“You’re in 3rd grade. It’s a regular weekday, and your mom finally comes to pick you up from an after-school program because both of your parents don’t get off work until 6 (and I guess it’s slightly illegal to leave a kid home alone at that age). On the ride back home, you wonder how come selfish brats like Miranda (sorry to the innocent Mirandas out there) get so many toys and games. You wanted toys and games too.
‘Mom, how come you never let Kevin or me buy any games?’
‘Games? You have toys at home. How much do you want?’
“But we don’t have any games. I just see other parents buy games for their children. And they’re really happy. That shows that they love them.”
Mom scoffed. ‘Buying games doesn’t mean that their parents love them. Playing too much games is a waste of time.’
You sulk in silence for the rest of the way home.
At home, it’s dinnertime and wafts of 西红柿炒鸡蛋 (stir-fried tomato and eggs) and 白菜炒豆腐 (stir-fried cabbage and tofu) drift throughout the house. You sit there at the table and still can’t understand why your parents are so strict about what you can’t and can buy. Only necessities. No sweets. No soda. No games. Granted that when your parents grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution, they didn’t have much, but...it’s different now, right?
You can live a little, right?
This is America, right?
...why don’t they express love like other parents?”
I don’t know much about other experiences growing up in a household with immigrant parents but I would say there was as much happiness as there was confusion and hurt for me. I’d say this came as a byproduct of the immigrant experience: both of my parents came to America knowing very little English and having to work minimum wage jobs while trying to get a degree at the same time. So from the get-go, they knew they had to hustle and didn’t take anything for granted.
As a family, we enjoyed good food and memories together but we were closed off from the rest of the community. I was American but my family didn’t feel American. My parents didn’t want to make friends with other Americans. When they ate out, it was always at cheap buffets or Chinese restaurants.
I always felt like we were holding back for some reason. We didn’t go visit China. We never went for vacations. After work, my parents always seemed tired or want to rest more than going out, so I never pressed them. We never really had “family bonding time” other than eating meals together.
I always felt a bit sad when I saw other families spend time together or express love in less subtle ways than my parents had. Of course, I was -- and still am -- very grateful to my parents and I knew that they loved me, but the problem was that we never spent enough time talking to each other to understand each other.
That caused a lot of unhappiness on my part. They never knew.
They didn’t understand how having hobbies didn’t have to be useful. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time drawing even though I wasn’t necessarily good at it. That drew my mom to question what was the use of putting so much time into it.
I loved it, that’s why.
But when I wanted to start playing tennis in middle school, my mom was supportive of it because then I would “finally get some exercise”...well, I couldn’t argue with that.
When I played in home matches on my high school’s tennis team, I wanted my parents to come and watch me. It was a simple request and we lived like 5 min away from school. Yet, I got all sorts of excuses like “we’re tired” and “we don’t know anybody there”. Granted, not all my teammates had their family there watching them but at least for important matches I wanted them there. They weren’t.
But I understand why they weren’t there to support my emotional growth all the time. They’ve had to work hard for so many years that when they wanted to rest, they just wanted to be left alone. Like they say, your immigrant parents walked so that you could run, right?
Why wasn’t I happy just having a roof over my head and food to eat?
I didn’t want them to just be my caregiver but I wanted to get to know them too. However, I had just accepted that my family was just cold and didn’t care about anything other than surviving.
Later, when I had a conversation with my mom, I realized I didn’t understand the whole picture. When I expressed my woes about not getting enough attention from her, that I literally had wanted her to care a bit more, heck, to even be MORE like a tiger mom, my mom seemed really hurt.
“I got beat up a lot by my dad when I was young, so I didn’t want you and Kevin to experience the same thing. That’s why, I thought it would be better to leave you alone.”
Of course, they had their own way of thinking. Yes, their parenting was flawed: sometimes they would seem cold, sometimes they would bring me fruit, and sometimes nag too much. But they were doing what they thought was best. Things like sending me WeChat articles on how bad boba is for you or bringing me 18 avocados (or was it 14?) at once -- which btw I went viral on SAT for once (and may have lied about how many avocados). The point is, their strictness and aloofness was how they knew how to express love, though often it didn’t come across that way.
Now that I’m older and more mature, I find it a bit easier for me to have honest and fruitful conversations with my parents. I always thought that my relationship with them was hopeless, but it really takes both sides to make the effort to hear each other out. Apologizing to one another and making sure that the other side feels loved is really important and it shouldn’t be only up to the child to make these efforts.
To all my second-gen kids, don’t ram yourself into a wall trying to make your parents understand your side of the story. Try talking to them but ultimately focus on yourself, love yourself, make great friends, and remember that, at the end of the day, your parents love you (disclaimer: not saying ALL of them do but…most do).
And the presence of love in itself is proof, in my opinion, that one day you’ll be able to hear each other out and accept each other for your differences. It’s just a tough journey until then.