Asian American

Should Asian American parents be teaching their kids to be more Asian?

You mean they’re not? (*hit the gong*) Well, according to Vijay Pendakur’s Open Letter to Asian American parents, no, they are not. Really?

First of all, I’m all for parents teaching their children to be proud of their race/ethnicity/culture/etc. Now, whether or not the child embraces their culture and parents’ teachings is entirely up to the classically debated nature vs. nurture. Are children born with a ready-set-go personality, or are they teachable, mold-able, and workable?

However, I think it bears mentioning that part of the university/college and leaving-the-nest-experience is figuring out who you are – and dare I say it, shedding or challenging your parents’ beliefs and ideals.

Vijay’s question to Asian American parents, “Why aren’t you teaching your children to identify as Asian Americans?” is, well, how can I say this, an oversimplification hot-peppered with what seems to be many assumptions.

What about Asian children adopted by Caucasian or non-Asian families? These parents might try extra hard, or feel they cannot “teach their child to be Asian” at all.

little-girl-at-kachin-festivalOr what about mixed raced children? This is another challenge, and highly dependent on how the child looks. My brother has 3 children of mixed ethnicity, and one of them looks more Asian than the other two. Will he be treated differently? Will he identify with his Chinese/Thai heritage more?

And what are the parents really doing? Vijay bases his conclusions that the American Asian college students crossing his desk are NOT being educated on their background and culture. That’s why he wrote his exasperated blog post in the first place. But how many children simply don’t listen to their parents? Are not ready to hear or understand what is being taught to them? Or just roll their eyes?

There is also a BIG assumption that the values and beliefs being handed down from generation to generation are positive or even socially acceptable. As a general rule, Asian culture is patriarchal, and there’s a long history of men overpowering and bullying women. Now, you could make an argument that other cultures do this as well, but I’m going to stay with what I know. And I know from my own experience as an Asian American woman living in Asia, with parents and grandparents who were born in Asia, that the submissive overtaken female is a commonplace ideal, that is advertised and openly perpetuated.

Now, I know that when we think of our dear parents teaching us about our culture, background and ethnicity, that we don’t think about the negative side. Culture is positive, right? But I have to move in the negative direction, because I think it’s being overlooked.

My mother was born and raised in a small town in Northern Thailand. Her family didn’t have a house. They were homeless, traveling from job to job, or in their case, farm to farm. They were so poor that they paid for food that they ate the day before, the day after. My mom stopped going to school around 11 or 12 years old because her family couldn’t afford to send her.

My mom didn’t teach us Thai, but she taught my younger brother and I things like, “If somebody hits you, you hit back!” This was in response to when we asked her what should be do when a kid hits us, because there was a lot of fighting going on in schools when we were growing up. I understand, but many parents would be horrified by this point of view.

But my favorite is, “We’re Asian, we don’t do like that.” She constantly put down other races or ethnic groups. I was forever told how white people did this and do that (like divorce! and cheat on their wives!), and we don’t do like that. I also knew that I could never date a black man, or she’d kill me.

But my brother and I laughed, and told her she couldn’t say things like that. We were American-educated and knew that what she was espousing, while well-meaning, was essentially racist. I’d like to think education goes both ways, not just from parent to child, but child to parent too.

When I was a kindergartner, I remembered crying all the way home. When my mom asked, “What’s wrong?” and I told her a kid called me, “Chop suey” – Do you know she did? She laughed.

noodles
You chop suey! You beef an’ broccoli! You Chinese food!

Look, I love my mom. She’s the best because, despite any flaws/shortcomings, I know she loves us very much. Childhood was challenging, to put it gently, but I know everyone did what they thought was right at the time. And now my mom can be proud because both my brother and I graduated from college and university.

Yet the cautionary tale is this: you can teach your kids to be Asian American and you can also teach them to think Asians are superior and better than everyone else – to be racist. Besides the what’s wrong with that-hahahha mentality, this isn’t about going too far or extremes, it’s how my mother truly feels.

I certainly wasn’t proud of being Thai or Chinese while growing up. When we went to Thailand when I was a teenager, I wasn’t proud of the poverty, the filth, and the cultural differences. If anything, I was proud of being Chinese because I took after my father, who I missed. That doesn’t really make me Chinese though, right?

Parents want their children to be safe and be accepted. I think that is why my mom didn’t teach us Thai. She knew what it was like to NOT be accepted and feel isolated and lonely when she moved to the US. I’m not saying we can’t be proud of our culture or “race” and be accepted, but sometimes by trying to be accepted, we find out what’s important and who we really are.

As a teacher, I want my students to feel confident and proud of who they are. I feel if you want your children, our children, to be proud of their ethnicity and culture, expose them to all kinds of cultures and people. I know the racism I experienced once I moved from Hawaii to the Mainland had to do with other people’s lack of exposure, and of interactions with different kinds of folks.

But from my experience, my identity is in part, who you think I am, and who I believe I am.


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11 thoughts on “Should Asian American parents be teaching their kids to be more Asian?

  1. Lani,
    This is brilliant! I look at the international students here at the U of O which are mostly Asian and wonder how scared they are arriving here and how much racism they are experiencing on a daily basis. I also wonder if their expectations were too over the top from the reality.

    Walking to the Duck Store and to Starbucks or Roma’s for coffee I often see ethnic groups huddled and walking together speaking their native language……I smile.

    We ate lunch at Café Seoul next to Hirion’s (you remember that don’t you?) I watched two women students at the next table as they waited for their order. Their hushed Korean whispers stopped abruptly as large bowls of steaming noodles were set in front of them. Time slowed down for me as I observed what happened next. They both closed their eyes, gracefully leaning over the bowl and breathed deeply scents of home and memories of soup pots and laughter. As they opened their misty eyes to each other they eagerly dipped chopsticks and lifted the noodles………Then came the most lovely laughter and sounds of Mmmmm that I have ever seen. It was a magical moment I was honored to witness.

    I agree completely with your statement of exposing people to different cultures and that it might go a long way toward accepting others and ourselves yet there will always be pieces of home no matter where we are.

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    1. Thanks teainjapan! I’ll take brilliant any day 🙂 I didn’t attend Uni in Eugene but I was in an equally small college town, where the Japanese exchange students kept to themselves. I’d often see their food remains/bits in the communal bathroom. And as you might guess, I was often mistaken for being Japanese. Fort Lewis College also had a small Native American community there too. But for some reason, I was this strange anomaly that didn’t fit in either world.

      And yes, I experienced racism in Eugene. A car full of teenagers slowed down while I was crossing the street and started to speak to me in a fake Chinese language. It was shocking because it was unexpected/out of the blue, not a nice memory but I have many more positive ones from Eugene than that one!

      Cheers for the lovely share…now I want a bowl of soup!

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  2. Being multi-racial, I can see the value in learning about your heritage(s) — it’s simply more sauce for the goose. I would also have loved being raised in a bilingual household (I wouldn’t discover a proper love for foreign tongues until it was far too late for my stubborn brain to pick up a second language).

    You asked, “Are children born with a ready-set-go personality, or are they teachable, mold-able, and workable?” and I believe both are true to a degree. Children are certain born with their very own base personalities that can be shaped in subtle ways until they’re old enough to properly question, challenge and reason for themselves.

    The one word that I might change in all this is “teach.” Teaching a child to be Asian (or any other ethnicity) seems harsh to me, as opposed to exposing them to their background and culture and hopefully instilling them with a sense of pride, and as you aptly pointed out, whether the child embraces it is totally up to them. The trick, of course, is to balance this with the customs of whatever part of the world they’re living in — a sort of best of both worlds approach, which would hopefully filter out some of the less than positive aspects of the cultures in question.

    But what do I know?

    PS. I’m happy to discover that “If somebody hits you, you hit back!” is a universal piece of parenting advice (pacifists being the exception, natch)

    PPS. I like the fact that your mom laughed at the “chop suey” line. Whether it was her intention or not, my emotional takeaway was she was teaching you to roll with the punches. Despite the inherent racism (that most parents have… my mom? Sheesh, I could tell you stories!) she sounds like a decent woman who made the most of what she had and did the best job she was able to. That outweighs any negatives in my book.

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    1. Agree. I love my mom and I hope I didn’t convey anything less. Compared to the parenting styles of other parents, I just feel like my mom is “Old School.” I know some parents who would be mortified by the hitting back bit. And I know some parents who would have marched to school to find out who called their daughter a tasty Chinese noodle dish. I see my mom’s reactions as you pointed out, roll with the punches and defend yourself.

      But I felt it was important to point out that our perception of passing down “culture” isn’t always cherry blossoms and happy chopsticks. Bad habits and dated ideas can get passed along too.

      Yeah, teach is a funny word in this context. Yet this is what parents inevitably do through their everyday “do this” or “don’t do this” guidance. I agree w/ you that the middle road is the best one to take.

      PS. I did hit back.
      PPS. Don’t call me chop suey 😛

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      1. Cherry Blossoms and Chopsticks would make an excellent autobiography title. That or Don’t call me Chop Suey.

        Just sayin’.

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      2. It’s it too much to share that when I was in the bathroom I was rethinking Cherry Blossoms and Chopsticks? Yeah, you’re right. Too far. Hmmm. Don’t call me chop suey…I think you’re on to something. (*scratches imaginary beard*)

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      3. Nope, the bathroom share wasn’t too much. You obviously popped into the loo real quick to trim your imaginary beard.

        — The King of Keeping Things Family Friendly

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  3. Let me preface this by saying I’m really tired right now and might not make a lot of sense, but I loved your post; there were so many good points. One thought I’m having now is how there’s the expectation that people of easily identifiable ethnicities are expected to know about their “culture” – like the “native” country and its history, language, etc. I remember being told to give a presentation on Korea when I was in elementary school – even though I was adopted and had never lived there, it was assumed that I “just knew.”

    And this Vijay guy sounds like he wants Asian American culture to be just like Asian Asian cultures. . .the nature of culture is change. Just look at Italian-American communities v. Italians. Do you have to be “taught” to be Asian American? Not all Asian Americans are recent immigrants; some families/communities have been mostly assimilated for a long time. I’m also thinking of this kid I knew in college – his parents were 100% Greek, he spoke the language fluently, they followed Greek customs, and he taught at a weekend language/culture program for Greek-American kids. In his words, he had two hours a week to try to teach them to be Greek – and it was impossible. Same with teaching Asian-ness in some cases.

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    1. For being really tired, you still make sense. Lucky. I hardly make sense even when I’m not tired. Oh, but back to your comments. Thanks! YOU brought up an excellent point with the Italian-Am community. I think there is something to be said about how many generations your family has been here…if anything it’s just food for thought. And there is also an economical aspect of poor/struggling Asian Americans vs affluent and established Asian Americans that I just wanted to bring to the table since food is around 🙂

      BTW, how’s that Korea presentation coming along? (*taps foot*)

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  4. Well, yes to learn confidence but not superiority is the golden path. By the way, best wishes in Thailand. Learn and enjoy all you can.

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