In a Chinese society where tiger parents are the norm, children from a young age are pushed to become the best of the best by attending kindergarten prep schools that include supplemental curriculum not found at other schools, such as English accent “correction” classes, after-school tutorial centers and other extracurricular activities. Children are expected to give back to the parents when they reach adulthood by providing monthly allowances to show “Filial Piety,” a deeply ingrained core value in the Chinese culture which describes respect for one’s parents.
Growing up in Hong Kong, my traditional Chinese parents were no different, often exclaiming, “I can’t wait until our daughter grows up and buys the luxurious mansion/car/dinner for us!” and then they’d turn to me and say, “When we’re retired, remember what we did for you!”
I’d always respond with something along the lines of panicked smiling, wavering eye contact and mental calculations of whether it would be remotely possible for me to buy them the items they were referring to. I’d then quietly wait for the discussion to die out or pray for the subject to change while my anxiety built up.
As a child, my parents enrolled me in ballet, piano, foreign language classes and Kumon, and hyper-monitored every aspect of my life. They made sure every action that I made would be beneficial to my future, and forbade anything that might have led me toward an unsuccessful life ― or what they viewed as a path of “irreversible doom.”
Although I see now they only wanted the best for me, and I appreciate them investing so much money and time into my growth and potential, my teenage self was filled with stress and, frankly, resentment and anger directed at my parents for the high expectations and the lack of freedom I had for my own life — from my parents banning all sleepovers to turning down my pleas to study art in high school, and forcing me to break up with boyfriends to focus on my studies. The more disapproving lectures they sat me through, the more suffocated I felt, and the more suffocated I felt, the less their words rang true to me. Phrases such as “This is for your own good” and “You will thank us one day” started to sound repetitive and meaningless.
“I appreciate my parents investing so much into my growth and potential, but my teenage self was filled with resentment directed at my parents for the high expectations and the lack of freedom I had for my own life.”
Since they didn’t let me study art, they pushed me toward taking business classes in school thinking it would lead to higher wages and better job prospects. I hated it. The year I started taking business class, I drowned myself in self-pity and lost all motivation for school. When report card day came, half of my grades were in red, with the word “RETAIN” neatly printed out in striking red ink. I had to repeat 10th grade.
I was devastated, yet not too surprised. At 16, I had become the thing they dreaded the most: a problematic, academically “ungifted” daughter who failed school.
Repeating the year ended up being a blessing in disguise. While I still wasn’t able to study art, I dropped business from my curriculum and diverted my focus on English literature and writing. My parents didn’t disapprove, and halfway through the school year, I entered a writing competition on a whim and ended up winning a spot to study creative writing in England for the summer.
It was not only the beginning of my journey as a budding writer but also the first time I felt like I had made my parents proud. It was a bittersweet moment when my parents joked with each other, exclaiming, “We finally have something to brag about!” then looking over at me, expecting me to laugh along. I did, because despite all the resentment I felt toward my parents, I still yearned for their approval.
Now that I’m older, I’m finally gaining more independence with my life and I’m grateful for all the opportunities my parents were able to create for me and the times they looked out for me. Without them pushing me when I was younger, I know I wouldn’t have the discipline or motivation to work towards my personal goals of becoming a writer.
However, a new expectation regarding money has weaved itself into the undertones of our conversations: to have enough to support my soon-to-be-retired parents.
“The feeling of inadequacy and the pressure of earning more money linger in mind every time my parents half-jokingly remind me that I’m their retirement plan. The fear of disappointing them outweighs anything else.”
As a 22-year-old university student living in Hong Kong, one of the most expensive cities in the world, that frightens me. In between taking part-time jobs and internships that pay just above the HKD $37.5 (USD $4.80) minimum hourly wage and odd gigs, I’m making barely enough money to support myself. The feeling of inadequacy and the pressure of earning more money linger in mind every time my parents half-jokingly remind me that I’m their retirement plan. The fear of disappointing them outweighs anything else.
It’s almost to the point where I feel ashamed for even wanting to buy something— let alone actually purchasing the item— knowing that my mom would eventually spot it and ask with her eyes narrowed suspiciously, “How much did you spend on it?” and that in our minds, we’re both thinking how the $10 or $20 could have been used for family expenses instead of buying a new blouse from Zara.
While a part of me wishes I have the ability to provide for my parents by paying off their bills, taking them out for dinner or even buying them a nice house one day, the other part is still holding on to all the anger that I’ve carried from my teenage years. Hurt that my parents are now using calculated remarks to suggest I’m forever indebted to them for raising me. To them, they’ve succeeded in leading me towards the “right” career path and “proper” life. To me, my success belongs to myself because I’ve never felt support from them my entire life.
And it seems like I’m not the only one who feels this way. As a regular meme-tagger of ”Subtle Asian Traits,” a popular Facebook group dedicated to sharing relatable content on Asian culture and upbringing, I stumbled upon a post discussing the topic of “giving back” to parents through financial assistance. While a majority of the people give money to their parents out of love and responsibility, others are guilted into doing so, joking that they’re their parents’ 401k and investment plan.
I’ve watched ex-boyfriends dedicate more than half their monthly salary to their parents, and my dad discreetly sliding money into my grandparents’ pockets every other time we go for dim sum. This tradition is so deeply ingrained in the Chinese culture that no discussion is even necessary to know that it’s expected.
The need for open communication instead of guilt and manipulation to get what you want applies to all relationships, but especially with families. Giving back to parents should be something that’s done out of appreciation, rather than the misguided notion of equating love with money, or the duty of showing filial piety to parents. As much as I wish I could express these thoughts out loud to my parents, I’m scared of what they might have to say.
My relationship with my parents is far from perfect — but there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll set aside part of my first paycheck from my full-time job for my parents because that’s what I’ve been raised to believe. At the very least, I hope when the time comes, I’ll be doing it out of love instead of guilt.
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