Yesterday during my internship, I had the pleasure of connecting to a young female Chinese student. I’m a college advisor intern at my old high school (YAY, gettin’ back to my roots!) and I mostly work with the sophomore class. I provide them with resources and services to help prepare them for admissions to college. Anyway, this was the last student who I was working with for the day (I was helping my students plan their classes for their senior year). This young woman is bright, hard-working, and strong. As I started talking to her about her classes, she started to open up about her concerns and doubts about her academic performance and whether or not she can get into the really “good” schools (for Asian parents, it’s basically UC Berkeley).
She started telling me about her parents and how her dad is constantly putting her down, telling her that she’s not smart enough, comparing her to her cousins “who go to a harder high school but are getting better grades,” and ultimately chipping away at her self-esteem and self-worth. Seeing her reveal her vulnerability and insecurities to me just broke my heart. It broke my heart because of two things.
First, I saw myself in this young woman. In high school, my mom was (and still is) the epitome of the Asian parent, a tiger mom. An A- disappointed her, “Only A-? Why didn’t you get an A?” and everything that I did was never good enough. I was regularly compared to how my friends were doing in school. I wanted so desperately to hear her say “good job” or “I’m proud of you” and I was always seeking her validation and praise but it never came. It still hasn’t come. Even as I’m about to graduate from UC Berkeley, one of the top public universities in the world (and with a very solid GPA), she still finds ways to criticize and put me down. This young lady who I spoke with recognizes that it’s an “Asian” parent thing for them to constantly criticize their children. It’s an “Asian” thing that explains why parents never praise their children or tell them how good, or smart, or beautiful they are. I told her that yes, it’s completely cultural and I experienced the exact same thing when I was in high school. This was so agonizing to see such a driven and intelligent girl think she’s not good enough…because that was myself in high school.
Second, this conversation broke my heart because it reminded me of the "triple bind" that I learned about in my developmental psychopathology class (see earlier post). There’s already enough crazy things that teenagers are dealing with in high school and teenage girls especially experience many more challenges with puberty, hormones, boys, other girls, school, the media, and everything and anything else. Not only are girls expected to be girls, nurturing, empathetic, and so on, but they’re expected to be like boys, athletic and competent. AND they need to be hot and sexy while doing all of this. My student is on the swim team (just like I was during high school). So not only is she juggling very rigorous and challenging classes, but she’s also playing a sport. She’s trying to do so much, to be so much and on top of the media and societal pressures telling her she should be better and prettier, now her parents are breathing down her neck. This is such a fragile period during a young girl’s life. Her self-confidence is constantly being attacked and to have the people who are supposed to love you unconditionally, your parents, tear you down, that’s heartbreaking.
I wanted to tell her so desperately that it was going to be OK, but I couldn’t because how can it be OK when your parents are ridiculing you even though you’re trying your best, when you’re outperforming more than a majority of your peers, and when you feel like shit because your parents tell you you’re not good enough? This is the thing that really scares me about Asian parents. The lack of warmth and support they show is so detrimental to their children’s self-esteem but even when I try talking to my mom about it, she just remains stubborn and dismisses what I have to say. So I tried my best to comfort my student. I repeatedly reaffirmed how bright, strong, and great of a person she is. I also tried to leave her with some optimism. All my years of dealing with my mom (and being the overthinker that I am) has allowed me to look deeper into her intentions. Our parents are so harsh and critical of us because they want us to do well. They want us to have a good future and this is their way of motivating us. They just don’t realize that it’s a very destructive and counterproductive way of pushing us to succeed but that’s the Chinese culture. This is how they express their love for us, by not showing any love. Tough love.
I was fortunate enough to have a mentor during high school who still plays a very significant role in my life. He helped me through so much and helped me foster my self-confidence. Then in college, I learned to turn to myself for validation. So I told my student that she needs to believe in how wonderful she is because she is truly wonderful. I told her that she can come to me whenever she needs to and that many students are going through a similar situation. I kept telling her how great she is but I don’t know if that made her feel any better. I talked to my boyfriend about this and the next time I talk to her, I will tell her what he told me, it’s going to be OK if you make it OK.