laws, I put my foot down and had a rare epiphany.

Asian parenting is toxic.  Period.

Asian parents will never praise you.  Asian parents will never take your side in an argument.  Asian parents will never openly care about your mental or emotional needs.  Asian parents will never think you’re good enough.  Asian parents will put you down, but never lift you up.  Asian parents will “FOG” the shit out of you by constantly letting you know that you have to succeed because of their sacrifices.  Asian parents will never respect your individual or personal space (in fact, this concept is alien to them).  Asian parents will make demands of you and expect you to carry them out, even if you don’t want to.  

In summary: Asian parents think they own you, and through this ownership believe that you exist only to work on their behalf.

Asian parenting is, in a nutshell, narcissistic behavior at its finest.

The Best of Both Worlds

Western parenting, in contrast, also has its downsides.  Since western society is more individualistic, parents may focus on their own ambitions and desires rather than fully commit their entire existence to the success of their children (especially true of men).  Western parents also expect children to succeed as an individual and may not provide the practical support to enable such independence (aka, getting kicked out of the house at 18 whether you’re financially ready or not).

Despite the drawbacks, I am grateful for the western parenting my dad gave me because he was something my mother could never be: a proud and steadfast ally.

If an ex-boyfriend made me cry, my mother would say that perhaps I was the one at fault and needed to reflect on my ‘bad behavior.’  My father, on the other hand, would pound his fist on the table and demand to see this no-good-son-of-a-bitch ex-boyfriend who had the audacity to make his daughter cry.  When I announced that I won a scholarship to study in Japan, my mother shrugged at me and went back to cooking dinner.  My father, on the other hand, jumped up from the kitchen table and wrapped me in a bear hug, whispering in my ear that he was extremely proud of me.  

My mother gave me love in the Asian way: delicious meals, a woolen coat, warm socks, hot tea and sliced fruits.  

Yet I’m always grateful that I had my father’s more “western” outpouring of love.  My father often stayed up late to chat with me about my dreams and ambitions, where he listened with a smile and recounted his own childhood memories.  No matter how stupid or minor my accomplishment was, my dad always beamed with pride and told me that he had never been more proud.  I didn’t go to Harvard and I’m not a doctor or lawyer, but my dad still managed to endlessly brag about me to his friends, colleagues, and even complete strangers.

I often try to see my experience with both Asian and Western parenting as a blessing.  However, when times get tough and the cultural clashes hit a crescendo with my mother and in-laws, I yearn for the days when I could talk with my dad over a cup of coffee and he would listen whole heartedly with a smile.

What’s your thoughts on Asian parenting or parenting in general?

For more fun reading about the crazy character that is Coriander, read this older post about his experience training to be a Kung fu Master in China

7 thoughts on “Asian Parenting vs. Western Parenting

  1. What a great post! I think about the differences in Asian and Western parenting all the time (especially when my husband gets upset because “Why won’t my son just do what I tell him to?!”)

    On the one hand, I’m watching the US COVID cases spike because of toxic individualism: “You can’t tell me what to do even if I kill people! Or myself!”

    And yet I read your post and see the other extreme, where your life doesn’t belong to you at all.

    A little freakin’ empathy would go a long way in both extremes.

    Also, unfair for your mom to pull out that C-section crap. And I speak from experience! (You can also tell her that my Doctor Sister had one kid tear her apart during a vaginal birth and the second was a C-section and she swears it was a far better experience, LOL.)

    1. Thank you! And sorry for the late response! Life man… why is it so busy?

      My mom also says: “why won’t you do what I tell you to!?” so I’m sure my mom can relate to Andy. Perhaps my husband will say the same when we have kids? Oh ho ho.

      It’s hard. A part of me really likes the Asian group-oriented society as it creates a lot of harmony, but as Asian parenting shows, there can be a dark underbelly… I wish there could be a happy medium where there is healthy parenting with lots of positive affirmation + people doing as their told when the situation deems it. Maybe that’s asking for too much.

      OMG I can’t believe your poor doctor sister had such a rough childbirth!! Again, you’re really not selling me on this motherhood thing… haha.

      1. Yeah, I am actively opposed to the “Motherhood is Marvelous!” myth the religious right tries to sell American women (and the Chinese government tries to sell Han Chinese women, the Catholic Church tries to sell its congregants, etc.). Bearing a child takes a huge toll physically and mentally. It’s dangerous, especially in the U.S. It is very expensive, especially in a capitalistic society without multigenerational help. No one should be forced to have a child, and absolutely no one should have one if they don’t a) really want one, and b) know exactly what kind of pain and sacrifice are involved. Our society and media tend to gloss over the ugly reality.

        I love my kid more than anything. Hate imagining life without him. And even though I knew more about the horrors of pregnancy and just how exhausting raising kids can be (thanks to all my younger siblings!), having and raising my own kid is still much harder than I imagined it would be.

        It’s made my life much richer, but also much, much more stressful. And all the emotional labor that come with raising kids? It falls squarely on the mother in heterosexual partnerships.

        So my advice is alway, don’t even think about having a kid unless you really, really want one.

  2. Ah, Mary. I’m so sorry about the loss of your father. In my small way, I can understand since I was raised in a bi-cultural home as well. I actually had a confrontation with my mom several years ago about never being proud of me or my brother. I told her that Grandma (Chinese) always said it to us, but she never did. And now she tries to say it more often. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing your insights with Coriander (what a name!). He reminded me of my college roommate who is a first-generation Italian American – we bonded despite coming from different cultures, but since we were both raised by immigrants with dysfunctional families, we bonded. It’s helped that we both loved rock music, too. xoxo

    1. Lani! Thanks for the comment, and I apologize for my late response. I hate to categorize all Asian parents as “cold,” because obviously your grandma wasn’t that way, but I feel like this kind of parenting occurs with Asian families more often than not. I am so glad that you confronted your mom and the situation improved :). Maybe I should do the same with mine.

      Now that I’m older and have friends who have gone into social work and psychology (like Coriander) it has been really enlightening to learn about why we do what we do. It’s fascinating and it helps me to better cope when times get tough.

      Thank you for the wonderful comment!!!

  3. I had to laugh at the c-section part. I hope that in some fit of rage you answered something along the lines of “I never asked you to be born”.

    Sorry to hear that your in laws are also a handful. I’m not sure if my in laws have ever told my husband they were proud of him (to me, that’s a very American thing to say, anyway!) but at least they don’t demand anything and have helped us a lot with childcare.

    I don’t understand much the Chinese (Asian?) logic of “suffer and sacrifice all your life and then enjoy your retirement”. Wouldn’t it be possible to enjoy all the way through? And with this I don’t mean spend all your money in entertainment, just… I don’t know, doing other things apart from working and taking your children to extracurricular lessons xD I think the people of our generation in China already has a different mindset, several friends told me they are not interested in their children being the absolute best (maybe that’s also because they have money to potentially send them to college abroad and don’t need to worry about the gaokao…).

    1. Haha, I also think the “proud of you” think might be American. I heard from other Europeans that it’s very rare for teachers and other elders to give praise to younger folks. One of my Belgium colleagues said his kid came home from his first day of school in America and said: “dad! I didn’t even do anything and the teacher said he was proud of me! That’s never happened EVER!!”

      I am also happy to hear that younger Chinese parents are starting to prioritize a child’s well-being over their academic standing… but again, like you said, might be because they are taking the foreign route, haha. I really do hope things in china, I feel bad for the kids over there that spend 24/7 studying!! No time to be a kid!

      I’m totally with you on the ‘enjoy life now,’ thing. I feel like many Americans toil away for retirement, when honestly, they probably didn’t have to wait that long. Reminds me of that story about the fisherman.. a businessmen goes to a beautiful beach, says to the fisherman he’s going to make tons of money so he can retire there, and 30 years later he does. He tells the fisherman he did it, and the fisherman says back: “well, I’ve been here the whole time.”

      Thanks for the comment! Hope you’re doing well in Spain!

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