I fell into the pond at my grandmother’s house while playing with my cousins outside in the garden at barely five years old. We were young and mischievous as you would imagine and all the previous warnings I’d gotten from my parents about not playing anywhere close to deep waters were all forgotten with reckless abandon as I was having too much fun. Now looking at it, it wasn’t a deep pond but at five, I could’ve died then and there. Thankfully, my cousins’ cries for help caught the attention of my kakak from inside the house and she came and managed to pull my flailing tiny body out of the home of some very stressed koi fish. That was the first time I cheated death. That day was also when I learned these three things; that 1) pond water tastes like a liquefied fart, 2) I would from then lead a life with debilitating hydrophobia, and 3) instead of comforting me after the traumatic event that I’d just gone through, my mother would come home and hit me for getting myself into that kind of situation in the first place.
The memories from my childhood are pretty foggy but I think that was the first time I really felt the gravity of corporal punishment. I didn’t understand why I received those beatings because after all, it was an accident, and to top that off I was a traumatized 5-year-old who didn’t know any better. Then as I aged, I started learning to grasp the very normative Asian practice of my elders using fear, guilt, and shame to deter me from doing anything —they thought– I wasn’t supposed to be doing, as you would in all Asian households to discipline a young growing human; unless of course they were assigned male at birth- then you should be SIGNIFICANTLY less suffocating, naturally.
In the lens of my parents (and I’m assuming most other Asian parents out there), this method of training your offspring into later being useful, successful, and productive adult members of society was/is the apex of all parenting methods. However, as a result, I no longer found myself wanting to confide in them regarding anything and by the time I was fourteen, I was completely devoid of emotion around my parents (except angst, probably). They created an environment where I was not able to talk to them about my worries and fears because my problems would always be reduced to nothing, and the lack of validation caused me to clam up. When they did acknowledge my emotions, later on, I was already morbidly depressed, and when I’d told them that they just took it as an opportunity to tell me that I wasn’t praying hard enough and that all the hours I spent around devices that emanate radiation were sucking the life out of me.
Fast forward to me at eighteen years old –still depressed as hell but finally out of the restrictive hell that was the public schooling system– and multiple existential crises later, I realized that I couldn’t communicate and express my emotions in a healthy way and that was affecting every area of relationship in my life. Not having an emotional safety blanket from the constant invalidation made me sink so deep within myself that it felt like I had a straitjacket on my inner consciousness. It turned me into an anxiety-ridden human being, hyperaware of everything I was doing wrong. I internalized every slight difficulty that came my way and never talked about it. I was lucky enough though, that I had a group of friends that helped me open up and it was CATHARTIC when I finally did. Thankfully, albeit VERY slowly, the hostile energy at home started to mellow out; and here I am to this day still trying my best to heal and be more open about my emotions.
There is something so wrong with creating whole ass human beings then making them feel like burdens for breathing the same air as you, and inducing fear and respect into them over love. But that’s the problem with Asian parenting, isn’t it? The inherent need to assert dominance as an elder to make sure everyone satisfies their role in the patriarchal familial hierarchy. It’s especially depressing when you’re an irreverent, rebellious young girl.
When I got older and extra analytical, I started to wonder why I craved such showy and vocal displays of love by my parents growing up because my peers grew up in similar environments as I did; not that that made it better but if that was what I taught was the only way I knew parenting worked, then I shouldn’t have despised it so much, right? It then occurred to me that it was all the western media that I’d been consuming that fuelled my need to hear my mom tell me that she loves me. Seeing perfectly happy white suburban families on tv was like a childhood escapist fantasy where these pre-teens were allowed to express themselves, chase their dreams, and talk back without getting chastised for doing so.
Children are ridiculously impressionable so I definitely tried my hand at talking back, only to get sanctioned for it; feeling bitter afterward wondering why the white kids on tv had so much freedom to express while I was in this repressive hellhole where I had to keep my mouth shut and ‘sit like a girl’ and do what I was told with no questions asked. Obviously now I realize that it was just media imperialism at work, and it’s not a ‘white people thing’ to show your kids you love them. My younger self-thinking so was just the result of living in a post-colonial environment where I was conditioned to see white people as the personification of class or grace. It’s funny that I wanted an upbringing like that so badly because white kids will not hesitate to throw dirty shoes at their own parents for taking away their PS4 privileges for a day because that isn’t how I’m trying to be at all.
Alas, as I grow further into my 20s, the unsolicited ‘jokes’ about me getting married and starting a family of my own someday keep becoming more regular during reunion dinners and I have to stop myself from letting the baby barf escape my mouth every time. However, I’d have to be lying to say I’ve never thought about it. Every time that I have, though, has made me overthink and be fearful if the day came where I’d bring life into this world, that I would be an involuntarily verbally abusive, overbearing parent just because that is what I grew up with, no matter how much I’ve disengaged with that narrative. I’ve also come to fear the complete polar outcome where I’m so fearful of damaging my child that I baby my child so much that they’d never have to face harsh consequences for their actions and they grow to be selfish, entitled, and unempathetic human being. Sigh, such is the conundrum.
Time heals, and it’s definitely healed me. All I want for my future self is to constantly keep growing, learning, and forgiving; myself and my parents. They may have been harsh but you don’t often see parents in the west saving half of their monthly income for years so that their children can go into adulthood debt-free. I’ve learned that love can be expressed in different ways and you don’t always need it to be told to you.
I am endlessly grateful for everything my parents have done for me. Asian parents are providers- them providing is their version of showing they care and thus I’ve grown to appreciate the subtle ways in which my grandparents and parents have shown concern or care (even though my parents have become far more expressive than before after a very emotional talk). We as a generation and community do have to improve ourselves and encourage more emotional openness within our families because interpersonal skills matter as much as any other significant life skill- it’s not a western thing, it’s an emotional health thing. I mean, where else do we start, y’know?