Helping Should Strengthen Relationships, Not Hurt Them: 3 Perspectives (3 of 3)

This is the last in a series of three posts sharing the story of Myong, a refugee from Vietnam who was receiving counseling from Asian Neighborhood Design, the social service agency I ran in 1983. (Read part 1 and part 2.) After one of our counseling sessions, we found out that her son ran away and joined a gang in San Francisco's Chinatown.

In the previous post we explained that, from Myong's perspective, our counseling and the fact that we could provide resources she couldn't, led her kids to have less respect for her, which reduced her authority as a parent. She turned away from our programs and instead built a set of personal relationships around her that helped and sustained her family more effectively than programs could.

Tae's father was killed in the Vietnam War, but when he was around nine years old his mother was able to get him and his siblings to a refugee camp in Thailand. They arrived in the U.S. when he was twelve. Through school in the U.S., Tae was able to advance his English-language skills much faster than his mother could advance hers, which made him important in translating for the family. At school, he also got access to programs for refugee children and, in turn, learned about other programs for families like his. When Myong turned to the counselors of these programs, their help was useful but also had unintended consequences.

Some of these programs provided general counseling, while others offered specific advice or services for employment or housing, like my program did. Each service had different eligibility criteria and requirements that Myong had to fulfill. Almost all required her to set goals and timelines, which were often in conflict with one another. As Tae saw his mother jumping through these hoops, he began to internalize the broader negative stereotypes that existed about refugees and started to look down on his mother and their culture. While in the past his mother had clearly been in charge of getting them from refugee camps to the States, now his mother seemed dependent and powerless. Also, he was becoming a teenager with a tendency to rebel.

The second thing that Tae recognized was that the staff at school and the youth programs seemed to have more things to offer than his mother. His first excursions to the zoo or museums were with youth counselors. These programs offered him books and experiences that his mother couldn't provide. He realized that he could use those experiences and advice to contradict his mother whenever they had arguments. For example, when Myong asked him to watch over his younger siblings, as he had done in Vietnam, now he could say that his school or counselors required him to be out with them. The counselors rarely spoke with Myong, which meant that he could push their voices to sound more authoritative than hers.

But Tae was also introduced to another option. Gangs in Chinatown were still very active in the early 1980s, and most young men his age were being pushed to join. Tae and his peers saw gangs as one way of getting protection, but also respect (even if it came as a result of violence or violent threats). Respect and a sense of pride, both personal and community, is what Tae and most young people wanted. Gangs provided the camaraderie and community that the village in Vietnam previously offered.

Tae ultimately chose to join a gang and leave his mother. What I understand is that after the last counseling session with Myong in her apartment, Tae called his mother "stupid" for taking advice from yet another counselor. They had had similar confrontations before but sadly my agency's effort to help may have been the last straw in a broader conflict that many others played a role in. In Tae's eyes, everyone in America looked down on his mother; why shouldn't he?

This is not an isolated incident. A similar dynamic happened in my life as I was growing up when my older sixteen-year-old sister rebelled and married what turned out to be an abusive and controlling man. Parenting is hard, very hard, whether you are rich or poor, but my mother resented the added burden that in being poor and Mexican others assumed she was a bad mother because of the trouble my sister got into. Sadly this country holds a very negative view of low-income adults. If you are an adult and you haven't "made it," then society looks down on you or looks for professional programs to replace or train you.

I shudder every time I hear that someone is forming a "fatherhood" program for low-income fathers. These generally target Black or Latino fathers. Because negative images of men of color are so prevalent, these programs reinforce the idea that fathers of color don't want or know how to be good fathers. This message is sent not only to society but also to the fathers' own children. Similarly, financial training programs aimed at low-income adults suggest to society and the children of these adults that they are in this situation because they don't know how to manage money. It could be said that I'm making too much of this because there are some bad fathers and people who manage their finances poorly. But we don't have programs or messages that look at low-income communities through the lens of their strengths and accomplishments to point out how many good fathers or great financial managers there are in these communities. Consequently, these helping programs just add to the dominant negative stereotypes. In some way, they also become self-fulfilling.

Through my current organization, the Family Independence Initiative, families share stories from their perspective and we are able to see that the stereotypes are wrong. We are excited to continue sharing these kinds of stories, which come "through a different lens."