Parents, when was the last time you had a conversation with your child about something other than school? And kids, when was the last time you felt misunderstood by your parents?
Miscommunication is a common problem with many Chinese American families. Not being open with other family members can be harmful to both one’s mental health and their relationships.
Written by Lillian Zhou, edited by Rachel Li
The Chinese Culture and Community Service Center (CCACC) held the “Hear Me Out” essay contest as an opportunity for parents and children to write about their experiences with family communication. The contest received 37 entries, which were read by ten judges.
Three winners of the top prize each won 200 dollars. Ten articles of excellence each won 50 dollars. The final award category, the Judge’s Choice, also had ten essays that each won 50 dollars.
The winners were awarded at a joint workshop on April 6 with the CCACC, CAPA-MC, University of Maryland (UMD) Asian American Studies Program, and the Calvin Li Memorial Foundation. In addition to honoring the writers’ work, the workshop also aimed to discuss how to improve intergenerational communication.
The workshop began by featuring speakers from the different organizers. Paul Li, from the Calvin Li Memorial Foundation, began by saying how after his son passed away, he regretted not getting to know his son on a personal level. In response, he created a foundation to recognize the emotional needs and social challenges of children.
Afterwards, Julie Park spoke about her work as a UMD faculty member and director of the Asian American studies program (AAST). The program addresses the role of Asians in the U.S. and the struggles with communication between parents and teenagers.
Finally, Roger Berliner, Montgomery County council member, talked about the diversity of Montgomery County, with the Chinese American community as one of the largest populations, and the difficulties that the community faces in addressing mental health.
Following the speeches, there was a panelist discussion with some of the essay contest winners about their experiences with family communication.
Tram Nguyen is Vietnamese-American and currently a teacher in Montgomery County. She aspired to be a writer, but her parents wanted her to have a well-paying job. She sought true love, but her parents preferred for her to marry someone with a similar cultural background (e.g. Asian American).
As a child, Tram was very sensitive. She desired a personal connection with her parents, but her parents were rather stone-faced. At first she felt frustrated, but she later realized that her parents grew up without communication in their families and did not know how to express their emotions. Tram began to show her parents how to show love and appreciation, and eventually developed the emotional connection with her parents she had always hoped for.
“I purposefully ask them every single day, ‘how are you?’” Tram said. “Sometimes they’re taken aback, they’re like ‘why?’” But the more I’ve been doing it, the more they do open up, and that gives you the doorway to talk.”
She advised kids to persist and maintain hope when communicating with parents. “Just because they ignore you once, it doesn’t mean that they don’t love you, they don’t know how to communicate,” she said. “So just keep pushing forward.”
Tram also urged kids to understand where their parents are coming from. “They’ve lived very different lives from us, they don’t understand our cultural norms,” she explained.
Kaylen Cheng, a 7th grader at Herbert Hoover Middle School, is not your typical Chinese kid. Growing up in Alabama, Kaylen was not surrounded by many Asians. She is not in the highest math level, can barely speak Chinese, did not know how to use chopsticks until last year, and has a passion for theater. Her interest in theater has been a source of tension with her dad, who is afraid of Kaylen ending up as “starving artist” and wants her to be a lawyer or doctor.
Kaylen was one of the $200 winners in the Hear Me Out essay contest. She structured her essay as a letter addressed to her parents. “I highlighted a lot of the bad that happened in my father-daughter relationship, but I think that there’s a lot of good as long as you are open about it,” she said.
Kaylen believes that it is crucial to have love and communication in a relationship. However, sometimes love can turn into stubbornness. Her parents love her, but do not love what she loves to do. That is where communication comes in. “You want to voice your thoughts,” she said. “Any negative, any positive. I think that's just really important.”
Growing up, Megan Tsui had a rocky relationship with her parents. Her mother was not emotionally connected to her and had little understanding of her feelings and desires. Megan never truly realized that her mother cared about her until she matured into an adult. At that point, she recognized that her mother communicated with and loved her in a different and far more ambiguous way than most parents.
Megan believes that Asian parenting is more authoritarian, meaning that Asian parents have the tendency to demand things from children without asking their opinion. Paul Li added that Asian parents also have a tendency to use scare tactics or guilt-inducing techniques to coerce children into following the parent’s demands, and advised against the habit.
She believes that the best way to bridge the communication gap and extend mental health discussion is to bring up the topic in ordinary conversation. “It happens, people have anxiety, people have depression, and it’s completely normal,” Megan said. “We treat physical illnesses seriously but mental illnesses aren’t treated seriously, so there needs to be a change and all of us can make that change one step at a time.”
Yin Zheng is a Montgomery County parent with three children. In her essay, she discussed the way she raised her children. Her school principal once advised her, “don’t be your children’s friend, be their parent”.
She thought this meant parents needed to correct and discipline children, but soon realized that a good parent has to both be a parent and a friend. She believes it is important for parents to spend time with children talking about what happened in school, who their friends are, and any struggles they may be having. At the same time, parents should tell children their own stories as well, such as the struggles they faced in their own childhood, how their values were formed, and why they have certain expectations for their children. By having these conversations, Yin believes that parents can gain their children’s trust, which will then lead children to respect their parents’ authority.
Yin believes that the best time to talk to children is on family vacations, or in the evening before going to bed. Talking to children before bed should start when they are little so that it develops into a habit.
Sandy Chen is currently a freshman at Montgomery College and was one of the $200 winners in the Hear Me Out essay contest. Throughout her childhood, her parents never cared much about effective communication and shunned her worries about it. Establishing a functional personal relationship with her parents was near impossible for her until adulthood.
Her advice for Asian children undergoing the same experience is to speak up and always demonstrate love and emotion. Expressing oneself is key to communication and includes talking to parents about life’s occurrences, no matter how embarrassing or awkward doing so would be. At the same time, parents should be able to listen to their children without passing judgement.
Lillian Zhou is a 9th grader at Montgomery Blair High School and one of our very own CAPA junior reporters. She was one of the $200 winners in the Hear Me Out essay contest. For her essay, she wrote 2 letters: one to her mom thanking her for raising her and her brother as a single mom; and one to her dad expressing her thoughts on how she felt not having a dad growing up.
In her essay, Lillian talked about how when she was a little kid, she would say “knock knock” to her mom expecting her to say “who’s there?” in return. Instead, her mom would say, “go do your homework, I’m busy”. Lillian originally thought love equaled spending time with family and talking to each other, but realized that sometimes parents express their love in other ways.
As a single mother, Lillian’s mom is very busy with her job and household chores, so is often unable to spend much time with Lillian. But Lillian knows that this does not mean her mom does not care about her. Her mom’s questions about school, the time she dedicates to her job in order to make money to support a family, and her time spent driving Lillian to and from activities all show her mom’s love.
Haiyun Zhang, who flew in from San Francisco, had a young Chinese friend that was diagnosed with ADhD and depression. Her friend felt very comfortable in the Chinese environment, but found it difficult to ask for help when dealing with a mental breakdown.
Haiyun believes that this was directly related to how Chinese culture treats mental health issues. Mental illness is an uncomfortable, ignored, and not well understood problem that can lead to difficulty resolving mental illness.
She cited an example of the low ratio of Chinese therapists to Chinese patients in San Francisco. This was because the Chinese in California were reluctant to pursue mental health-related jobs.
Change of culture is often a cause of aggravated mental illness. White therapists are often unable to understand Chinese culture and subsequently unable to prescribe effective treatments for Chinese Americans suffering from mental illness.
Paul Li also had some words of wisdom to add. He believes that communication is not only verbal – sometimes the first step is just being willing to listen. He claimed that sometimes kids are not looking for a solution or for the parent to take action; they just want someone to listen. He urged parents to lower themselves and be on the same level as their children.
Communicating, whether it be between parent and child, parent and parent, or any other scenario, can be difficult. As Kate Lu, director of the Pan Asian Volunteer Clinic and the Project Manager of Mental Health 360°, put it, “hear me out should be the lifelong theme of communication.”
This article was provided by Chinese American Parents Association Junior Reporter Club (CAPA JRC) with members who interviewed, audio recorded, wrote, translated, and video recorded. CAPA JRC has 19 Montgomery County middle to high school students. They have created a bilingual platform delivering news and serving the community.