Dis.Respect | On Self-Worth
After tackling each of the relationships in my nuclear family, it’s fitting that my final essay for AAPI Month is about my relationship with myself, and my hard-won journey to respect and value myself.
Growing up, my mother used to occasionally call me “Xiǎo ādāi”, which I thought was a common Chinese endearment. I thought it was the equivalent of the American “honey” or “sweetie” or “babycakes”, because when she would croon these words at me, her whole face would light up with love and affection.
It wasn’t until school or high school that I was at the house of a chinese-speaking family and the mother angrily said, “ādāi!” to my classmate when she’d made a mistake, that I learned, to my shock, that the actual meaning of “ādāi” was “dumb.”
I remember coming home and asking my mom, befuddled, why her pet name for me was “little dumb.” She explained to me that Chinese culture could be superstitious and that as way to protect children from the attention of evil spirits who could be listening, parents would often call their children by derogatory names so that the evil spirits wouldn’t know how important the children were to the parents. (I should note that the way she said it made it very clear it was affectionate — so I was asking from a place of curiosity, not hurt).
Yet this is one of the biggest contradictions of asian culture: children are so valued, so important and so loved by their parents — yet culturally, often none of this is expressed verbally or directly. (Or literally the opposite is said!)
What is expressed verbally is oftentimes harsh criticism, meant to correct bad or troublesome behaviors, or shame-laden harangues, where the emphasis isn’t on the action itself, but an attack on the character of the person. (Asian cultures are considered “shame-based cultures” while American cultures are “guilt-based cultures”. Brene Brown beautifully describes the difference between guilt and shame as this, which I’ll paraphase: “Guilt says, “You did something wrong”; shame says, “You are wrong.”)
And if positive affirmation is ever expressed directly, it’s barely positive. Let me humorously explain what I mean by sharing the different levels of affirmation I’ve observed between American parents (or my American teachers) and my Chinese parents.
The point is that to receive the same positive endorphin rush from verbal affirmation that my American friends would get for being just good students, I’d need to be an extraordinary student.
In 8th grade, each subject area would give an award to the top student in that subject by grades, a precursor to how valedictorian was decided. When my older sister was in 8th grade, she won 6 out of the 9 subject awards — and was valedictorian in high school. I’d decided I needed to be valedictorian too. When I was in 8th grade, I won 7 of the 9 subject awards — I remember counting because I felt like I needed to get as many or more for it to even matter to my parents. Ironically, I think my dad didn’t attend the awards night because he didn’t want to take time off and I don’t even remember if my mom said anything positive on the drive home that night. What would have been the occasion for a “no-holds-barred, pop-the-champagne” night for any other kid was just another evening in the Teng household.
Before you write off my parents as heartless, know that my maternal grandparents fled communist china, where people who had wealth or success were targets, and that my parents grew up in an hierarchical, collectivist society with rigid social rules, where standing out wasn’t a positive thing. In Japanese culture, there’s an idiom that says, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down”. They grew up in societies and contexts where standing out was a dangerous thing; where self-effacement is the norm.
I wonder how much of their parenting was the passing down of their parents’ trauma and fear? Or a reflection of how little they were praised growing up? Or what if they were just exhausted from the daily grind of parenthood, scraping to make ends meet, simply trying their own damned best to survive, too tired to pay attention to the youngest child who seemed fine?
All I know is that I didn’t hear words of affirmation or value frequently from my parents — and I wasn’t fine. I grew up feeling like I needed to earn my parents’ love, that I was never good enough, and I was always one mistake away from being “bad”. I also grew up in a fairly fundamentalist Christian context, which reinforced the “you are bad” narrative, where one wrong choice was a quick path to eternal damnation.
I spent a lot of my pre-teen and teenage years lonely, afraid, and insecure, and I compensated by being a world-class people-pleaser (more on that later) and pursuing achievement at all cost.
I pulled my first all-nighter in the seventh grade. I regularly slept less than 4 hours each night in high school, physically crashing at the end of every quarter. While I had a roof over my head and doors that locked, I never felt safe from failure. (Full disclosure: My mom would tell me to go to sleep. But I didn’t and couldn’t. I was unable to let myself sleep until I’d completed every assignment to the quality that I knew was needed to get the A.)
When I look back on this time in my life, I see all the ways I didn’t love myself, didn’t know that I was worthy as I was — and didn’t have the care or compassion that I would have now for that young girl who just wanted to be loved.
“What I’ve learned from talking to so many victims of traumatic events, abuse or neglect is that after absorbing these painful experiences, the child begins to ache. A deep longing to feel needed, validated, and valued begins to take hold. As these children grow, they lack the ability to set a standard for what they deserve.” (22)
— Oprah Winfrey, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing
In the 18 years since leaving my childhood home — more times than I want to admit — I chose into things, jobs, relationships, contexts that weren’t good for me because I so desperately wanted to feel needed, validated and valued. I was a world-class people-pleaser.
Underneath the veneer of perfection was a gaping hole of self-abnegation, that I filled by saying “yes” when I should have said “no”. I settled for crumbs instead of cake, stayed instead of leaving, and mutely accepted less than what I deserved or needed.
Toxic Christianity & emotionally immature theology reinforced this too. I took Jesus’ “the first shall be last, and the last, first” literally, feeling guilty whenever I prioritized my own needs. Forgiving 7 times 70 meant that I excused bad behavior and put the consequences on myself instead of holding the other party accountable. And I completely missed that “Love thy neighbor as thyself” starts with the assumption that you actually love yourself.
Respecting your elders is one of the highest asian values, built around the notion of filial piety, which says that we each have responsibility to the other, that we have roles in society, and that our actions affect the larger collective. It is a beautiful acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of humans; the very reality that I would not exist if not for my parents, my grandparents and the lineage that stretches back through time.
Yet, universally prioritizing the needs of the collective (or your elders) over the individual is a recipe for resentment and submerged needs that erupt and emerge later. There is a cost to compliance — usually one’s self-respect.
And yet, a society where everyone does what they want may be costly to humanity as a whole, as we’ve seen with the human disaster of COVID-19, that requires coordinated, centralized human effort and prioritizing the collective over the individual. Where “self-centered” is truly selfish.
What I’ve learned from setting boundaries with my family is that by paying attention to what you actually need (and taking care of your needs first) gives you the ability and internal resources to choose back into the collective. It’s the three times you say “no” to an ask from a family member, so that when it really matters, you can say “yes” to their ask, with joy.
My origin story is more than just the tension of being Asian and American: it’s multi-factorial, with gender, ethnicity, class, political and economic variables. My grandparents’ fleeing to Taiwan as refugees, a family history of military service, my parents’ immigration to America, fundamentalist Christians, societal misogyny, a mother with Asperger’s, and so much more.
Yet the deep sense of “not being enough” or self-abnegation is more universal to the Asian-American experience that I’d like to think: in 2018, this CDC report showed that, unlike any other ethnic group, intentional self-harm/suicide was the leading cause of death for Asian or Pacific Islanders ages 15–19 and 20–24 in America. This article by a Johns Hopkins doctoral candidate posits that social stigma is one covariant and advocates for more research. This therapist agrees with social stigma and also points to cultural shame and identity conflict.
I agree with all three factors. But where does that leave us? Social stigma and cultural shame are external factors and hard to change (though I would advocate for everyone to learn nonviolent communication); the one area that is within a person’s control is identity conflict — the tension of being Asian and American. But it requires support, safe space and tools to process.
9 years ago, I started therapy and began my journey to unpack the first 27 years of my life and to examine the baggage I’d accumulated in my childhood, what psychology terms “maladaptive coping techniques” — things I learned to do to survive in my early life context that aren’t helpful to me now in my present context.
In therapy, I’ve learned to lean into the duality of being Asian and American, to set boundaries, to communicate my needs, to self-validate, to focus on what is within my control, and to decide for myself what I want my life to be about.
I’ve also learned to love and respect myself; to know my own worth.
These essays I’ve written are the results of careful unpacking of trauma with a trained therapist, hours of reading books on spirituality, psychology and self-help, and practicing physically centering through yoga, meditation and mindful self-compassion.
I highly recommend any and all of these practices to anyone on a journey similar to mine. I also recommend Brene Brown’s podcast, Unlocking Us, Dr. Nicole LePera’s How to Do the Work, and What Happened to You: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing, by Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce D. Perry, which I quoted earlier.
And, when the time is right, I hope you’ll tell your own story in the context of the adjacent stories that have shaped yours — the ultimate expression of the individual and the collective.
This is the last essay in a 4 part series, titled “Dis.Continuity | On Being Asian and American”, a series of personal reflections about the contradictions, tension, and inter-generational conflict from being bicultural. Each Sunday in May 2021, I’ve posted a long form article, reflecting on my own grapplings with one of the classic Asian values, through the lens of my family relationships.
If you’ve been following along this whole time, thank you.
If you haven’t, you can read the series opener here: “Dis.Continuity | On Being Asian and American”, part 1: “Dis.Honor | A Love Letter to my Mother”, and part 2: “Dis.Obedience | Learning to set my own course — and have grace for my parents”, and part 3, Dis.Harmony | On Sisterhood, growing up and apart.