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In a recent article by Queena Lee-Chua published in the Inquirer, she explores what it means to be raised by the perceived strict Chinese-Filipino parenting style, and how the children of the those raised as such should see it. I vehemently disagree with what she has written, and I’ve done my best to write a reply.
Disclaimer: My views in no way reflect on the entire site, and are mine and mine alone.
“I did not have a happy childhood,” Ben says. “During summer vacation, my friends were playing basketball, but I was taking classes in Math, English, piano. When I made mistakes in tests, I got spanked. Now I got second honors, but my mother got mad, said I was lazy and wasting money.”
“If your mother were not so strict, you might not have achieved what you did.” I sympathize with Ben, but I have to give another perspective.
“I never wanted honors. I just wanted to have a normal life.”
For so many of us who grew in Chinese-Filipino households, this is how many of summers went. I am no different. To this day I resent those times when I could’ve had a summer where I could’ve done nothing but be a child. Instead, I had summer classes on art, because my mother never had it. I do appreciate this, because I never would have learned to hold a pencil the way I do now. But it was also partly because a child with a normal, playful, maybe halcyon summer would have meant being told by my grandmother I was a lazy child, so idle without productivity. Saying that I was bored got me a nagging, because I sounded like a privileged brat to bored. Why don’t you clean the house instead, they said, go learn the family business and man the cashier.
But I am writing this article as a reply for a different reason. Primarily, it’s because I am angry at so many things that were defended and disregarded in this piece. The author doesn’t seem to see pain, at least not in the way Ben does. Ben wanted a normal life, wants a normal life. Instead, the distress he feels is twisted into a claim that this is how his parents show love. Achievement is love? I shit you not: I am livid at this lack of sympathy. Because achievement was the only way to get ahead for a better life ergo the punishment dished out due to the failure to meet expectations is an expression of affection?
That is abuse, plain and simple.
I echo Ben’s pain, so literally it hurts.
He wanted to be a normal kid. Normal grades, normal summer, normal expectations.
“My parents don’t love me,” Ben cries. “My father is too busy working to care. My mother is a housewife who goes to school a lot and gossips with other parents about grades. She gets mad when my friends or cousins get higher grades. She was never an honor student, but she uses me only for bragging rights.”
“I am not defending your parents,” I say. “But many Chinoys, especially those raised in traditional families, do not express love the way Americans do. They seldom hug their kids. They rarely say, ‘I love you, son’ out loud. They were raised that way.”
I had a grade below 90 once or twice, got told off I was careless and they expected more. Told I was an arrogant test taker because I would miss correct answers, not getting a 100. Once in a while, back when I was 8 or 9, a score of 99.5 meant I dreaded going home because the yelling that followed included ridicule. “You made a stupid mistake that cost you a perfect grade,” would be the gist of it. “You could’ve gotten higher. You could’ve done better. You could be better a daughter we could brag about.”
I wanted to be told, at least once, that a 99 would’ve been a good job.
“You grew up watching Western sitcoms where children talk back freely to their parents and are portrayed as smart kids who outwit clueless adults. Movies end with parents apologizing to kids and saying how much they love them. Real life often does not work that way. In reality, the collective experiences and wisdom of adults are still highly valuable. Kids need to listen to their parents.”
Ms. Lee-Chua completely misses Ben’s point, she puts his pain aside and equates depression a consequence of misplaced expectations. That a Western ideal has ruined our idea of parental love. Based on personal experience, I can clearly say this is not the case for so many of us. Movies from Hollywood where kids are the heroes and that parents learn to accept their kids and apologize for their mistakes is not where we have warped our perspective of love. We were children who wanted parents to be happy with what we have strived to give them, the very best they have asked for is the very best we work to offer and honor them and that has clearly never been enough. At some level it just feels like your hard work is never appreciated, because love comes at a price you can never reach.
As young children, we were taught to respect elders and never question their wisdom, but your efforts to prove their wisdom right never comes to any fruition, how does one feel love? As a matter of fact, how does one feel cared for when the only result you always get is chastisement?
“I tune out my mother. I hear her voice in my nightmares. Is this how she shows love?”
“Unfortunately, yes. I don’t think she’s right. She’s putting undue pressure on you. But for many Chinese in ancient times, the only way out of poverty was to do well in the civil service exams. Education literally was a lifeline, unlike in the US, where until recently, going to college was a choice, and many people could earn a good living without a diploma. In the Philippines, we pay lip-service to education, but the way up is still often more of whom rather than what you know.
I’ll take a small step back here. I am in medicine and I wanted to be in it. It was more of a concern of getting into medicine than not because my parents wanted otherwise – they wanted me to work in media and arts. This, I clearly saw no space myself to be in. Medicine is what I want, still working at, and I wholeheartedly appreciate what my parents have been doing for me as I work for my license. But what I am saying that achieving by this time has become a bad habit, to not achieve is to fail yourself, your parents, your family, your bloody cow, and you deserve to be kicked in the hypothetical nuts repeatedly. You begin to think all the bad things happening to you is your fault, be it true or not.
It is true, that any parent will always want the best for their child and push them to do better, but there’s a difference between the verbal abuse that culture produces as parenting and encouragement to do better. I don’t remember receiving the latter, only the waves of anger and disappointment that the former was something I experienced almost daily. I was an honor student, so consistent it was the norm, but hey, if you weren’t Number One or your cousin who did better, you aren’t the child they wanted. Many of us give up with the high standards this parenting style puts us through, many more are trapped into the vicious cycle of working for a family they do not love, at least, not anymore.
It’s worth pointing out that using ancient civil service exams as a reason for the verbal abuse so many of us got as an excuse is plain wrong. History did not have to repeat itself, but apparently, it did. I don’t think telling us “It’s just how it is” is good enough to justify the consequences and havoc that it has pushed so many of us into.
Ben was crying. “They won’t understand. Sometimes I just wish to end it all.”
“You are depressed, get help,” I say. “Show your parents this column. They love you. They give you everything. You love them. When you become a parent yourself, you will understand the pressures they are facing. But this vicious cycle would end with you. Promise me to love your children unconditionally. Do not spoil them, but guide them to do well. But never equate love with achievement.”
This is my biggest problem in the article. It’s unsympathetic to everything Ben has been saying. Ben is not heard, his cries falling on deaf ears of defending this kind of parenting style through our warping of Western media or using history of poverty for the pain we experience.
Most of the time, these defenses to do not ring true to a child raised this cutthroat. Please, listen, Ben here is already suicidal. Here he’s told that’s invalid, that his feeling of loss of love isn’t real. That he too, will understand that this pain will go away.
Miss Lee-Chua, what becomes of this is that love is seen as the lack of encouragement, that nagging and yelling and humiliation is the equivalent of a privileged childhood because it pushes you to do better. It’s telling us, this generation treated that way, can break this cycle. I hope we can, but it’s also telling us we can’t do anything about how we were raised. It feels that you’ve asked us to give up on ourselves. Some of us are not parents yet! Many of us definitely do not want to raise our potential children this way, but right now we already understand what’s happening to us. It’s telling us we should accept what has happened to us and just move on and don’t do it in turn. What of our pain, our sadness, our anxieties, and nightmares? It’s completely bullshit that the pressures I will face and have faced will be burdened by my children.
Ben has already told you he is suicidal. So many of us have become this way. It’s not that simple to go look for help.
You say our parents love us, but you’re also telling us we should’ve known that through the abuse they doled out. If that is the criteria then I have felt love all my life, but otherwise I have never felt to have been cared for at all. I had all the things I needed to live, but never the one thing I needed to know I was supposed to be alive in the first place. You rebut Ben and his tears with ideals of hope his parents will understand. The very mentality you endorse will never understand, because if they did, Ben’s fear and helplessness would not exist.