January 29, 2018

Growing Up in an Asian Household

As we were driving home one day last week, Kyle asked me out of the blue, "what kind of parenting skills would you take away from your childhood?" I had to really think to myself for five silent minutes. It became a tough answer to break down in just a simple matter of a couple sentences. You see, this year is a big year for us in focusing on family, specifically expanding our own. It's why we're moving into a modern 3 bedroom condo, in a safe, quiet neighborhood. I've taken on a couple of other photography projects to stabilize my freelance life. We're reading books on parenting and seeking advice from our new mom friends. Yet reflecting on our own childhood brings about the complexity of becoming new parents - would you parent as you were raised?
I grew up in a typical Chinese immigrant household. I'm first generation born in Queens, NY to my mom who emigrated from Chongqing, China and my dad who emigrated from Kolkata, India (he is Indian-born Chinese within the small community of Hakka people). When I was a little over a year old, my mom and dad packed a U-Haul truck with their things, and sat me in the middle of the front seat for the 10 hour drive from Queens, NY to Greensboro, North Carolina, where I'd spent the early years of my childhood. In this smallish city of a predominantly white population, my parents flourished with their modest Chinese restaurant in a friendly, neighborhood shopping center. My dad is an excellent chef and my mom is the smartest person I know. Business was well - after 4 years, we moved from a cramped 2-bedroom apartment that housed myself, my mom and dad, my grandpa, and my uncle to a huge 4-bedroom house in the suburbs. My parents worked doubly hard at the restaurant when my younger sister was born. They labored away for 12 hour days from 10am to 10pm, and would come home to me waiting up for them, hiding under the chair to surprise them and play. They'd take me and my sister to the restaurant with them some days, where I'd stay for hours and hours playing in the booths, eating chicken and broccoli (my dad made the best), drawing, talking with the waiters, trying to entertain my toddler sister when I was just 7. I can't remember the first time I was beaten, but I do remember it happened more as I sneaked around trying to access the internet by AOL dial-up in my parents' office when I wasn't supposed to. It would happen when I came home with B's in History and English, my hardest classes. And any other time I disobeyed and disrespected. The clothes hanger was the worst one for me, especially when it broke on impact. I had only white friends in elementary school, since I was the only Asian kid, so I didn't have another friend I could truly relate to; there were many times I had wished I had their parents and their freedom whenever I was over at their houses. When I turned 13 years old, we moved across the country to Irvine, California - the safest city in America. The beige, master-planned community was itself a bubble of perfectly trimmed landscapes and upper-middle-class families just trying to get into the right neighborhood for the right public school zone. I moved here with no friends, but I was excited to make a new life and meet kids that actually looked like me. The schools were great - as soon as I started 7th grade, my grades drastically improved to straight A's and I made friends quickly. But my mom's grip tightened even harder. My curfew was 5PM, I had no phone privileges, and on a weekly basis my mom would check my AIM history. My teenage years were my most rebellious years, and the most painful. My clothes and bras were cut up with scissors at one point, I've had any object thrown at me and used to beat with, and I've been locked out of the house multiple times at night. She'd scream at me for being a trash daughter when I knew how hard she worked and sacrificed everything for me and my siblings. A social life was a foreign concept and I distinctly remember the words, "I own your life".

As I reflected back on my mom's parenting when Kyle asked me the question, I immediately thought of my teenage self living with resentment. My mother's discipline and Tiger Mom strictness pushed me to rebel and endure an endless cycle of hostility.  I lied to be able to just hang out with my friends or boyfriend, I've snuck out many nights, and I've packed my things and run away. I went to get my driver's license the day I turned 16 and I got a job at the same time to have a semblance of my own life, even if it was just working at a pretzel shop at the Irvine Spectrum. It was the independence I craved. I was the oldest of three and I had the inherent burden to take on the responsibility of my siblings' well-being along with my mom (my dad, all this time, was never a present father as much as a provider). All the while, I was still more so a happy, nice girl with good friends, an amazing GPA, and a healthy, well-rounded persona. I was eventually allowed to sleepover at my girlfriends' houses and I did still have a lot of fun memories at high school dances and trips to Disneyland.  My mom never questioned my needs for school or extracurricular activities: she bought me a violin when I wanted to start Orchestra and drove me an hour each way to San Gabriel Valley for weekly private lessons, she'd hire a tutor as soon as I struggled on a subject, she enrolled me in SAT classes every season, and she'd walk right up to the school's office and stick up for me when I was found truant many times. While she sacrificed her money, time, and life to making sure I had everything I'd ever want or need to succeed in school, I was fighting with her on everything else. I had read somewhere recently, that the discipline of a Chinese parent is their communication of love; the harder they hit you, the more they love you.

At the end of my childhood, I got accepted into University of California, Berkeley, and I knew this was possible only because of my mom. When I showed her my acceptance, she did a little nod and said, "good".  She put me on the path to success and as soon as I left her house to live in the dorms 500 miles away, I felt free.
My mom and I are best friends now. She respects me as an adult and I see her nearly every weekend and I think about her every day, hoping that she's happy and well every minute of her life. 15 years ago, I had wished for a different mom and today, I couldn't feel more lucky to have had her as my mother. She is an amazing woman with a heart of gold and again, she's the smartest person I know. My mom's discipline stems from her own parents and Chinese culture. She fled communism when she was 19 years old, landed in Austria with just $50, and slowly made her way to America as a waitress. I truly respect my mother and her past and I understand that her intention was never wrong. I would never have thought I'd reveal my childhood publicly, as I'd never want to paint anyone of my family in a negative light, but this is the truth of my childhood and most childhoods of immigrant children. We as first generation children laugh about this now through memes.

Honestly, I still don't have the answer to the question of what parenting skills I'd take from my experience. In the end, I feel like I turned out great and successful as a healthy, happy adult, so was everything my mom did correct? Not exactly; I wouldn't enact the extremity of her discipline onto my children, but I will try to match the level of sacrifice and love my mother had always shown.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences from your childhood to also perhaps how you'd carry your experience to your parenting. Let's chat in the comments!   



  1. My parents were very strict as I was growing up as well. I remember all the times I was stuck inside the house, looking out the window at other kids playing and wishing so badly I could go and join them. But instead I had to stay in and do chores and math problems or study for things I absolutely hated. I used to have a sketchbook hidden under my school books and hide just so I could draw.

    My best friend was music, as always, and I don't remember having a second separated from my walkman - the only thing I felt really understood me. Just like you, I ran away from home too, but not to go out with my friends, but to follow my dream of becoming a designer and trying to get a resemblance of how freedom must feel.

    Now my parents and I are getting along great and I understand they only wanted me to have a better future. But I wouldn't raise my kids that way, I think that kids can grow up to be respectful adults without being overly strict with them and instead just trying to resonate with them and explain things in a way that makes a difference and they feel truly valued.

    Anyways, loved your post! Thank you so much for being so open and vulnerable.

    As always, much love <3
    Style Unsettled

  2. Reading this brought tears to my eyes. I can absolutely relate to your up bringing in so many ways. I too, grew up in an immigrant asian family and my parents (especially my Mom) were extremely strict. The way they communicate there love is so different from western culture. There were no hugs, no "I love you's", no praises and compliments. They are over protective, abusive at times, and need to have full control over their kids. Yet they are so incredibly hard working, and I know they would do anything and everything they can to see us succeed in life.

    I want to write so much more, yet I feel as if you have already taken the words out of my mouth with this post. Especially your final sentence: "I wouldn't enact the extremity of her discipline onto my children, but I will try to match the level of sacrifice and love my mother had always shown." I am now in my early 30s, and a mother to two little girls, your words gave me goosebumps as this is exactly how I feel about how I want to raise my kids.

    Whenever someone asks me what was the one thing (that stood out the most) I felt has changed after I became a Mom my reply would be my love for my parents - it has deepened, grown even stronger, and I appreciate them for every thing they have done for me. The good, and the bad, because I know it came from a place of love.

    Thank you for this post. <3

  3. As I was reading this, I was both appreciating how it sounded so familiar to my own experience, but also feeling a little twang of pain, because I know that hesitation to divulge too much information in fear of others thinking less of your family, when their hardships are, in fact, responsible for your successes. The immigrant experience is so nuanced that I don't believe it can be broken down into "Oh, your parents hit you? That's so wrong!" or "Being too strict limits children's abilities". Perhaps it is so because there is never any doubt, in stories like yours, or mine, that our families love us.

    Thank you for sharing this, for writing this. I love seeing fellow Asian women shining and doing their thing. <3

    A Mainstay

  4. thank you so much for sharing- I'm sure it wasn't easy! I am so happy to read that you and your mother have a great relationship now as you realized that she was just a product of her upbringing. You will be a great mother.

    xo. SN | www.sahonynatasha.com

  5. Definitely the realest, most raw post I've ever read from you. It must have take a lot of courage to write down these truths to share with us readers, and for that, THANK YOU, Stephanie <3

    I'm especially happy to hear that you and your mom have the best relationship now. I've heard plenty of "tiger mother" stories and while they may be hard to swallow for some people (I didn't experience it but I'm Malaysian so it's easier for me to listen to the stories), the children in these stories amazingly always end up doing well in life, and you're obviously a living proof of that xxoo

    xo, Liyana | Affordorable