An informal poll of the Barth Community Room at Crowell Public Library last Wednesday indicated that around half of the audience was immigrants and perhaps a half-dozen fell into the “1.5 generation” category.
This was a good pool for Larry Wong, a marriage and family therapist, who was on hand, courtesy of Partnership for Awareness, to discuss the issues related to how children of immigrant families develop their identities, specifically as it relates to East and Southeast Asian culture. As he noted early into his discussion, his family had immigrated to Los Angeles from Hong Kong before he was born; he never learned Mandarin.
“But, I do know how to go and order dim sum, so I’ll survive,” he quipped.
Although presented as a joke, that line was prescient. Wong’s presentation largely drew from a published collection of essays penned by Asian-American students at Dartmouth University titled “Balancing Two Worlds: Asian American College Students Tell Their Life Stories,” and he also included images from the “East Meets West” art exhibit that depicts simplified approaches or interpretations of life experiences between Eastern and Western culture.
Wong identified the surface differences between the two cultural groups. In the West, children and adults are more apt for self-expression and self-sufficiency (“You want [children] to be independent; you want them to take care of themselves”), whereas Eastern culture involves more familial co-dependence and deference to elders (“My cousin in Taiwan said, ‘If you live in the same city, you live in the same house”).
Building a bridge of connection and communication, Wong said, is the most effective way to link your child to your own culture while allowing them to express their inevitable American characteristics.
“I would say, in relation to parents and kids, it’s spending time with one another,” he said. “What I’m talking about is spending time that’s pleasurable, time to have fun. My daughter loves seeing these Marvel comic movies. She loves My Little Pony. She loves anime. I love none of those, but I spend time connecting over things that are meaningful for her.”
Because of how busy parents and students alike are nowadays, Wong recommends penciling in routine, consistent time together instead of waiting for a spontaneous moment of free time. He also stresses the importance of being honest when you aren’t having a good day, because it shows a vulnerability with which children are familiar.
“For our culture, I think that’s a really hard one, being vulnerable,” Wong said. “But for my daughter, being vulnerable builds a connection. It builds a very wide connection. On the other hand, if you only build a narrow connection, you can’t transport a whole lot of values across a bridge that is very narrow. I’m sure we have truckloads of values, and if it’s a wide bridge, we can drive several truckloads over. Imagine, on a narrow bridge, you try to pass all those weighty values. What happens? The connection is lost and that’s not what we want.”
Wong related his own experience as a then-recent college graduate with his father. While growing up, Wong said his father only ever asked him school-related questions instead of generally about his life, and he said he felt no positive encouragement from his father. Later on, while driving, Wong said he asked his father why he never gave that encouragement, and his father matter-of-factly told him that he felt Wong didn’t need it for things he was doing well in and wanted to be able to help out where he was struggling.
“For me, it really was an epiphany, because before that, I always thought ‘he hates me,’ and that there was malice in him focusing on grades and school,” Wong said. “But when we had that conversation, it was nothing like that at all. It was common sense. It helped me understand the meaning behind what he was doing, not just the actions themselves.”
One quote from the book detailed how a Vietnamese-American student never knew how to interpret his mother’s repeated stories on how little food she had growing up, a story to which several audience members appeared to relate. Some saw it as teaching kids to appreciate what they have, but Wong said it could actually burden children with a sort of guilt. Those with Vietnam War-related stories were keen on this lesson.
“How we deal with trauma is, we survive,” he said. “We do whatever it takes to survive, and then you survive. If that’s how you got to adulthood, then it worked. But when you’re in adulthood, all you know how to do is survive, but you’re not in an environment of surviving. You’re supposed to thrive, and you don’t know how to adapt to that.
“Sometimes we have to recognize boundaries of what we say and how we say it, because — while it’s our real experience — it might affect our kids,” Wong added.
Asked about whether parents should actively share their cultural identity with their children here, Wong heartily endorsed it — just in a way that’s healthy for the kids. If a child asks his or her parents whether they’re Chinese or American, Wong said the parent should ask what they think and start a discussion about it.
“I’ll tell you, with my dad, my big regret is that he never spoke about these things growing up,” Wong said. “I would absolutely tell them about my nationality. And even further than that, Chinese culture is about telling stories. I think it’s important that we share with them our experience growing up, but we have to be mindful that this doesn’t become a way of making them carry that responsibility for you.
“That would begin a conversation,” he added, “and that’s the goal of today: to begin a conversation.”
PfA will upload a full video of this presentation, complete with a Mandarin translation, on its website, partnershipforawareness.org, in the coming weeks.