“I finally feel like I don’t owe my parents anything anymore.”
This was the heavy confession I told our couple’s counselor last August, as my husband and I returned from our honeymoon in Hawaii. It was a deep sigh, a release from the weight of so many years of tiger parenting deeply ingrained in me as the child of immigrants.
My parents came to the U.S. from Taiwan in 1982, lured by the opportunity to build a new life. They adopted Western names, William and Mimi, to better assimilate into American society. While my father had dabbled as a small-time soap opera actor and my mother briefly studied fashion design, they hung up these dreams for more sensible endeavors: working as a waiter and waitress in a family friend’s restaurant. As the children of Chinese Nationalists who lost everything when they retreated to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War in 1950, they simply understood when it was time to grow up.
We did not have much as I was growing up, and my childhood was filled with the expectation that I would be the future of my family. This was particularly true for my mother’s side of the family, of which I was the first American-born grandchild.
We did not have much as I was growing up, and my childhood was filled with the expectation that I would be the future of my family.
For the first five years of my life, I was sent overseas to live in Japan while my parents worked long hours in the restaurant in Dallas. In Yokohama, my mother’s sister and her Japanese husband had no children and they cared for me as their own. They were loving and doting, but the price of their guardianship was the constant daily reminder that I would eventually need to return the favor. “Will you feed us someday?” “Will you bathe us when we are old?” “Can we live with you?” “Look at everything we do for you. Look at how much we love you ― do you love us, too?”
Slowly, I learned to oblige with a meek nod and to mumble some satisfactory answers, hoping they would change the subject. In those formative years, I learned to give emotional support, but never found the words to ask for it myself.
Upon returning to the U.S. to begin grade school, I was relieved of the daily questioning I received in Japan, but quickly learned that life in America was all work and no play. For Christmas one year, my parents gifted me a Hooked on Phonics program to ensure that no one would mistakenly enroll their daughter in an English as a Second Language class. A few months later, my mother asked my father for a piano for her birthday so that I could begin music lessons. When we were able to afford a computer, they brought one home -– a clunky, grey NEC -– so that I could learn to type well before my peers.
My parents spent every dollar making sure I was at the top of my class for the components they valued: academics and white-collar office skills. For years, they shuttled me from piano and violin lessons to advanced math classes and SAT prep. And each year, they asked for perfect grades, glittering trophies from piano competitions and an obedient daughter.
My parents spent every dollar making sure I was at the top of my class for the components they valued: academics and white-collar office skills.
This life is not new to millions of mixed-culture Asians growing up across the globe. A quick scouring of “Subtle Asian Traits,” a popular Facebook group for relatable posts on Asian culture, yields tons of stories related to Asian parenting. Many of us have carried this burden with us well into adulthood: We must make our parents proud, we must provide for our families, and most importantly, we cannot fail because they sacrificed so much.
For me, this pressure has always manifested in the form of a singular, overarching goal throughout different junctures of my life. As a youth, I was expected to graduate at the top of my high school class and get into an Ivy League university. In my 20s, I had to land a well-paying job and establish a solid career. And now, in my 30s, I needed to find a life partner they approved of and get married. Done, done and done.
Growing up, I never questioned the impact of my upbringing and carried it with me in stride. It gave me immense pride knowing that the tireless work ethic and focus my parents had instilled in me could inspire my best moments. I thanked them in my high school graduation speech as valedictorian. I gifted my first year-end bonus to my parents entirely in cash, knowing my father would never deposit a check.
While we argued often during my formative years, my teenage rebelliousness in action only went as far as choosing, against their wishes, to participate in a school play my junior year of high school and staying out until midnight the summer between high school and college. Deep down, I knew that they loved me and only meant well –- after all, the price of success was having a little less fun than everybody else.
Now, at 31, I’ve examined my upbringing through the harsh lens of depression, anxiety and imposter syndrome. Each time a major life event triggered a need for therapy, I desperately sought to understand, “Why am I not happy? Why is this still not enough?”
Through a handful of failed relationships in my late 20s, I unearthed a whole slew of unpleasant side effects that I carried with me into adulthood: difficulty showing weakness and asking for help, a constant need to “be the best,” and endlessly seeking external approval.
Now at 31, I’ve examined my upbringing through the harsh lens of depression, anxiety and imposter syndrome.
Perhaps the hardest thing for me to stop doing is that I make my life much harder than it has to be, because I expect extraordinary things of myself every single day. I was devastated to realize that tiger parenting had taught me how to achieve, but never how to truly live.
And so, my wedding meant so much more to me than just a chance to celebrate the love my husband and I had nurtured over the years. It was my ticket out of the mental prison of expectations that my family had laid the foundations for, and that I had continued to build around myself – a chance to show my parents that I understood them and a way for me to make peace with myself.
My parents were very hands-off throughout the wedding planning process. They didn’t ask for much, but they didn’t need to. I had been to enough family weddings to know what was expected of me: a tea ceremony, a red qipao and a father giving away his daughter. I also knew that this wedding would be a reflection of my parents, and I had to give them something to be proud of, to honor them and to recognize their sacrifices.
Like so many things in our family –- feelings, illness, conflict –- this was just another unspoken understanding. With the weight of this pressure on me (much of it self-imposed), I broke down multiple times throughout the last year of wedding planning. Would they notice the little touches? Oranges to signify wealth, chopstick favors for fertility, roast pigs to symbolize the bride’s chastity? Would they be able to hear the playlist I had painstakingly curated, full of nostalgic Chinese ballads from the 1980s?
For months, I agonized over tiny touches, dug deep into my childhood to find the right details, and feared if it was not good enough, it would all be a missed opportunity.
I knew that my wedding would be a reflection of my parents, and I had to give them something to be proud of, to honor them and to recognize their sacrifices.
And so, last August, my husband and I got married in beautiful Mammoth Lakes –- a destination wedding in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California that reflected our love of the great outdoors. To properly honor our Chinese heritage and to make the travel worthwhile for our guests, I insisted that we do the traditional Chinese tea ceremony and a 10-course dinner banquet the day before our actual wedding. We rented a rustic, raw space, hired the best Chinese restaurant we could find in the area to cater and planned for an evening of dance and musical performances.
I also designed and hand-made most of our decorations to save money: a 4-foot diameter double happiness sign, 1,000 paper cranes strung up in garlands to honor my Japanese relatives, hand-cut menus and table numbers printed at Office Depot, meticulously wrapped floral arrangements and so much more.
As the event came together that Saturday, I was enraptured watching my parents throughout the night. From the first few thumps on the drum, my mother’s face lit up in delight as the lion dancers made their grand entrance for a daring bench routine. They clapped along enthusiastically to an upbeat tai chi dance choreographed by my friends from a college dance troupe. And as my husband’s cousin performed a moving rendition of the Butterfly Lover’s Concerto, I could see my father’s eyes welling up knowing too well why I had chosen this musical number.
I had poured my heart and soul into this event, and I left that evening with a sense of accomplishment, knowing that my parents understood the day had been orchestrated for them ― my ultimate gift in appreciating all they have done for me.
Yet the closure I got from our wedding weekend actually came from our American-style wedding day. My husband encouraged me to give a speech about my parents and I found myself at a loss for words. While I felt relieved, even somewhat triumphant by the way Saturday had unfolded, my feelings toward my parents were still a complicated, tangled mess. I had spent my whole life trying to prove myself to my parents and meet the unrealistic expectations they had heaped on me from a young age. I grew up knowing that while I was loved, I was also an investment to my family. I had not experienced a normal childhood. But look at what we had to show for my troubles!
I grappled with this never-ending cycle of nagging resentment and immense guilt toward my parents, a constant inner battle between my American independence and Chinese reverence.
I could not help but recognize that they only meant well and had paved the way for me to have a better life. Like so many of my peers, I grappled with this never-ending cycle of nagging resentment and immense guilt toward my parents, a constant inner battle between my American independence and Chinese reverence.
On the Sunday morning of our wedding, I finally found the right words to express what I felt. I realized I wanted to tell them that I had been watching them, observing quietly and learning from the way their relationship grew through the years. Under a canopy of lush red florals, I told the story of my parents’ whirlwind romance: How they met during a typhoon, married after three months of dating and moved to a new country together. I shared that they were not college-educated but had forged fulfilling careers for themselves in Dallas, where my father runs the city’s leading Chinese newspaper and my mother found her calling as a professional bridal seamstress.
I spoke of my family’s harrowing experience with cancer, when my mother was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, and how I came to comprehend real, unconditional love by watching my father care for her on a daily basis throughout those difficult years. But most importantly, I told my parents that they no longer needed to worry about me because I had married a man who treated me the way my father treated my mother.
I proudly proclaimed that I recognized that they tried their best, that what they did for me was more than enough, and that I loved them so much. The irony is not lost on me, that the same words I wanted to hear my whole life were the words I tearfully told them as a newly married woman.
The irony is not lost on me, that the same words I wanted to hear my whole life were the words I tearfully told them as a newly married woman.
Later that evening during our father-daughter dance, I quietly asked my father if he was happy with the wedding. He replied, “In this lifetime, I have never been happier.”
As the post-wedding bliss begins to dissipate these last few months, I still feel as if a weight has been lifted. In some ways, marriage was the most significant milestone to usher me into adulthood. My parents have long let go of trying to dictate my life, but these days I’ve also let go of the resentment I’ve harbored all these years. I’ve vowed to take the lessons from this experience to help me be a better mother to my own children ― to let them live normal lives, express their emotions and, most importantly, learn how to be happy.
I am sure that my depression will rear its head again in the coming years and I will fall into old patterns from time to time. My marriage will have difficult days ahead; my mother has already begun speculating whether I am pregnant or not, and when the time comes, I will torment myself over what it means to be a good mother. But for now, I share this story because it is worth celebrating a rare moment in which two vastly different Asian generations can reach a deep understanding of the love they have for each other. For now, I feel free.
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