Asian Americans joke about being beaten by our parents growing up. It’s a common thread that joins most of us together in tragic camaraderie like veterans of a domestic cultural war.
This and the other trope about high parental expectations are default settings on Asian mode and we just accept it.
Other cultures also experience these paradigms, especially those of 1st or 2nd Generation immigrants. It all comes together in a soupy mixture of Old Country traditions, a desire for success at all costs, and notions of sacrifice and duty.
It’s hard to say where the line is between culture and abuse. Or whether there is a line at all. The two just meld into one another with no distinction. On one hand, I was beaten frequently and intensely in the name of (overzealous) discipline and to “make me a better person”. On the other hand, my parents gave me everything they could.
“Wow, how lucky they are!” I thought when I heard of kids with nice American moms and dads who lectured or grounded as forms of punishment. It all seemed so civil and possible. Why was this ideal not playing out in my own home?
There’s not much to share about the horror of growing up in a household that was frequently dominated by physical and emotional abuse. It just sucks. It’s the feeling of being trapped, abandoned, hurt, alone, scared, helpless, and angry all at once. When I return to visit the family home, it still looks bleak and sad, filled with memories of tears, hurt, and anger.
I knew the other kids at the Korean church we attended were disciplined physically as well so I thought this was a cultural thing. An older guy joked about what his parents used to hit him and the principles behind using a big, thick stick versus a thin, whip-like one. It was openly discussed so it normalized the experience. It seemed like all the other Asians were going through it, so what’s the big deal? It’s a rite of passage.
When it happens, you don’t stop loving your parents so you don’t want to call the cops or get them into trouble. My parents always said that it hurt them more than it hurt me, but I thought that was twisted. I gritted my teeth and bore it. I never fought back but I stood up for my siblings sometimes. Other times, I didn’t want to bear the brunt of their redirected rage so I stayed quiet in my room listening to the screaming and the hitting downstairs. And then, inevitably, the craziness subsides, the pain goes away, and they speak tenderly, so of course I accept their condolences of love. Of course I do. It’s all I have.
This way that love showed up in my formative years fucked with my head. But because there was a latent period, I didn’t know until years later.
When someone loves you and they hurt you, it’s not confusing to a child who sees things as black and white. My mom was my mom, and my dad was my dad, so I loved them regardless.
Especially because my parents were great at providing. All of their time, attention, material goods, and new experiences were showered on us kids. They were always at sports games, recitals, and on time to pick us up.
When I wanted to snowboard in middle school, they bought me a set-up and took me to the mountain. When I wanted to learn drums, they bought me a drum set and got me lessons. When I wanted to play field hockey instead of soccer, it was a done deal.
Every winter, we went on family vacations and every weekend was a different trip to NYC, Boston, museums, hiking, and more. I’ve probably been to every amusement park, shopping mall, and historical site in New England.
It was all the trappings of a well cared for child. I lived in an upper middle class town in Connecticut and played sports, instruments, participated in club activities, and went to church. We lived modestly and my parents made sure I didn’t know any form of lack.
They both had to work when they were very young to support their own families. My dad worked at Burger King when he was in high school to support his family newly arrived in the United States. He was the eldest son out of four brothers and Asian culture holds birth order and gender roles in rigorous regard, so that’s like the creme de la creme. Meaning that position bears with it automatic respect and power, but that also means gigantic responsibility on your shoulders. He put his brothers through college and bought his mother a house. The man doesn’t know how to live selfishly and I don’t think anyone’s ever asked him what he wants.
My mother’s father, a businessman, died when she was young, leaving her mother a widower with five children in old-time Korea, which carried with it a heavy social stigma. It was akin to being an orphan and my mom felt incredibly ostracized and ashamed. She was just a child when she started working, giving her mother any money she made. When she came to the United States after college, she was a young, pretty woman living in gritty, pre-Giuliani New York in the 80’s, running a business with her sister. My mom is someone you want on your side in a fight. For such a tiny, tidy lady, she is scary but gets shit done.
This is the light version of their stories that I’ve gathered here and there. They don’t offer up their past without prompting. In my late 20’s I started to get curious about my parents and began asking questions. I wanted to know who these people were that had raised me. Who are my parents outside of being my Appa and my Umma? It was around this time that I found out my mom’s biological father had passed when she was young and that she had a stepfather growing up. My dad didn’t even know this until I told him, at which point my parents had been married for at least 30 years. Needless to say, there is a lot of repression in my family. A lot of trauma, hurt, and repression.
Both my parents have had to fight. They’ve struggled with getting their basic needs met. Taking a look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, I’m referring to the levels of physiological and safety. So in their desire to give me more than they had, they’ve succeeded- they’ve kept me safe, given me food, clothes, trips, vacations, a home, and an education.
And yet, I was almost a prisoner in my own home. As I hit puberty, suddenly my parents became very strict about hanging out with friends, which meant I didn’t go out at all.
My parents feared the influence of “wild”, American culture, which could lead to exploring sexuality or getting caught up with the wrong crowd. They wanted to limit my exposure to anything that might tarnish a perceived innocence or distract from my studies and they were very successful at doing so.
This created in me a dichotomy of who I was. And as a teenager, I struggled immensely with feeling comfortable and proud of my Asian side. I resented that I didn’t have the same freedoms as the other kids my age and blamed it on the traditions of my ethnic culture.
From my parents’ perspective, they were providing me with everything that I could possibly want and need, all I had to do was study and achieve. The only hitch in this is that I am a dissident who reads too much.
When the abuse comes from your protector, especially one who rarely lets you out of the house, there’s just no viable escape, except through books. I retreated into adventure novels and young adult fiction about expeditions, teenagers falling in love, making mistakes, getting into trouble, and learning from it. I knew what was out there for me.
I identified strongly with rebellious, headstrong female heroines in these stories and yearned to break free. I wanted to experience it all! I craved friendship and connection with my peers, to explore my limits and boundaries, and expand into myself. Stepping into line and being obedient never makes for a good story plot or leads to any character development.
So college then took on this sheen of the Promised Land. The light at the end of the tunnel. The opening bell when I could finally claim my life for the first time.
When adulthood, freedom, and relationships finally came, suddenly all the concepts learned from within the family began sprouting their ill-formed countenances: love, relationships, caring for others, attachment, self-talk, and trust blew up in my face spectacularly. I was heavily stunted.
Growing up, I didn’t know how to handle my emotions, let alone identify and acknowledge what I was feeling. This meant that when shit went down at home, A. I had nowhere to go that was a safe place and B. I didn’t process my emotions. They just sat in me like shit that never went anywhere while I slowly congested from fecal impaction.
What happens when you fail to re-pot a plant? Its roots keep growing and growing in too small of a space slowly choking and suffocating itself.
A Hot Mess
When I was let loose into the real world, there was an extreme failure to launch. Imagine a rocket on its launchpad. The countdown happens… 3 … 2 … 1… Kaboom! And the rocket flops over.
Within the first week of college, I had gotten my first kiss, ran away from the cops, was smoking cigarettes, ripping gravity bongs, getting black out drunk, and skipping class. I was, as they say, a “hot mess”.
Although now I know the key is how I choose to respond to life rather than the circumstance, at the time, I blamed my parents for everything and was angry and embittered towards them. Compared to my peers who seemed so much more worldly and experienced, I thought I was an unsocialized weirdo who had missed out on the teenage rites-of-passage.
All I wanted was to fit in, but I was freshly sprung from being locked in my house with just books for company and only let out for church or school sanctioned events. And I was so used to walking on eggshells that I was a trembling field mouse, flinching at every loud noise, on the lookout for anything that would hurt me, waiting for someone to bark at me and tell me I was doing it wrong.
I was so ashamed of how I grew up, I told white lies about my history. I just wanted everyone to think I was like them. That I had boyfriends, been to sleepovers, went shopping at the mall with friends, went to parties, and all the other things normal American teenagers do. I was ashamed of my Korean-ness, my churchiness, and wanted to whitewash my life. I was getting good at hiding who I was. As a child, I hid my home life, and as a young adult, I hid my past that straddled the two cultures.
For a few years, I went through a phase of being unable to take responsibility. If you knew the extent of it, it’s actually astonishing how little I grasped the mechanics of action and consequence. If I could give it a score, it would be in the negatives. I was so detached from reality and put myself in bad situations constantly because I didn’t think that what I did actually made any difference.
When I finally identified this blind spot, I had maybe just turned 20 and had to make a serious and intentional effort to change this. My life had been so tightly controlled for me that I didn’t understand that my actions had real consequences in this world. Can you get that for a second? Like how fucking crazy that is?
It was a regular practice of mine to jaywalk across the streets in Boston without checking for cars, just daring life to throw me an early death. After my third semester at Northeastern University, I dropped out but continued to live in Boston on friends’ couches, sleeping during the day and partying at night.
One afternoon, I was in Copley Square, people watching and chain smoking – a passion of mine – when my soul tried to leave my body. I’m not sure what else to call it, this something that I couldn’t see but could feel. This entity came floating up and out of my right shoulder like a genie rubbed out of his lamp. And I reacted out of instinct, in the split second I felt this invisible thing and acknowledged that it was real, I moved my body to “re-capture” it within the parameters of my physical form. Like I said, it was instinctual and to this day, I’ve never experienced anything like that again.
Dazed and Confused
The rest of my 20’s was spent stumbling around and trying to heal myself. I began seeking psychiatric help and reading books on psychology, philosophy, self-help, and personal development. I began taking drugs so I could feel comfortable in my own skin and make friends. I experimented with psychedelics so I could open the doors of my mind and see life newly. I turned to running as a meditative exercise and sought out similar experiences like yoga and meditation. I looked for love in all the wrong places and sought male attention to make me whole, worthy, and valuable.
In my mid twenties, I forgave my parents. I understood that they had been hurt and they did the best they could. They just wanted the best for me. At this point in time, they couldn’t believe who I had become and were furious with my life decisions. A waste. Now, they were embittered with me. Why wouldn’t I just listen to them? Why was I choosing this road? The control aspect plays big in my family. Strongarming a situation to win at all costs is standard practice. A battle of the wills.
I turned to my then-boyfriend for advice on how to be with my overbearing parents. He was one of the first people I shared this part of my past with and told me frankly, “Annette that’s abuse”.
“No it’s not,” I insisted, “You just don’t understand because you’re not Asian. It’s discipline. They lost control sometimes but they were just doing what they thought was best.” I felt like I had Stockholm Syndrome.
Growing Into Myself
At the time, it was hard to look back on what happened and agree that I had been abused. It didn’t seem that way. I was convinced it had been just really intense, Asian discipline and that other people just couldn’t understand. The tricky part is separating the good intention from the act. If my parents beat me thinking they had good intentions, could you really blame them? Especially when it is an accepted method of raising children in their generation.
Once I had forgiven my parents for the first time, I was able to move on to the next chapter of my life which was becoming an individual. Like I mentioned earlier, my parents had high expectations and were controlling, not unlike many other Asian parents. This manifests in our culture as a dynamic push and pull between a sense of duty versus independence. I felt like my life was not my own, but was inextricably tied to their expectations. They had sacrificed so much for me, I felt like I not only owed them, but indeed, I owed them my life.
Here at this space between sovereignty and duty, I vacillated, knowing that this was a deeply entrenched belief system that lay in my subconscious. Finally, I declared I wasn’t applying to medical school and instead, took the ultimate trip to Southeast Asia by myself, much to the absolute chagrin of my parents.
The Last Hurrah
This was the first step to declaring my independence. When I was abroad, I saw that people were thinking different thoughts and living vastly different lives. I met Jim in Chiang Mai, Thailand where we started our enduring conversation. I realized the world was much bigger than I knew and I could do much more than the prescribed path that was outlined for me. When I returned home, I began easing into my sovereignty. I had gotten a taste of a great adventure and now was craving more. With that, I began saving money and searching for one way tickets to India.
My parents begged me to stay. “Try out corporate. Apply for graduate school. Do it and see if you like it.” So, like a good, Asian girl I did. I decided that I would achieve the type of traditional success that my parents wanted and then I would bounce. I would prove to them I could do it and then I could do what I wanted. So I got a good job with a promising future at a great company. I was accepted into the University of Connecticut’s Masters program for Business Analytics, which my parents were happy with.
Then, again- the dissident, rebel in me became restless. All the healing I had been on in my twenties was calling to me. And suddenly, Jiim came back to the states and we were of the same mind in desiring adventure and seeking spiritual growth. In him, I found a partner who shared my vision of life. Finding someone who got me, made my dreams not so surreal anymore. They were actual possibilities made real in his validation of my vision and vice versa. So, I took the plunge. I quit everything and declared for myself sovereignty over my own path. At 29 years old, I finally rebelled and got myself out of the neverending simulation of trying to live my life in approval of my parents.
Moment of Insight
But it’s not over yet. I’m still learning how to have a healthy relationship, while maintaining respectful boundaries. They haven’t stopped offering me their unsolicited “advice” on how to live my life. We go out for coffee, which is code for “grilling Annette on what she’s doing with her life”. We do this in a public setting like a cafe because theoretically the social rules will prevent any of us from becoming loud and angry fighting, but most of the time, we still end up terse and angry whisper-screaming. Then, I leave crying. Every time I talk with them, I find out a little bit more about my relationship with them and how we each show up.
For example, the last meeting we had, the conversation was crumbling and devolving into a tense discussion that was notably uncomfortable. I stopped and asked why this had to be our normal conversation. I asked if they could just accept that this is the path I had chosen for now so we can simply enjoy each other’s company while we have it? I pointed out that I continue to show up for these meetings, knowing what’s in store for me, because we are all getting older and I want to spend time with them regardless. In response, my dad said, “But if we don’t talk about this, what else do we talk about?”
Whoa. Full stop. Because I’m starting to see how murky the waters are. People are truly universes within universes. This is how my parents know how to be with me. Did you get that? Did I get that? Perhaps the abuse back then was also the only way they knew how to be with me? I am beginning to get that there is a whole lot I don’t understand, and this latest uncovering is where the developing story is now. So this is where we wrap up because I’m still figuring this shit out live, folks. It’s unfolding before my eyes.
Where To Go From Here
This is what I came here for. When I sat down to write this, my intention was to write about Asian-Americans and the culture of domestic abuse that everyone acknowledges and accepts. But as I sat down and began writing, the words flowed out of me, telling my own story of abuse.
How I received abuse from others and inflicted abuse on myself. How I defined abuse as a child and how I define abuse now. How I searched for healing and how I overcame trauma. And now at the end of the journey, it is a realization that these definitions do nothing for me.
It doesn’t clarify the murkiness of my past that stirs up memories of years of physical and emotional abuse, but also a coddled and over-sheltered life – which was it? It doesn’t point to an understanding of who was right or wrong, whether my parents were the villain or I was the brat who deserved it?
What it does provide me with is a sense that this is just one re-telling of a story that might have happened years ago and that my memory of it is one of tragedy and heartache- of a child who felt so alienated with much sorrow, melancholy, and utter, bleak sadness that she almost lost herself to disease of the spirit. But that is just a memory, a story, that I’ve told myself over the years. And that this is not only my story, but a generational story, hereditary, passed down as memories of trauma from my parents, their parents, and their parent’s parents, and beyond. We are all just in different stages of waking up.