Set Me Free

The other day I caught up with an acquaintance of mine over coffee. At one point he shared about how he felt misunderstood and embarrassed by his Asian parents. He said that his parents do not know certain specific details about his life, like his specific graduate degree program. While I tried my best to display empathy to this person in the moment, on the inside I felt annoyance bubbling up in my chest. At the end of the chat he stated with such an earnest tone that he appreciated our conversation, though I walked back to my apartment more perturbed than before.

I think I felt annoyed because this person did not display much understanding or compassion toward his parents’ circumstances. I’m not saying he has to love his parents or feel any particular way about them. However, in the past this person has made comments praising his white fiancé’s parents for being the type of wealthy white people who will donate their money to charity if you just heard a plummeting sound, that’s the bar for humanity spiraling toward the earth’s molten core. I felt frustrated with this person because we have talked about the importance of recognizing how forces like racism and oppression influence mental health for people of color in the United States, yet, I doubted his ability to see that his own parents are people of color, too.

When I brainstormed the structure of this post, I wanted to avoid it coming across as a cruel roast session of this one specific person. I remembered that during my childhood, I viewed my parents sometimes through similar Asian stereotypes that this acquaintance alluded to, casting my mother as the tiger mom and my father as the awkward Asian man. I have definitely grown out of those views and can see the tumult my parents faced as refugees in the United States from the American War in Vietnam. Still, I feel understanding toward this acquaintance because when you grow up in a white supremacist, white-majority culture, you’re at risk for adopting the dominant group’s view of yourself and your loved ones. I can practice cordiality with this acquaintance and compassion for what I perceive as internalized racism, and at the same time I’m allowed to feel frustrated that he’s not more critically interrogating the privileges his white fiancé’s parents possess and how those privileges affect the ways they can show up in relationships, compared to his own parents who faced greater hardships.

Reflecting on all of this made me so appreciate the Asian and Asian American artists and researchers who have role-modeled thoughtful self-reflection about their families and race. In books like What My Bones Know by Stephanie Foo, Tastes Like War by Grace Cho, and even We Were Dreamers by Simu Liu, I have witnessed these folks reconcile their parents’ imperfections with the hardships they faced as refugees and immigrants. About two years ago or so I read and savored this research study about 25 Korean American emerging adults who displayed appreciation for their parents’ instrumental aspects of parenting; through understanding their own culture and taking the perspective of their parents, they refuted stereotypes of Asian parents as fundamentally unloving or cruel. Similar to Foo’s relationship with her bio parents, I don’t condone or forgive my father for his neglect or my mother for her persistent emotional abuse. At the same time, my parents did support me financially and instilled within me a level of discipline that to this day helps me thrive in my work, relationships, and hobbies.

It’s wild to me that my mother had my older brother at the age of 26. I’m 27, turning 28 in a couple of months, and I’m just relishing in the independent, childfree, romantic partnerless living that has helped me form boundaries, heal, and develop some empathy for my family. Aside from my grandparents, they were awful to me, though I also learned a lot from my father and mother. My father always did what he wanted and never cared about other people’s perceptions. My mother occupied her time with work, music, and exercise. I’m seeing now that they showed me what it looks like to do your own thing, to occupy your own time not out of necessity or isolation but from a place of relishing in your own company. On a more granular level, this enjoyment of my time with myself has precluded me from many mediocre romantic relationships with men; I’d rather read a book or go on a walk or journal. As a child I felt so trapped in my parents’ household, though as an adult, I’m cherishing more and more the things they gave me that help set me free.

On the note of set me free, Twice’s new song “Set Me Free” – it’s solid right?? Not sure if it’s my favorite from them though it’s def danceable, and I love love love the second prechorus. Nayeon and Dahyun are my favorite vocalists in the group (I feel like I’m one of the few fans of Dahyun’s vocals, they’re so soft and ethereal!) so to experience Nayeon’s glorious piercing vocal followed by Dahyun’s sweet tone then harmonizing with Jihyo’s power vocal… whew I died. “Got the Thrills” is also a standout song from their mini-album. Anyway, thoughts on the post or your own perception of your parents over time? Until next post!



Filed under Personal, Society

11 responses to “Set Me Free

  1. If it’s any consolation, I’m not Asian and I was always incredibly embarrassed by my parents too. Then I grew up and discovered I was absolutely right to feel that way 🙂

  2. Interestingly, the novel I just read, Stand Up by Nikesh Shukla, has the main character starting to understand the struggles her parents had and how that made them who they are today. As for me, I have tried to get rid of my internalised view of myself from mine! I’ve been proud of how capable I’ve been this week not only to live in society (honestly, you know the kinds of things we get told!) but to live and operate in a society in a different country and language, happily trotting around Spain doing loads of understanding people and things and asking for help with our recycling from random strangers, etc.!

    • That novel sounds fitting in relation to this post, thanks for bringing it up Liz! I appreciate you sharing about getting rid of your internalized view of your parents from yourself. Love seeing you be proud of yourself as well that’s how I feel too, about both you and me. (:

  3. The problem with the west..not generalizing but I don’t know which term to use, especially the American TV shows or the media influence they bestow is that of black and white, from my experience. Lacking intersectionality, critical self-refection implies to our own pitstops. And like you said seeing something on a – granular level – develops this capacity within ourselves to accomodate for the web of a relationship and a human tendency. That way parents are not overbearing. It is easy to label but the reality is easily distinguishable from the label. I am sure the kind of relationship most of our generation has with parents is similar. They could have been inexplicably terrible, but it’s also true they have blessed us in some way if not well or greatly. So to dismiss means a great deal which requires us to think, to wait…that’s the best way to go on.

    • Yes I resonate with a lot of this comment, thanks for sharing Pranamya! Love the notion of incorporating intersectionality and critical self-reflection. While I suspect some parents were just inexplicably terrible and did not contribute really anything positive to their children’s lives, it’s also important to be able to witness and understand the shades of grey in other situations. Appreciate you reading and stopping by!

  4. Hi Thomas, I’ve been following your Goodreads account for a while and taking on your book recommendations! This is the first time that I stumbled across your blog post. Thank you for sharing your reflection and the exchange between you and the acquaintance.

    I wonder how much of this embarrassment on behalf of our (Asian) parents is a projection. Perhaps, you’ve heard about Carl Jung and his theory on the shadow self. Projection happens when we attribute unacceptable thoughts and feelings (of ourselves) to others. Hence, you may sometimes get the hunch that the problem is with you when you dislike a person’s behaviour or words. Anyway, it’s not my place to analyse anyone but I, too, can relate and acknowledge how racism and white supremacy affect our thought process (both consciously and unconsciously).

    Just my two pence!

    • Thank you so much for following my Goodreads account and for this thoughtful comment on this post! Yes, I think projection makes a lot of sense here, about how perhaps those with internalized racism may then project that onto their parents. There’s someone I know in my personal life who fits that description super well, unfortunately. I hope you’re well and thanks again for taking the time to read and comment.

  5. This kid, you — are 50 and more shades of brilliant. Accept that. embrace it. Choose a man that knows this about you. I promise many will from just being near you. It’s time to drop all the bad and accept you’re all the good. And I’ll accept nothing less from you.

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