Growing up, I didn’t think it was weird that my Asian parents never said the words ‘I love you’ to me and my siblings. To me it was kind of obvious that they did; I personally didn’t need for them to say it. I could see they loved me just by their actions.
They moved the family to Australia to give us a better life, worked hard to put a roof over our heads and home-cooked dinner on the table, paid for private Catholic school tuition, were like my personal chauffeur service and dropped me off and picked me up when I needed to go to school or work, or an extracurricular activity or to a party, and basically worried about everything I did or did not do.
“Don’t accept drinks from strange guys and make sure to watch your drink at all times,” my mum would advise me before heading out for a big night of clubbing.
“You’re going out too much, your body needs rest or you’re going to get sick,” my dad would lecture.
“Have you eaten yet? I’ve got something in the fridge, I’ll heat it up for you,” mum would say (and still does).
“It’s going to be cold tonight, make sure to bring a jacket,” my dad would say (and still does).
“Slow down you’re driving too fast,” say both my parents, even when the car dashboard tells me I’m driving within the speed limit.
They might not verbalise ‘I love you’ but they show their love through fussing over you, doing stuff for you and their constant worrying over you.
Since I grew up in Melbourne’s multicultural western suburbs and went to co-ed Catholic schools where some of my friends (and boyfriends) were also of Asian descent, I didn’t think how I was raised was strange at all. Almost all my Asian friends had parents who behaved like mine. They were big on the demonstration of love; the focus was not on three little words.
Put simply and generally-speaking, ‘I love yous’ is just not a very common thing for Asian parents to say.
The video below illustrates perfectly how uncommon it is in many Asian cultures to say and hear ‘I love you.’ This video went viral because so many Asian people could relate to it, me included.
Now in my 30s and engaged to Ben, an Australian man of Irish and English descent who comes from a tight-knit large family, I’ve heard ‘I love yous’ uttered more times in a single weekend hanging out with his family than I ever did throughout my entire childhood.
I’m not kidding.
East vs. West
It has only been in my later years, that I’ve really begun to understand how cultural upbringing plays a key role in how we perceive and interact with the world, prompted by the fact that I’m with Ben of course (‘interracial relationship’ is an awful combination of words in my opinion) and that the topics of diversity, inclusivity and multiculturalism have been dominating liberal social media discussions.
I am Australian by citizenship and general way of life, but Filipino in upbringing.
As the oldest child of first-generation, Filipino Australian parents who immigrated to the land down under in the mid-80s, I absorbed many conflicting messages.
Filipino culture, like most Asian cultures, is collectivist by nature which means that group cohesion and interdependence is valued highly. Honour and respect are high virtues in our culture and one generally avoids actions that will bring shame to the family.
Basically, shame (along with public humiliation and scorn) is used as a tool to encourage better behaviour and socialise people into conforming and being obedient, which all helps to reinforce the collectivist value of social order and harmony. We place much greater emphasis on duty toward family rather than independence and autonomy.
In Western culture, people openly share their hurts, their pains, their addictions and their problems. In Asian culture, there is stigma associated with you (and your family) looking less than perfect. Openly discussing problems and particularly ones associated with family, are a big no-no. There is no honour in this, only shame. “Airing dirty laundry” as it is often referred to in the Filipino culture is looked down upon, dragging the family name in the mud is considered a sin. Your stories aren’t just your own in Asian culture, and one must be cognizant of how it impacts the entire family. It is why you often won’t find Asian people just openly sharing their struggles and pains on social media. This is culturally taboo. One second generation member of the Nini clan did this on Facebook, arguing openly with her partner, leaving nasty comments and publishing angry posts (two of the family elders saw it, reached out and reminded them to keep their problems private and ordered that they take down all comments and posts – they did).
In his blog post on the cultural differences between East and West, Tim Challies, a writer and author of several books focussing on the Christian faith writes, “Honor is displayed in obedience and sacrifice while shame comes from disobedience and selfishness.
“Thus even adult children are expected to honour their parents by spending time with them, by obeying them, and by both seeking and heeding their wisdom in major life decisions. And just as parents have sacrificed for their children, children are later to reciprocate with sacrifices that will benefit their parents. The actions or behaviour of children of any age will enhance or diminish the family’s reputation.”
I personally find it odd when people tell me about how they aren’t close to their families, or that they don’t talk to their families or that they don’t like their families. When they talk of having to go out of their way to do something for a family member. Family is a huge priority in our culture and selfishness is frowned upon. If an Asian person has turned their back on their family, there’s shame attached to that. When I was growing up, my parents would often tell my siblings and I that “blood is thicker than water” reminding us often that family ties are stronger than friendships, and whilst friends usually come and go, family will always remain. They’re right of course.
Asian culture is also hierarchical. If you were lucky enough to be born the eldest (I’m being sarcastic here) you were given additional responsibilities, like being expected to obey without question, be the model child and lead by example so that your siblings would take your cue and follow.
If one of my siblings didn’t do their homework or brought home poor marks or stuffed up and made poor life choices, my parents would berate me too. Why didn’t I help them? Why am I not doing more to help them? Can I talk to them and encourage them to do better? It’s my responsibility as the eldest, they would frequently tell me.
This is in contrast to Australian culture, or rather Western society, which places high value on autonomy, individuality and independence. Your choices are your own so the burden of responsibility when a mistake or error in judgment is made is yours to bear. It isn’t usually shared amongst family members or the eldest siblings.
The family hierarchy in Western culture is also much flatter. And while shame is used in Asian cultures to encourage good behaviour, in Western society, the onus is on the individual’s own sense of guilt and conscience to turn poor behaviour around.
The cultural struggle, ‘We’ versus ‘I’
While I had a strict Catholic upbringing in an honour and shame culture, Ben’s upbringing was entirely different.
His childhood sounds idyllic compared to mine. No obligations to fulfil a role within a family, no parental or familial expectations to live up to, no community scorning your poor decisions. He had the childhood I wished I had, full of freedom and independence, making decisions without considering how it’ll impact your parents or on the family’s reputation.
When one boils it down to the very basics, the struggle is essentially a clash of the ‘We’ culture of the East versus the ‘I’ culture of the West. Trying to navigate these two worlds is downright tricky.
How do you honour your heritage while living in an individualistic society?
How do you make autonomous decisions without bringing shame to your family?
How do you disagree with your parents without it being perceived as disobeying?
How do you say no without seeming selfish?
Generally speaking, Asian people have an aversion to direct conflict and confrontation. But I am naturally assertive and hold critical thinking in high regard and use logic and rationale as weapons, sometimes using them to challenge my parent’s authority.
Viewing disagreements through the lens of culture, I can see how my parents (and perhaps others) view me as being argumentative, disrupting harmony and behaving disobediently.
I moved out of the family home when I was just 18, a common practice in Western culture where independence is a virtue and parents are only too happy for their children to leave the nest. In Asian culture, however, leaving the family home is only done if you’re pursuing higher education or a higher purpose. I did so because I needed to remove myself from the cultural stranglehold of my overbearing and strict parents.
Viewing these circumstances through the lens of culture, I can see now why mum feared the community reaction, no Asian family wants to be socially outcasted and no one wants unwelcome negative judgement of others and gossip. Her fears around what they would say about her (bad mother) and about me (bad daughter) was a very real thing.
In Asian culture, automatic respect is granted to those older than you, as age is associated with wisdom, experience and authority, unlike in Western cultures where it seems the older you get, the less value is placed on your contribution and thus, the lower your social worth.
In the Filipino culture particularly, we give people titles for those who are older and who are higher up in the pecking order. To not address someone older than you by their proper title can be seen as an insult.
For example, because I’m the eldest in my family, my sister and brother (and in fact, all my younger cousins and family friends) call me ‘Ate’ pronounced Ah-teh which in the Filipino dialect of Tagalog translates to older sister, or older female relative. Likewise, since my brother is older than my sister, his title is ‘Kuya’ pronounced Ku-yah.
Unfortunately, my brother and sister would fight constantly as teens. As the ultimate insult, my sister withdrew the ‘Kuya’ title and addressed him by his first name, Jerwin, removing any status he enjoyed in the hierarchy (he didn’t care).
It stuck and to this day my sister Jennilyn no longer uses his proper title and addresses him by his nickname, Jer.
In Western culture, putting elderly parents into a nursing home is normal. In Asian culture, it’s not normal, there is honour in doing your duty as a child and looking after your elderly parents. Putting one’s parents into a nursing home is a cultural no-no that brings great shame to the family. In fact, being shipped to a nursing home in retirement is what many Asian parents fear most, mine included (I should note here, that as a teen, when I was furious with my parents, I would threaten to ship them to a nursing home when they were elderly and had full reign over their affairs which horrified them no end, I’m not proud of the things I said in anger, but it’s the past and I can’t change it now ha!).
These are just a few select examples, I could go on, but by now, hopefully, you’ve come to realise the importance of culture and the degree in which people struggle with cultural differences.
Reflecting on the above, I can see how my Asian parents would have had their own struggles trying to raise us with their Filipino (and mum’s religious) values, imparting wisdom and guidance, and trying to lay foundations of morality in Australia’s increasingly secular, highly individualistic society.
When people talk of multiculturalism and diversity, these are merely words and individuals should really go past these surface-level terms to the complexities and the nuances.
How we make decisions, how we bring honour to ourselves, our parents and families, how we perceive and express love, and how we use and view shame, is intrinsically linked to one’s culture and upbringing.
So the next time you start judging someone on how they live their life, what they prioritise, how they should respond or behave and what you think they ought to value, make sure you’ve accounted for context and culture. At a time of globalisation and hyper-connectivity, there really are no excuses for cultural ignorance.
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