The long overdue conversation that Asian kids need to have with their parents
Being the youngest of three children with a significant age gap between me an my elder siblings was a double edged sword for sure.
On one hand, I was given the largest share in chocolates, allowed to hijack my brother’s birthday and received pocket money from both my parents and my sister when I was in college. In short, every attempt was made to spoil me rotten. :P
To my credit, I did everything right. Scored in the top percentile in all my classes, arranged my uniform after returning from school and never bothered my parents much. The path was set. It was a straight one . Good academics, good job and good health. Or so my parents expected as they never had much time to focus on my minor eccentricities, which were indicative of deeper problems.
I don’t ever remember saying “I am not fine” because I always wanted to be fine and not add to my parents worries. But I wasn’t fine, even as a kid. I was hyper sensitive.I wanted to learn arts and music but continuously repressed my inner desires for the fear of compromising my studies. I was too young to notice that I was slowly tying my self worth to my achievements.
Achievements that my siblings didn’t have because they were struggling with their transition to posh schools from relatively normal ones when my father was transferred to a bigger town. Also since I was young, the transition wasn’t that tough for me . Unlike my poor brother and sister who were in their teens, I didn’t have to leave behind familiar friends and settle into a completely new environment. So it was the elder two that my parents focused on.I was not the kid they had time to worry over. I was manageable, quiet and sorted. And though I received lots of love and affection , there was also an implicit expectation on me to not add to their worries. To walk on the straight path even though clearly my heart constantly tugged me to divert from it and walk on a new one where I could be a bit more careless,a bit more adventurous,a bit more alive.
I still remember the look of disappointment and fear on my father’s face whenever I faltered a little.The underlying question was , “Shit, do I have to worry about her too now?”. He tried to mask it but it was there. And thanks to my hyper sensitivity, I have been excellent at gauging a person’s inner feelings. So since the age of ten, I began believing that I had to do whatever it took to keep my parents from fretting over my future.
Thus I doubled down on my effort to be excellent at everything I did and I did receive praise for it. But it soon became the norm. Worse, it became an expectation and slowly a burden. I was tasked with the responsibility of keeping issues such as anxiety and depression at bay on my own. I began believing that if I felt these emotions, it was somehow tied to the tangible achievements of my life. But it wasn’t!
I sometimes wanted to scream at everyone in my teenage years. I remember looking at myself in the mirror and hating my reflection. No perfect scores, no extra curricular achievements did anything to mitigate the loathing I felt towards myself. I was developing a tendency for self flagellation way beyond what could be considered to be normal. I hated myself constantly and every minor failure added to this toxic mindset.
And I didn’t even find it abnormal. I never mentioned it to anyone because I was brought up in a way where being enthused about your goals was adequate to keep you happy. As long as you had a socially sanctioned purpose, you were golden. Mental health, emotions and vulnerabilities were nonsensical topics which didn’t warranty attention of parents at dinner table conversations.
All societies suck but Asian ones suck the most because everyone is obsessed with success. Not happiness. Just good old traditional definition of success. Good grades, Ivy league education, excellent job and a socially suitable union(homosexuality is still a big no no). If you are hyper sensitive, suck it up , get in line and work towards your mission. Mental health is a first world issue after all!
We can’t blame our parents for not changing the society. That’s beyond their capacity.But we can begrudge them(just a little) for not normalizing being different from others. So many wrong things are normalized in Asian societies .Our eating disorders weren’t a secret in our high school years but it was normal, just something everyone expected to pass on its own. Our panic at not being able to find a pen was apparently normal too. Being cooped up in our rooms for hours at a stretch , reading books so that we don’t have to deal with the intrusion of our annoying relatives/neighbors was normal too. But being different, wanting different things, thinking differently wasn’t normal.
And when we felt ashamed of our existence for not scoring a perfect 10 or not getting into an Ivy league college or not being the prodigy who is good at everything , that was normal too!
We are expected to be fine. We are expected to live in this world of light and joy where everything is free from the shadow of pain because we are like everyone else. Only our parents never told us what to do when we discovered we were different. When we discovered that we feel hurt ten times more deeply than other people do. That we see worlds in the pages of books written long ago where others see just black and white.
At the crux of anxiety and panic attack is a sense of not belonging, of deviating from the norm and being unable to relate to what other people consider to be important. And I don’t know why some kids grow up to be this way. Maybe its some different wiring in our brains, maybe its like the Mark of Cain that one must bear.
But parents are supposed to notice this. Even if your child pretends to be fine, the cracks in their mental health are apparent. You just need to stop long enough to notice it. To take a break from the society around you and not be reticent about mental suffering like your parents were. This culture of desiring social sanction by having kids who put up this facade of being put together and successful must end.
When you expect your children to tick all the boxes for being an ideal child, they grow up to be adults who measure their self worth through their pay checks, forever confined in those boxes. You can’t live your dreams vicariously through them because then, they will never live their own lives, only the one that you have constructed for them. And its asphyxiating.
Personally, I now make it a point to tell my parents about my fears and panic and anxiety. They squirm in their seats during the first ten conversations for they never expected me to turn out to be so messed up but I see my vulnerability as a strength.
The eleventh time onward, they start engaging with me on it. They too share their fears and their feelings with me now.The conversation they have with my three year old nephew is more about happiness than success . Little by little, I am learning to trust and love myself . And I think my parents are learning along with me .