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?