When I was seven or eight, I remember sitting at the dinner table, glowering at the food in front of me. As my family got ready to eat, I accused my parents of neglecting me and my brother. You’re never around! And other such accusations flew out of my mouth. The moment they were uttered, I could see the raw hurt flash in my father’s eyes.
My parents have loved me and my brother more than anything else in the world. They weren’t home until dinnertime because they were working all the time. Growing up, my mom worked in a clothing factory, her back hunched over a sewing machine from dawn to dusk. Her eyes would go bleary as they watched the needle endlessly pierce cloth under harsh lights. My dad worked as a construction worker and contractor. He often came home with paint, dirt, or wood dust on his shirt and between his nails. He did everything from tearing out walls to reconstructing roofs. My parents were paid probably lower than minimum wage, and this was during the nineties. They slowly chipped away at a mortgage for a house in San Francisco while supporting my grandmother, my brother, and me. Their lives weren’t glamorous and they could barely afford the two gifts I got each year. You’ve probably heard it a million times, but the only reason they came to America was to give me and my brother a better life than they had in China – they had grown up during the communist era, starving through the Great Famine and lacking education beyond middle school.
So why did I think my parents didn’t love us back then, when they so clearly did?
It was because my Asian American household did not resemble the projected “ideal” American family household of love. Asians do not share the same displays of love common to Western society. Asian Americans often feel that their households are distant, cold, and unloving because their parents do not follow the same cultural expectations of love that we Asian Americans are taught in American schools and media. Teachers are extremely important in shaping a child intellectually and emotionally. Children listen to their teachers explain how parents should display their affection for their children, and when these Asian American children return to their homes and do not find these demonstrates of love, they ultimately arrive to the conclusion that they are unloved.
It wasn’t until I was around twelve that my dad said “I love you” for the first time. But the nagging feeling of neglect wasn’t even as big as “I love you”s – it was that our parents never asked, “How was school?” during dinner like we see on TV; it was that Asians were averse to hugging. My parents have learned these things over the years as they went from being Asian immigrants to Asian Americans, but not every immigrant undergoes this change.
Unfortunately, many Asian Americans children, young adults, and adults still grapple with accepting these Asian forms of love because they are surrounded by American love. Are there any repercussions? Asian American women are far more likely to consider and attempt suicide. This New York Times article seems to suggest that these self-loathing tendencies stem from feeling unloved in their Asian American households. So keen on chasing an American idea of love, Asian American women stick to the first person who says “I love you,” and they fall into abusive relationships and even end up in the sex trade. Representing Asian American men, Wesley Yang touches on the struggles of coming to terms with his culturally Asian upbringing and American society in his well-known “Paper Tigers.”
Because many Asian Americans chase after this Americanized idea of love, they interpret their own homes to be cold and negligent. However, it is really less a matter of lacking love, and more a matter of bridging two cultures of love. In Asia, though less touchy-feely and openly sentimental about love or showing love, people display love differently. The biggest struggle is for the Asian American to come to terms with this cultural difference and accept that maybe their parents will never utter the American words “I love you” – but I hope that one day they will hear the Asian “I love you,” even if it’s not in words, a kiss, or a hug. For an Asian parent, love is making sure your child is well-equipped to succeed in life, love is working for the clothes on your back, love is always have dinner together, love is an unbreakable bond between family that doesn’t need to be spoken because it is.
The other side of the coin is how do you show love to an Asian parent? Returning love to an Asian parent means succeeding and, cliché as it sounds, bringing honor to the family. When you fail, you don’t just fail individually, you fail collectively because your parents sacrificed and fought hardships so that you could have a better life. When you don’t listen to their advice (become a doctor or a lawyer), they feel unloved. Growing up in an Asian household in America can be difficult to communicate both ways.
For me, I didn’t have bedtime stories or a kiss on the cheek before drifting off to sleep, but being in America and having food on the table was their way of loving. I look back and feel guilty for believing for even a second that my parents didn’t love us because they love us more than anything in the world. I hope that Asian Americans struggling with these cultural clashes will meet their parents halfway and understand that sometimes it’s not a lack of loving but a difference in cultural expression of love.