Jane's Mental Health Source Page

One of the Web's Oldest Personal Mental Health Sites [Est. 1998]

Asian Shame, Asian Guilt


Guilt is a normal feeling in humans, and has an evolutionary purpose. If no one feels any guilt, then no one feels remorse for any wrong doing. Children when taught social rules of reciprocity, will learn to feel guilt, and this is a normal feeling.

What is abnormal is when guilt is used as a weapon and when shame is used to control a person to comply. Parents who want to exert total control over their children’s being does this through physical violence (physical abuse) and emotional manipulation (emotional abuse). We may be talking about Asian parents in general, but I suspect there are situations of abuse and control across many cultures. The Asian culture may have linked this to social norms that is not accepted in other cultures.

From Wikipedia

From Wikipedia

In Chinese cultural tradition, the notion of filial piety permeates every aspect of a parent-child relationship, and is codified in an ancient text called the 24 Filial Exemplars (The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars / 二十四孝_忠孝雙全).

Please pause and consider this: filial piety has been codified as a set of expectations that every single child I knew growing up (at least, in Taiwan) has been exposed to, and have been brainwashed to aspire to.

Seriously, who can live up to those exemplars who take off their shirts to let mosquitoes drink their fill so the mosquitoes would spare the parents? What about the exemplar who laid down in the snow to melt out bamboo shoots because doctor said parent needs to drink soup made of bamboo shoots? (This was only upended by the story of the exemplar who went to an icy lake to melt out a couple of carps because evil stepmother had a craving for carp… )

What about the exemplar who was too poor to feed both his mother and his young son so he and his wife decided to bury his young son: nice choice between infanticide and matricide. But a happy ending: he finds a pile of gold as he was digging his child’s grave so Yay!Everyone’s!Saved! Some of these tales have even been modified and changed; for example, my most vivid memory of an exemplar story that is not found in these 24 was about a son who sliced off a piece of his own flesh (thigh?) to make meat broth for his ill mother.

A quick read through these tales suggests two core mental programs:

Parents are deities. Parents should be worshiped, parents can do no wrong, and parents have the right to treat kids anyway they choose because parents are supreme. This means parents’ needs and wants take priority over the kids’ and kids’ affiliations (including their spouses and children).

Filial piety is connected to the forces of nature. If you are pious, the heavens will be moved by your piety and you will be saved. Ice will melt, the sky will part, murderers will suddenly see the light and spare you, and you’ll find gold. But if you’re not pious… the world may be your poltergeist.

Over time, these programs become automatic. Even when the parents are not there, the scripts run in the background, and the children grow up checking themselves with guilt and shame to ensure they don’t step out of the filial piety line.

These programs are so powerful, they subjugate entire nations of people: Infantilize the people and appoint yourself the people’s father. You reign supreme (North Korea).

The only true start to overcome this depth of brainwashing is to treat this like a contagion and put enough physical distance AND time (mental distance, emotional distance) from this contagion until you can build a level of immunity.

This means moving away from parents and extended families (since extended families especially abuse ones are the same contagious entity and may even offer opportunistic infections of additional mental programs).

Stay far and long enough away, such that you can recover some of your innate self-preservation, absorb healthy messages, connect with emotionally healthy relationships/friendships, and begin to discern “normal levels of guilt” from “programmed pathological guilt”. Get enough practice speaking up for yourself and standing your ground (in some cases, I suppose get strong enough to physically fight back although if this were the case I prefer complete severance of contact).

Now this part is going to sound extreme and horrifying, but if you’re from this culture, you’ll know what I mean:

This means you must be willing to choose YOUR LIFE over YOUR PARENT’S life.

In other words, if the parent pulls out the big guns and starts thrashing weeping screaming that s/he might as well kill herself/himself and die right now because this impious evil-incarnate that is you won’t do what s/he demands: you stand your ground and choose your own life.

Basically, you are showing/telling the parent that you are prepared to lose that parent to suicide, if you are forced to make this kind of choice.


It sounds that f*cked up.

Because it IS that f*cked up.

Additional reading:
Letters from Readers: Jane Chin, for Joy
Ingratitude: The Debt-Bound Daughter in Asian American Literature (9780814758458): Erin Ninh
My Page on Emotional Abuse at Chinspirations.com
with Elliott Chen for Jane – Eats Tiger Moms for Lunch

Written by Jane

August 27th, 2015 at 9:19 pm

  • Jaz

    I cannot begin to put into words how much this article resonates with me. I’m a 30 year old professional and I’d been living abroad for the past 7 years. Three weeks ago I returned to my mother’s house (she recently separated from my father) and suddenly it’s as if all the improvements we’d made over the the past 7 years disappeared in a second. I’m treated as a spoiled brat and there’s absolutely no winning for me. My mother, of her own will, despite my many objections, set up a room for me in her new place only for my aunt to accuse me of having demanded that my mother buy me all the furniture etc that I wanted. When I said this wasn’t true, this has led to an all out war in which both my mother and my aunt are utterly offended by this and in turn, extremely sad that I made them feel this way. Guilt much? My jaw dropped when you mentioned the parent pulling out the big guns and threats of suicide because this is exactly what my mother did last night when I attempted, mistakenly, to talk to her and discuss my feelings. I completely forgot that Chinese parents do not care about the feelings or thoughts of their children and once again I was silenced as I’ve always been. At this point, I know that I just need to lock myself in my room and ramp up the job hunt until I can leave again. I’m hoping to go abroad again but then again, that decision, just like my decision to go abroad the first time and my decision to go 2/3 of the way across the country for university was made largely because I could not wait to get away from my family.

    After my mother pulled the big guns last night during our argument, I started to google about Asian Americans and their parents and mental health and emotional trauma issues. It has become painfully clear to me that my parents do in fact embody nearly every single one of those stereotypes about Asian parents and none of them very positive. Growing up I used to think that my parents were better than many Asian parents given stories I’d heard (from them) but I know without a doubt now that both my parents are far more Chinese than I ever imagined.

    Are there any books you would recommend reading to help overcome this background I come from? I’ve already more or less cut off communications with my father, who according to my mother, is even harsh by Chinese standards. His lunatic rants about adhering to filial-piety while growing up as American children rarely manifested as guilt within me; instead I’ve always thought of him as a giant a**hole. Next to my father, my mother has always seemed far more even-keeled although I’m quickly realizing she embodies all the stereotypes as well. I’m fed up and emotionally exhausted. The only thing I can say is that I’m glad to finally know I’m not alone.

  • Lyn

    I’m a 30 something professional too with the same kind of family dynamic. My entire childhood and even adulthood, my Taiwanese parents made it a point to drill filial piety into my brother’s and my head. It was a free pass for them to treat us any way they wanted. My brother got the brunt of the physical abuse and I bore most of the emotional abuse, growing up. We were made to live the way my parents thought was right, in terms of schooling, career, marriage, and having children (I rebelled when it got to marriage but that’s where my healing began.) For the longest time, I thought my unhappiness was my fault. I just thought my own submissiveness and depression was a natural part of my personality. I didn’t think parents were supposed to be supportive and encouraging in order to foster children who would grow up to be mentally healthy adults. But after I started working and got married to someone of my own choosing, I started to gain some happiness. My mood was sometimes genuinely upbeat and I could feel myself getting closer to having a well-adjusted psyche. It was mind blowing that being disobedient and going against what my parents had tried to drill into my head actually made me a happier person but it was true. After a decade of being estranged from my parents, I’ve tried working on our family relationship with them again, but being around them makes my depression relapse. After a short period of amiability, my parents go back to being their entitled and emotionally manipulative selves. It’s like they can’t help offloading the damage they received from their elders onto us. It’s a vicious cycle and that’s what’s kept me from wanting to have kids. My brother being the more obedient eldest son, had children starting the first year of his marriage, after marrying a girl my parents set him up with and pressuring him for grandkids. Recently, he’s had a falling out with my father because my parents didn’t respect his parenting decisions, thinking they were the elders, their parenting decision overrode his.

    This struggle doesn’t end even in adulthood. Even if you never come in contact with your parents again, I feel you’ll always have an emotional hole because of what could’ve been. But you owe it to yourself to have your own safe space and group of friends. Respect yourself and love yourself.

    Btw, don’t expect even your more Americanized aunts or uncles to help you. Odds are they will side with your parents.

  • Annie L.

    I’m a 27 year-old American-born Chinese and reading this really resonated with me. During my entire childhood, I never knew what the 24 pillars of filial piety were until I learned about them in my college Mandarin class. I always knew that I was supposed to go to school, take care of my family, and provide for them. My relationship with my parents was always good, I acted as their interpreter for a lot of everyday things like car repairs, filling out tax forms, etc from a very young age. It wasn’t until college that I started noticing a big shift in what my mother deemed was “good” for me. It started out small, like she didn’t want me to stay out late with my friends or date even though I went to school 3 hours away. When I got a job and moved out of their house, she wanted to move in with me and when I attempted to date anyone, she threatened to never speak to me again. When I started dating my spouse, she told me to not call her ever again and when I took a month off to recover from fighting with her for 2 weeks, she called me and blamed me for wanting to kill her. We talked and tried to move past what happened, but now whenever she gets upset, she tells me that I’ve changed and how I don’t love her anymore. I know that I have changed as part of growing up but I love her now just as much, if not more, as I did before. I never meant her any harm and sometimes on nights like this, I wonder if it was my fault. I wanted to choose a partner and start a life and career. Things that I thought she wanted for me but now I’m beginning to question them. She no longer takes joy in cooking, she buys things she doesn’t need incessantly, and when I talk to her, she only talks about the news or weather. It’s like she refuses to be a part of my life even though I’ve really tried to bring her back into mine. I’m at a loss and I’m not sure what I can do. I do feel responsible for her happiness even though logically I know that only she can give herself that.

    • Jane C

      I’m sorry to hear about your experience. However, your mother’s behavior may show that she is going through some mental health issues — especially how she no longer enjoys activities that she used to enjoy, and she buys things she does not need in a way that is concerning. I don’t know how open she’d be to seek help for herself, but it really sounds like she needs a mental health check-up with her doctor.
      You are doing the right thing for your life, and you are doing what you can to stay patient and compassionate, without sacrificing your right to create a good life for yourself.

  • Song

    I’m 41, I was born in Taiwan and raised by my aunt until I was 4 before joining my parents in the States. My father was angry, immature, and unknowingly perpetuating his cycle of violence. My mother didn’t know any better but to allow my father to be. As f*cked up as the filial piety described in this article is, I believe it’s the norm in Taiwanese parents, at least from my parents generation. And when you add my father’s physical and mental abuse on top of that, well, it becomes a nightmare trying to escape. I left home when I was 16, I never looked back until recently. I’ve learned that you can leave somewhere, but that doesn’t mean you can escape. The feelings that made life unbearable are mental, not physical. For anyone whom this article resonates with, it’s not just about leaving. It’s about leaving the culture of shame. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve argued with other Asians about the concept of love. Throwing an extra piece of meat on your plate to express love for your child is weak and bullsh#t. Are they so ashamed that they can’t say it to their own children? Filial piety explains this, but will never justify it. It has become clear to me that Asians who do not accept the western idea of raising kids, generally do not know how to express love, they do not know how to give or receive love. Thus, their kids grow up thinking love is control, which it is clearly not. Those same kids will struggle in American society, mainly because they do not love themselves, they don’t know what it means. And not loving yourself means you will be toxic to everyone you touch in life, especially the ones that love you. Don’t just leave home. Leave the shame, and try to understand and value unconditional love. It’s the only thing that will save you.