The Dirty Side of AAPI Parenting
I've seen firsthand, from so many perspectives, the damage domestic violence does. How the trauma and pain resonates through a community. People always think of the survivors' pain… as they should. But it's not just the survivor who suffers. Abuse is like a grenade. The survivor takes the worst of the impact, but there is a blast radius and those around feel the trauma.
For AAPI survivors, the trauma comes from multiple sources. In society. In family. In communities.
And just like the abuse can be passed through generations, so does the pain.
When I originally wrote this script, I did a lot of research about AAPI dynamics. One study I found from LA, which became crucial for this btw, mentioned well many commonalities among multiple AAPi ethnic groups.
But one that stands out to me now. The groups involved, when speaking about these issues, all mention communication. How they don't have it. How they want it. How they feel it could help begin healing and breaking these generational cycles of violence. ANd how no one knows how to have it.
As someone who still hasn't gone there with certain people… I don't have a silver bullet. But what I do know is that for me, and for those who I still see and still want in my life, it began with understanding.
So thats today. Last week, it was the American part of Asian American. Today. Its the Asian.
As Goldie said, time to talk about the ugly side of Asian American culture and parenting. How Asians dont like other asians, and how we mistreat and abuse and bully each other. Asians from asia tends to dislike asian americans, we are ABC and less than them. And vis versa. Asian Americans tend to be… angry about the fact that Asians from Asia look down upon us, and don't understand the racism we face. Hard to understand when you're raised as the majority I get it but… stil. It hurts. And our culture… my culture. It is beautiful. The language, the clothes, the stories, the food it is beautiful and deep and wonderful but painful and full of misogyny and cruelty that sows domestic violence, disguises control and manipulation as love, enforces a code of silence under filial piety and saving face.
We are caught between two worlds, abused by both parents. The country we live in, and the country our families left behind.
Time to break down how us Asians abuse each other. How our families abuse each other. How our culture sets us up for abuse, and our familial and cultural abuse makes us vulnerable to abuse from future partners. How it perpetuates through generations. How it starts. Why? As best as we can convey it. Through hard won lived experience. From other brave survivors, and stories, research, our lives.
Let's start with how familial abuse can look in AAPI families.
If one story can summarize my Chinese family's parenting, it would be the night we had dinner at BoneFish Grill. My sister and I sat across from a relative in a cozy booth, feeling giggly at the weekday excursion. I don't remember how it began, but they began a lecture. It was about how awful a person I was, and how if I were to ever have hope to succeed I would need to change everything about myself. And quickly. As I started crying into my salad, I heard my sister half whisper to them, ¨I told you she would react like this.¨ And the whole time whenever I would glance at their face, she looked perfectly composed as if wondering why I was embarrassing myself with this elaborate display of emotion.
This is familial abuse. Fun unique part of AAPI abuse. Family abuse. Family as in parents, grandparents, extended family, members of the community etc. In AAPI families, extended family counts as family family. The abuse can come from multiple people at once, or a perpetrator and enablers. This includes children who witness a parent abusing another parent… this is domestic violence.
At the heart of it. Emotional abuse. That story from before. That was a normal part of growing up. Throughout all survivor stories, our own lives, we come back again and again to emotional abuse.
Why? Why emotional abuse. Few reasons.
In many AAPI families, culturally, there is a hierarchy. With children taught to always respect elders, never question or disrespect them. You can't speak up or speak back… or protect yourself or you will be labeled as disrespectful. You are raised in a culture of silence. You are taught to go along with it, to protect the harmony.
And as an individual you represent both your family and your community. So if you do something that is considered bad/shameful/inappropriate by those around you, you can be shamed and judged by everyone. You, You brought dishonor to these people. You destroyed lives and reputations and ruined everything. It's coercive control. Victim blaming. Like you live your life inside these invisible walls you feel you can't cross. And that bad shameful thing? For me it was things like not doing well enough in school. Not being able to pretend I was happy when I wasn't. Not hiding the abuse better. Reputation above all.
But the shame doesn't just come from what you do...it's also in how you look!. How successful you are. Across all stories, there were so many put downs, criticism, and shame. We noticed that in abusive AAPI families, in ours then and now, we are repeatedly shamed and criticized for our looks and compared to others in our community. For example, people are not shy about telling someone that they aren’t attractive, or that they are fat, or unintelligent, etc. This ranges from colorism rooted in anti-blackness: being told you’re too dark-skinned, hence so many skin lightening creams sold in South East and East Asia… to western influences on beauty standards such as plastic surgery for double lidded eyes. Or if we make life choices that are depicted as ¨successful¨ we are asked why we aren't as smart or as hard working as this other person¨. It wasn't uncommon to be greeted by my AAPI family with a ¨what's wrong with your eyebrows?” or ¨why are you walking like a man?¨ ¨have you met Lily she is from China and she just graduated full honors and cooks so well, if you work hard you can be like her!¨. It's this constant cycle of being made to feel that we are never good enough.
But try and say stop? Try to say no? To push back. And you hit that wall. You're pushed back from it. Either by being shut down, or shamed, judged, gaslighted into compliance. Respect Your elders. Don't make waves. Don't act out and dishonor us. Or our cow.
You ask ¨stop commenting on my weight¨ They say ¨well it's the truth, I'm only trying to help¨ Or just ¨ dont talk back to me¨
You do your best. They say, not good enough. Or act like they don't care. ¨if you worked harder you could be as successful as your brother¨
They cook your favorite food or buy you gifts instead of saying sorry. You learn to accept it as the best it'll get.
And when the abuse escalates, the same walls that were already built to control you close in further.
The first time I was hit, it was dismissed as a ¨thump¨
Well it's the truth, I'm only trying to help. If you worked harder you could be as successful as your brother. Have your favorite roast duck. I didn't hit you, it was only a thump.
Why emotional abuse?
It masquerades as love. Control and manipulation is rebranded as ¨concern¨. Gaslighting is recast as ¨respect and discipline¨. Targeted cruelty normalized as ¨well my family is Asian¨.
Why Emotional Abuse?
Because it builds the walls that keep you trapped. And the same walls hold when emotional abuse morphs into something else.
Based on what I've experienced, emotional abuse is harder to recognize, or can be mistaken or ¨normal¨. When you are a child raised in an emotionally abusive household, it becomes normalized. From outside the abuser-survivor dynamic, people can brush it off ¨its none of my business¨ etc or from those outside the AAPI community, have an attitude of ¨well that's how THEY do it¨.
Why emotional abuse?
As we discussed before. There are no boundaries. No communication. So it spreads.
Emotional abuse is easy to pass through generations, especially if children mimic the abusive behavior of their parents because that is the only example they have and there has been nothing to suggest to them these dynamics are not normal. Or, if children witness emotional abuse or domestic violence in general, they may internalize those same dynamics. And in AAPi families, there is a tendency to not communicate about these issues. Children are taught not to speak back, or they are labeled as shameful and disrespectful and disrupting the harmony. Mental health is highly stigmatized, seen as weakness or shameful. So is identifying as LBGTQ. Gaslighitng is never taught. So the tendency to bury issues to look good contributes to perpetuating this cycle.
So that is the What. how about… the how? How does it start? Why? I want to dive into the cultural backdrop. History, culture, immigration, the contributing factors to the how.
Specifically, I want to cover 6 commonalities generally seen across AAPI ethnicities, including religion and social values, patriarchy and respect for family hierarchy, immigration, saving face, self sacrifice.
Understanding the seeds of where violence begins in AAPI communities is crucial for ourselves as survivors to understand and begin to heal, but also gives a lens to allies looking to aid AAPi survivors.
Get ready. We're about to make your ancestors dizzy.
Where does the pressure to maintain face come from? And why are the majority of survivors women and children? Let's start with: religion and social values.
Religion and social values play a role in familiar structures and can contribute to familiar hierarchical structures and patriarchal values that are risk factors for domestic violence. In the studies we read, “Participants across focus groups quickly identified male dominance as a significant dimension of their community’s social reality, and many described it as problematic, particularly in the context of increasingly “modern” attitudes and changing demands on women’s roles both inside and outside the home.``
For example, in East Asia, Confucianism is an incredibly influential part of social ethics, values, and ideas. Confucianism includes 3 major parts, filial piety (respect elders), family harmony, and gender roles that state ¨ “The woman follows the man. In her youth she follows her father and elder brother; when married, she follows her husband; when her husband is dead, she follows her son (8). Filial piety can be defined as children aren't allowed to speak back to adults even about abuse. Family harmony is the belief that an individual represents their family, and a family represents the community. Because of this, families are pressured to maintain a good reputation as a way to create a better society. Gender roles pressure women to endure abuse and work to hide it from others, even if this means exposing their children to abuse. And because women are the ones expected to maintain family harmony, they can face pressure from multiple sources to remain in abusive relationships. This can create a dynamic where families don't set boundaries, due to these religious and cultural influences that sort of automatically set expectations for roles and behaviors (although obviously this is only one source for this issue).
This isn't limited to countries that subscribe to Confucian values. 71% of Korean Americans identify as Christian (1). The AAPC study reported that Korean participants identified this as a risk factor for domestic violence due to CHristianities stigma around sex, sexuality, and discussing sex outside of religous terms (1).
In many Muslim families, the father is dominant force and decision maker while the wife is expected to be subordinate and care for the family (1, 9)
In all these cases, a common theme. Religious and cultural influences create expectations for families. And stepping outside these hierarchical structures can create abusive dynamics.
This really influences why saving face is important in AAPI communities
You have these outside influences that set expectations for how you behave, and these expectations limit how you can protect yourself.
As a result, families do not want to raise issues that might attract negative attention or lead to social ostracism. Parents may also attempt to conceal domestic violence from their children, or flat out deny domestic violence is occuring. Moreover, saving face manifested as a concern among youth who did not want to worry their parents or were hesitant to put parents in a position where they might have to choose between their children’s health and the family name which contributes to our lack of communication skills. There an issue? Just bury it and keep the peace.
There are even well documented examples of eldered widows in domestic violence situations or LGBTQIA elders ostracized (2) for showing the family in a bad light. There’s this point of view that they should keep quiet so the family can continue to look good. This culture of silence even applies to mental health issues, where issues including depression, anxiety, LGBTQIA status are stigmatized (3) According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness ¨AAPIs have the lowest help-seeking rate of any racial/ethnic group, with only 23.3% of AAPI adults with a mental illness receiving treatment in 2019¨
This was also seen across all AAPI survivor stories. Nearly all survivors interviewed even mentioned that to this day, their families still minimize or hide the abuse or try to convince them to act nice with their abuser.
One of the jokes in the AAPI community is “oh, your mom says I love you?”, which is considered a “white” thing to do. For example, your parents may push you to do well in school, but your parents will show love by cutting up fruit for you while you do your homework. Essentially, they’ll work long hours and work and do anything other than saying “I love you” by providing basics but not showing affection in other ways. If they have money, they will buy you things, sometimes really nice things as a way of hooking you in. As if gifts can excuse their targeted cruelty.
There is an attitude of perseverance through all, for example, constantly reminding their children that they sacrificed everything to come to the US or create a financially stable life. A common reaction of immigrant parents is to shame first generation children for not being ¨successful enough¨ or compare their kids with the kids of other people in their community. This contributes to stereotypes about how Asians can only be doctors, lawyers, or engineers as well as the Tiger Mom (these days it's also known as Chicken blood) archetype. They may even shame children who choose to stop working and focus on children, believing that choosing parenting as a career means they are failures.
In many AAPI families marriage is more of a familial and social contract than romantic one which can lead to reproductive coercion from all sides of the family to get married to someone from the same background and have children. The concept of having children for the sake of your parents instead of yourself is common. Which is funny because despite denying any conversations around dating, sex, and healthy relationships, there is pressure to get married and have children. This is to the point where unmarried women after a certain age are being shamed as ¨leftover women in China¨. Marriage and kids are seen as a way to show that you are a good member in the community, especially if you marry someone from the same background, which can lead to further pressure to stay and hide violence to stay in good standing.
There is a stigma that you can’t be a good community member if you’re choosing someone outside the community, which is why in some AAPI cultures arranged marriages still happen. Forced marriage has been found in communities with different religions, including Muslims, Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists. An estimated 11% of people in the US have experienced forced marriage. Hmong advocates even created specific term for when Older US men marry under-age Asian girls- Abusive International Marriage where the age difference can be as large as 70 years (5, 6)
According to Asian Pacific Institute on Gender Based Violence, ¨Approximately 66% of Asian Americans are foreign-born, the highest proportion of any racial group nationwide.¨ Which brings me to a related point, language barriers are also a huge factor. 32.6% of AAPI Americans aren’t fluent in English, which means that as difficult as it is to even contact hotlines, it’s even more difficult with a language barrier. In our previous interview with Yi Lam, she stated that in her pov as a Chinese advocate a lack of language services was one of the largest barriers in reaching survivors.
For Cambodian Americans, only about 59% are fluent in English. Think of what that means in terms of work opportunities or education, daily to dos like going to the bank and opening an account, filling out paperwork, navigation… beyond that the ability to feel welcome. To make friends and networks, a crucial element for survivors, for anyone.
Related...refugees and asylees. Persons who came to the United States to escape persecution in their country of origin. Refugees are immigrants who applied for admission while living abroad, while asylees are immigrants who applied for admission at either a port of entry or within the United States.
At 62%, those from Asian countries made up the largest group of all refugee arrivals to the U.S.
At 26%, the largest group of refugees to the U.S. was from Burma.
At 24%, the largest group of those granted asylum, whether affirmatively or defensively, was from China.
Vietnam. The Khmer Rogue regime in Cambodia. Afghanistan. As I record this, we are seeing the same cycle from Vietnam.
With this cycle, comes trauma. PTSD. Poverty.
Whether they immigrated to America after years of government sanctioned exclusions like the Page Law and Chinese Exclusion Act, or after an American-Incited genodice like many Vietnamese immigrants, PTSD and mental health issues aren't uncommon in AAPI families. And that trauma, the trauma that is then passed through generations, morphs. Especially since mental health help is looked down upon. Many AAPIs turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms. Gambling, drugs, alcoholism. Domestic violence. That said, AAPI folks are the least likely of any ethnic group to seek mental health care (3) and cultural norms of preserving societal harmony and reputation stigmatize seeking help. And again, we already discussed how communication, a lack of communication is normalized. So issues are passed down. Trauma perpetuates. So this is clearly a dangerous cycle.
Additionally, upon arriving in America, many AAPI individuals are confronted with structural racism. Stereotypes like Model Minority, Asian women as docile and sexual, or ¨Muslims are terrorists¨ increase the risk for violence. Even attempts to introduce immigrant stories have been watered down to become more palatable for American audiences. A great example is Eddie Huang, whose autobiography Fresh Off The Boat was the basis for the hit TV show. However, Huang left the show after season 1, frustrated that the show erased the domestic violence he experienced in his family despite it being a key theme in his story. He was quoted saying about the show's executive producer " [He] forgot that successful people of color are in many ways 'chosen' and 'allowed' to exist while the others get left behind." Huang also had less than nice things to say about the lack of Asian writers creating stories for Asian families (something about moo goo gai pan) along with the stereotypical Dragon Lady wife character portrayed Constance Wu and the ¨emasculated Asian¨ husband.
So what does this mean?
The cultural background for many AAPIs include red flags for domestic violence and violence against women: Patriarchy, pressure to marry and have kids, maintaining harmony through self sacrifice, lack of communication and boundaries, and burying issues for fear of familial and community judgement and shame. Refusing to talk about any of this and parents being unable to listen to their kids feedback cause respect your elders and save face young man. And in many AAPI countries, domestic violence and violence against women is an issue that is prevalent, deadly, and often overlooked.(12)
Historically, we see cases of domestic violence and abuse escalate during periods of stress, such as the recent Covid-19 pandemic.(13). Because domestic violence is a choice made by an abuser to gain power and control over another, this trend can be linked to abusers feeling a loss of power and control and attempting to regain it through perpetuating violence on those they feel entitled over.
First off, who do people feel entitled over? Women. Wives. Children. Younger family members. Those who are marginalized.
What kind of stress could AAPis face?
Poverty/immigration/fear of dishonor/racism/immigration/PTSD and the combination of feeling a loss of power and control combined with a backdrop full of red flags for domestic violence can result in violence. Once the violence is sparked, it can be passed down easily through generations. Without the means to talk about violence, it becomes normalized and accepted as how the family is. Within my own family I experienced this dynamic, seeing similar tactics used on my elders that they later used themselves and with me failing to recognize patterns of emotional abuse that became ingrained in my daily life. Once the abuse is normalized, AAPI individuals who experience it are at risk of being victimised by romantic partners of other members of their family or community. They are also at risk of mimicking the abusive behavior they experienced growing up and repeating the cycle with their own children.
Even those who recognize these toxic dynamics are likely inclined to keep quiet, again, due to pressure to keep the peace. Even when AAPI survivors attempt to confront their abusers, husbands, parents, or family members they are often stonewalled. Or, the abuse is being perpetuated by multiple individuals at one time. A report from 2011 on Domestic Violence in Muslim Women found taht 53% of domestic violence was perpetuated by family, and 31% by partners (Due to patriarchal values, women are pressured to accept the abuse or blamed when they cannot conceal it enough. Children who confront abusive parents or family members are often met with defensiveness, gaslighting, and escalated behaviors. With many survivors we interviewed, we found many who attempted to have these conversations with parents or called them out on abuse still have troubled or strained relationships where the parents have refused to apologize and continue to be defensive. We also see cases where family members will try to coax the survivor to make peace with their abuser, especially if the abuser is a fellow family member. The survivors we interviewed experienced this. I experienced it.
What is even sadder is how much this resembles the mistreatment we receive from society.
Pressure to maintain a good reputation? Check for both
Never feeling good enough? Check for both
Your struggles always downplayed or minimized? Check Check Check
Judged against or pitted against others to drive competition and resentment vs solidarity? Check.
Gaslights you into a narrative where you can never fight back or be taken seriously? Check Check Check.
For AAPI survivors, the trauma comes from multiple sources. In society. In family. In communities.
I say enough. It's time to tear down these walls. Begin these conversations. Begin healing.
14. ISLAMIC MARRIAGE CONTRACTS: A RESOURCE GUIDE FOR LEGAL PROFESSIONALS, ADVOCATES, IMAMS & COMMUNITIES
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