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Tiger Mothers: An Asian Adult Child’s Guide to Reclaiming Your Self

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I actually wrote this article in 2006 when I titled it, “An Asian Adult Child’s Guide to Reclaiming Your Own Mind”. In light of the recent “Chinese Mothers are Superior” article, I thought I’d share how ANY adult children who have been programmed for self-hatred can begin to reclaim themselves as human beings.

If you are like how I used to be, you have the mind of a well-trained, obedient Asian child trapped in the body of an adult (“Adult Child”).

You probably did really well in school and/or went to a really great college and/or have a respectable career (Traditional Asian favorites: Doctor, Lawyer, or Engineer.) You also have lived a good miserable decade – if not more – of your adult life. You look very successful on the outside and feel empty on the inside. You make good money and a live a poor life. You are connected to the right answers to all the test questions and disconnected from the real answers in your heart.

I thought it would be helpful to introduce a short guide for the Asian Adult Child to try something different. As you would expect from me, this is a practical guide, with real tips that you can use immediately. This is also a short guide, because 1) of my short attention span and 2) stuff that works usually doesn’t get too complicated.

Tip #1 – Practice Saying “No” to the Following:

  • When a parent asks, “What are you going to be when you grow up? A Doctor? Lawyer? Engineer?” (assuming your passion is to build houses)
  • When a parent asks, “Why don’t you just try doing this job / marrying this person for a few years and you may grow into it / him or her?” (assuming you don’t like the arranged marriage or an arranged career)

Tip #2 – Practice Saying “Yes” to the Following:

  • When a parent asks, “Don’t you know how much we have sacrificed for you, by bringing you to/giving birth to you here in America?” (especially if your answer is the silent retreat to guilt)
  • When a parent says, “Are you out to …break my heart / disappoint our ancestors / give your mother a heart attack / make us lose face with our friends?” (especially if your answer is the silent retreat to guilt)

Tip #3 – Practice Saying “I don’t know” to the Following:

  • When a parent asks, “How are you going to make a living doing that?” (even if you do know and are dying to justify the question with your answer)
  • When a parent asks, “How can you waste all those years we / you invested in your education by doing something completely unrelated?”

Bonus Tip – Practice Agreeing to the Following:

  • “You are an embarrassment to the {insert surname} family!”
  • “Why can’t you be more like {someone else’s name, usually an annoying sibling or relative}?” (bite your tongue from responding with, “because I’ve got parents like you.”)
  • “If I had known you’d turn out like this, I’d have never brought you to America / given birth to you!” (remember, your empathy is very important for this agreement, therefore, show empathy)

There you have it. Practical advice to help your parents lower their expectations, give up on you as a means to live their unfulfilled dreams, thereby freeing you to explore what you really want out of your own life.

Now, go live the life you want to live.

Related… (and a 2011 update) – This post is, in many ways, part of a long journey of me writing a book that I’ve wanted to write for 9 years but wasn’t ready to write it or knew who I was writing it for. To read about it, go to “About This Book” for The Youngest Light.

Written by Jane Chin

January 12th, 2011 at 8:55 am

  • Here is my comment to a father on how he can help his son analyze abusive messages into actionable and more constructive/less destructive ones:

    http://www.chinspirations.com/mhsourcepage/asian-students-depression-and-suicide-begin-with-the-parents/comment-page-1#comment-175660

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  • Joe K

    I saw that vile Chinese Mothers article a week or two back. It made me so much more grateful for having mediocre English parents and teachers over the years. Despite the drawbacks, they really gave me the courage to realise that when they were unhappy with my performance, the fault was plainly with them. Perhaps the problem with Chinese parenting and its underlying assumptions is that at least a part of it is actually quite legitimate and useful, which makes people more hesitant to go against the grain even when there’s a clear case for doing so.

    The points the article made about playing the piano and violin seem to demonstrate the failing in the Chinese attitude perfectly. Last time I checked Western music mas more popular in China than Chinese music in the West, and neither seems to involve much of a purist obsession with any particular instrument. Even the dullest American Idol contender seems to display more creativity, if not always talent, than the stereotypical schoolkid ‘perfect’ performer.

    Disclaimer: I’ve had a few beers.

  • Thanks Joe! You did really well even with a few bears 😉

    I was just about to share an answer to a question I saw on Quora that followed the Chua brouhaha:

    “Does excessive parental involvement and a perceived emphasis on unearned rewards in the public school system lead to children unable to cope with modern society?”

    My answer:

    It depends. Remember: modern society is a product of humans receiving current and past parenting methods.

    There is no such thing as “excessive parental involvement” – but there is such a thing as “parents unwilling to let their children develop self reliance” and “parents using their children as instruments for fulfilling parents’ own unrealized dreams or frustrated emotions” and “parents using children as a means of competing and keeping up with the Jones’ children” (I suppose in Chinese society it would be “keeping up with the Chang’s children”?)

    You can be an involved parent to the extent of responsible stewardship, guiding your children as part of preparing them to navigate the rules of society, but also observing them to see how their personality develops and what you can do to help them gain self-awareness.

    Unfortunately parents can confuse “being” with “behavior”. Just because you make a mistake doesn’t make you trash. It means you didn’t know you were making a mistake or you made a poor choice. You can focus on the action and behaviors and teach/guide children on these – because they will actually have control over their actions and behaviors.

    By making it about “them” (i.e. “you’re trash, you’re garbage, you’re worthless), you are training them for learned helplessness, because they have no control over their interpretation that “they’re worthless as human beings”.

    This is why it’s NOT about self-esteem, and parents who coddle are negatively impacting their kids’ self-esteem: the message these parents send out becomes “I just don’t believe you have the inner strength to deal with this,” or “I don’t think you are able to learn how to deal with this”. This parenting method can foster just as much rebellion as the other extreme of parenting.

    I’ve thought about these now as a parent to a young child (toddler) and I’m constantly faced with these choices. And I know first-hand that this is one tough juggle! I hope I get to make more good choices than poor choices in the final analysis. The rest, I count on my child’s resilience.

  • http://www.thehighcalling.org/family/tale-two-failures

    “By Tiger-Mother standards, my husband and I would both be considered tales of failure.

    But if so, I will gladly choose “failure” over “success” any day.”

    Thanks to @swoodruff for sending it!

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  • This is brilliant, as is the article on responding to comparisons. I don’t know why Asian parents make their children’s lives so hard – lives so hard for everyone around. I think i found your blog a while ago and have refound it again just in time.

    My mom has learned to be more sneaky about it – getting extended family members to invite me to church so I can be around “decent people” and telling me how worried she is about my finances and how I’m almost middle-aged. How do I respond to the more underhanded tactics? Our relationship was going really well (for the first time in 30 years) when I was dating someone she approved of, but now that that has changed, I’m getting regular emails with more subtle criticisms. It’s enough to make me want to be estranged again.

    • Hi Sophia, it depends on how you have been responding to it when mom was obvious about it, and how you have responded when she used less obvious approaches, and how you responded to her “guilt by proxy” methods by getting other people to goad you about certain things about your life.

      Maybe one of the ways is to let her worry without offering anything other than acceptance.

      “Yep, I’m almost middle aged. You’re right, mom.”
      “I’m seeing (or hearing) you say that you are worried about my finances. OK.”

      The relationship you thought was going well but changed – it really hasn’t changed. It was going well because you dated someone she approved of. This meant if you hadn’t been dating someone she approved of, then it wouldn’t have gone well.

      So let her be who she is, but free yourself of her “being who she is”, but acknowledging that you have heard her opinions and that is all you need to acknowledge. You keep on living your life the way you believe is true to why and how you are here to “be”.

      It takes practice but it is doable.

  • LR

    My Asian parents told me I would be able to be into my Asian husband for a few years but I’m really not. My husband and I have been married for three and a half years and I can’t leave him for someone non-Asian because he, my Asian in-laws, and my parents have me tied up to him. And my husband is pressuring me into having kids with him in addition to that.