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The Challenge of Intercultural Parenting

by Winnie Wong Chase

The movie Joy Luck Club contains a poignant demonstration of the challenges faced by four China-born women and their Americanized daughters. It shows how loving intentions can be misinterpreted. Differing cultural/generational values and the style of parenting (Chinese versus American) work to compound family conflicts. For many Asian parents, teachers of Asian students, and those interacting with Asian youth, these values are or can become important areas of concern. Their resolution can facilitate understanding, empathy and problem solving which can lead to more Harmony, an important value in the Asian culture. It is my observation, and a feeling shared by many others, that Asian parents are among those most dedicated when it comes to family matters. In addition, Asian youth frequently are considered to be a "Model Minority." It appears, however, that there is less than general awareness of the tremendous pain and unique conflict that often results from the interaction of these family members in this country. Interaction problems can intensify when children reach adolescence, the time when dramatic hormonal changes also occur. Asian parents typically function on the principles of Teaching, Advising, and Directing. Face (mien) and family name are paramount.

Parents have the "WE" concept. Youth often function on the principles of Independence, Intimacy (more with peers and less with parents), and Identity (who am I?). They have more concern with the "I" concept.

With those differing perceptions, it is easy to see how conflicts can occur. In attempting to reduce the frequency and severity of these troublesome situations, it is important to become aware of the differing feelings and attitudes being held by family members. The parents bring perspectives acquired from an upbringing in their Asian home country; the youth acquire their references from becoming "Americanized." Some of the more common, opposing viewpoints have been grouped for illustration.

Home Country Born Parents Think/Feel: Americanized Youth Think/Feel:
If I am strict, I am a good parent. This is the concept of 'Yen.' If my parents are strict, it means they do not trust me, and are not allowing me to be myself.
I have a responsibility to guide my children properly and to prevent them from making mistakes. Let me make my own mistakes and learn from them.
My way of showing care and love is to provide shelter and money for your education. Showing affection is totally unfamiliar to me and the way I was brought up. My love should be understood from my actions. I want my parents to listen to me. I want to hear encouragement and to be shown physical affection. I want to feel loved.
As a parent, I have a right to know. I am afraid my children will be influenced, by peers, into drugs, alcohol, and sex and thus escape 'responsibilities.' I want privacy in my personal life (love-life, school, and friends). These are up to me to reveal or to keep private.
As a parent, I have the responsibility and knowledge/ experience to know what is important and 'fitting.' The family's name is very important. I want to be able to make my own career decisions and to be respected and supported in these decisions. Who cares what others think?
In a loud 'authoritative' style of communication (Ma) which is the way many parents talk to their children: "This is the way I was talked to when I was growing up. It means I am serious, and I am very concerned." I want to be treated with respect and addressed in a reasonable way. If I am being 'yelled at,' I do not want to listen to my parents.

How do we bridge those differences? First, recognize that they exist and that they are normal. Next, establish good communication.

There are a number of skills involved in good communication. One of the most important for the interested adult to learn or improve is that of Listening (instead of Advising). To really listen to the viewpoints of youth and then to acknowledge them is vital. This may be the hardest step for the average parent.

To illustrate:

Youth (female, age 14):   "I want to sleep over at Judy's house this Friday. I have never done that before but I am certainly old enough!" (A hint of defiance.)

Asian parent (listening with concern for the daughter's safety and well being):   "I see that you really want to go over to Judy's house to spend the night..." long pause (acknowledging the youth's wish). "I don't know Judy and her family well. Can you tell me more about them? Who else will be there? Are the parents going to be home?"....and so forth. (Open questions to obtain more information.)

If youth's concerns are acknowledged, the chances are much greater that they will become more open to hearing parental concerns. That can lead to answers which alleviate parental fears and reduce, rather than increase problems of defiance and resentment.

A second important strategy is 'Diplomatic Sending.' One way to do this is to use "I" statements. These express your feelings, as opposed to 'You must do this' messages.

For example, the Asian parent may choose to say something like: "I have some concerns about your safety and rest," instead of "No, you always want to do things that are wild!"

The latter is more apt to trigger resistance than to help communication. Diplomatic sending encourages understanding of the parental viewpoint in a friendly way, thus helping problem resolution.

There are two very important truths about communication:

People do not respond cooperatively when feeling threatened.

Most of us learn our communication style from our parents, just as they learned from their parents. A loud, authoritative style is very common to many Asian-Pacific parents. It is used for emphasis and authority and seems to work in the home country. However, it is generally offensive to youth raised in this culture and can promote a very undesirable, defiant attitude and resentment.

Positive Reinforcement and Verbalizing Love.

It is important to praise or acknowledge people for what they have done correctly or well. Most of us thrive on encouragement. Most importantly here, parents' love for their children is best shown through open verbal and physical expression. Without that kind of reinforcement, some children conclude that they do not have their parent's love. To many China-born parents, this kind of demonstrative behavior is unfamiliar.

Asian parents and adults may discover and use other strategies to interact with Asian youth and create the feelings of Respect, Harmony, and Cooperation so highly valued in the Asian family.

For the foreign-born parent, raising children to adulthood in this country, is more than challenging. It may be comforting to know that they are not alone in most of their concerns and that these times of difficulty will eventually cease. Youth will continue to grow, become adults, and progress to experiences with their own children, just as all parents have before them.

Winnie Wong Chase, Ph.D., Licensed Marriage, Family and Child Counselor, was born in Shanghai, China. As an Asian parent, she faced many challenges herself. As a counselor, she worked with youth for 20 years at SDSU. You can write her at 5020-D Baltimore Drive, #184 La Mesa, CA., 91941.

This is part of our continuing series, Bridging the Cultural Gap:   The Overseas-Asian Experience. If you have an Overseas-Asian experience you would like to share, please feel free to send it in! editor@jadedragon.com

Bridge illustration by Duke Windsor.

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