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Real Talk Tuesdays: Listen to Ben

My views in no way reflect on the entire site, and are mine and mine alone.

In a recent article by Queena Lee-Chua published in the Inquirer, she explores what it means to be raised by the perceived strict Chinese-Filipino parenting style; and how the children of the those raised as such should see it.

I vehemently disagree with what she has written, and I’ve done my best to write a response.

“I did not have a happy childhood,” Ben says.  “During summer vacation, my friends were playing basketball, but I was taking classes in Math, English, piano.  When I made mistakes in tests, I got spanked.  Now I got second honors, but my mother got mad, said I was lazy and wasting money.”

“If your mother were not so strict, you might not have achieved what you did.” I sympathize with Ben, but I have to give another perspective.

“I never wanted honors.  I just wanted to have a normal life.”

For so many of us who grew in Chinese-Filipino households, this is how many of summers went. I am no different.

To this day, I resent the times when I could have had a summer. One where I could have done nothing more but be a child.

Instead, I had summer classes on art, something my mother never had. I do appreciate this. I never would have learned to hold a pencil the way I do now if not for it. But there was also how being a child (one with a normal, playful, maybe even halcyon summer) would have meant getting told by my grandmother that I was lazy. An idle child without productivity.

Saying that I was bored would have gotten me a nagging. I would have been told that I sounded like a privileged brat.

Why don’t you clean the house instead. Go learn the family business and man the cashier.

But I am writing this article as a reply for a different reason. And it’s because I am angry at so many things defended and disregarded in this piece. Miss Lee-Chua doesn’t seem to see pain – at least not in the way Ben does.

Ben wanted a normal life – wants a normal life. And instead, the distress he feels is twisted into a single claim: that this is how his parents show love.

Achievement is love?


I shit you not, I am livid at this lack of sympathy. Achievement is the only way to get ahead for a better life? Therefore the punishment dished out due to the failure of Ben to meet expectations is an expression of affection? That is abuse, plain and simple.

“My parents don’t love me,” Ben cries. “My father is too busy working to care. My mother is a housewife who goes to school a lot and gossips with other parents about grades. She gets mad when my friends or cousins get higher grades. She was never an honor student, but she uses me only for bragging rights.”

“I am not defending your parents,” I say. “But many Chinoys, especially those raised in traditional families, do not express love the way Americans do. They seldom hug their kids. They rarely say, ‘I love you, son’ out loud. They were raised that way.”

I echo Ben’s pain so literally it hurts. All he wanted was to be a normal kid. Normal grades, normal summer, normal expectations.

I had a grade below 90 once or twice. I got careless; was told that they expected more.

“Arrogant test-taker”. All because I would miss the right answers and not get a 100%.

When I was 8 or 9, a score of 99.5 meant that I dreaded going home. Because the yelling that followed included ridicule.

You made a stupid mistake that cost you a perfect grade. You could’ve gotten higher; done better. You could be better a daughter we could brag about.

All I wanted was to be told, at least once, that a 99 would have been a good job.

“You grew up watching Western sitcoms where children talk back freely to their parents and are portrayed as smart kids who outwit clueless adults. Movies end with parents apologizing to kids and saying how much they love them. Real life often does not work that way. In reality, the collective experiences and wisdom of adults are still highly valuable. Kids need to listen to their parents.”

Ms. Lee-Chua completely misses Ben’s point. She puts his pain aside; and equates depression as a consequence of misplaced expectations on his part; and says that a “Western ideal” has ruined our idea of parental love. From personal experience, I can say that this is not the case for so many of us.

Movies from Hollywood show kids that they can be heroes. They also show parents learning to accept their kids for who they are; and occasionally, we see them apologize for their mistakes. These things have not warped our perspective of love.

We were children who wanted parents to be happy with what we strove to give them. They asked for the very best. This very best is what we work to offer; this is how we honor them. But that has clearly never been enough.

At some point, it just feels like your hard work is never appreciated. Because love comes at a price you can never reach.

As young children, we were taught to respect elders and to never question their wisdom. But what happens when your efforts to prove their wisdom right never comes? How does one feel love? In fact, how does one feel cared for – when the only result you always get is chastisement?

“I tune out my mother. I hear her voice in my nightmares. Is this how she shows love?”

“Unfortunately, yes. I don’t think she’s right. She’s putting undue pressure on you. But for many Chinese in ancient times, the only way out of poverty was to do well in the civil service exams. Education literally was a lifeline, unlike in the US, where until recently, going to college was a choice, and many people could earn a good living without a diploma. In the Philippines, we pay lip-service to education, but the way up is still often more of whom rather than what you know.”

I’ll take a small step back here.

I am in Medicine and I wanted to be in it.

My own parents’ concerns over my pursuit of Medicine was because they had hoped that I would end up working in media and arts instead. This was, however, a place I clearly saw no space for myself to be in.

Medicine is what I want. It’s something I am still working at. And I wholeheartedly appreciate all that my parents have been doing for me, as I continue to work for my license.

But what I want to say is that the expectation of success has become a bad habit.

To not achieve is to fail yourself, your parents, your family – your bloody cow. Somehow, that means that you deserve to be kicked in the hypothetical nuts repeatedly. The result of this thinking is that you begin to think that all the bad things happening to you is your fault. Nevermind if it’s true or not.

It is true that any parent will always want the best for their child and push them to do better. But there’s a difference between the verbal abuse that this culture produces, and the encouragement to do better.

I don’t remember receiving the latter. What I remember are the waves of anger and disappointment which I experienced almost daily.

I was an honor student, so consistent it was the norm. But hey, if you weren’t Number One, or by chance your cousin did better, you aren’t the child they want.

chinese parenting is damaging

Many of us give up with the high standards that this parenting style puts us through. More are trapped in the vicious cycle of working for a family they do not love; at least, not anymore.

It’s worth pointing out that using ancient civil service exams as a reason for the verbal abuse so many of us got is plain wrong.

History did not have to repeat itself. But apparently, it did.

I don’t think telling us “It’s just how it is,” is good enough to justify the consequences. Nor the havoc that it has wrought on so many of us.

Ben was crying.  “They won’t understand.  Sometimes I just wish to end it all.”

“You are depressed, get help,” I say.  “Show your parents this column.  They love you.  They give you everything.  You love them.  When you become a parent yourself, you will understand the pressures they are facing.  But this vicious cycle would end with you.  Promise me to love your children unconditionally.  Do not spoil them, but guide them to do well.  But never equate love with achievement.”

This section is my biggest problem with Miss Lee-Chua’s article.

It is clearly unsympathetic to everything Ben has been trying to say.

You’re not hearing Ben. His cries fall on the deaf ears of a person defending this kind of parenting style and claiming that Western media has warped our perceptions; or the use of the history of poverty to excuse the pain we experience.

These “defenses” to do not ring true to a child raised in this cut-throat manner.

Please, listen. Ben is already suicidal and yet is told that his pain is invalid. That his feeling of loss over the love of his parents isn’t real. That he too will understand that this pain will go away.

Listen. Please.

Miss Lee-Chua, what becomes of this, is that love is seen as the lack of encouragement. And that nagging and yelling and humiliation is the equivalent of a privileged childhood because it “pushes you to do better”.

And while you tell us that can break this cycle; you’re also saying that we can’t do anything about how we were raised. It feels almost, like you have asked us to give up on ourselves.

Many of us definitely do not want to raise our potential children this way. But right now, we already understand what’s happening to us.

You’re telling us that we should accept what has happened to us. That we should just move on and not do it in turn. Some of us aren’t parents yet! What of our pain? Our sadness, our anxieties, and nightmares? It’s complete bullshit that the pressures I will face – and have faced – should become the burden of by my children.

Ben has already told you he is suicidal. So many of us have become this way. It’s not that simple to go look for help.

You say our parents love us – but you are also telling us we should accept the abuse they doled out. If that is the criteria for love, then yes, I have felt love all my life. But I have never felt cared for at all.

Yes, I had all the things I needed to live. Except, for the one thing I needed, to show me that I was supposed to be alive in the first place.

You rebut Ben and his tears and respond with ideals of hope that his parents will understand. But the very mentality you endorse will never understand. Because if they did, Ben’s fear and helplessness would not exist in the first place.

Real Talk Tuesdays is where we encourage contributors to share their feelings with us on issues in “the real world”. They may or may not have to do with geeky things. If you ever stumble across something that you think any of us would be interested in, feel free to drop us a line!

Nicole Santos
Future angry surgeon. Currently a fidgety nightshade.

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