Can’t deny it: the link between my childhood and my adulthood

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I am not a perfect parent by any means, if such a thing exists. My now 19-month-old is already a television addict, eats boxed mac and cheese multiple times a week, and didn’t start sleeping through the night until 16 months (partly due to her disposition and partly due to my inconsistent sleep training).

I am not a perfect mother, but often I surprise myself. Like that one week when my daughter caught a cold and slept about half as many hours as she usually does, meaning that I slept only 2-4 hours every night, I managed to still wake up every morning before six o’clock, ready to go to work and ready to love her as much as a well-rested mother does.

But above all, I believe my most valued strength as a mother is my emotional attunement with my child. I have a strong sense of her emotional state, her likes and dislikes. I can sense early on when her needs shift, like when she’s had enough of playing ball or if today is a porridge day rather than a mac and cheese day.

Emotional attunement with my daughter is as natural to me as drinking water. This is partially because I am highly attuned with my own self, sometimes so attuned to the point where I get stuck in my own emotional hurricanes. But otherwise my sensitive and empathic nature has served me well in parenthood.

You might be wondering why I’m highlighting this specific quality. I have a rock-solid belief that a child’s connection with her parents (or other primary caretaker) lays the foundation of how she approaches the world, other people and her self.

The way I am with my child informs her way of expressing herself, if her expressions will be responded to, if the world is a safe or unsafe place, and if she is a lovable or competent person. When I acknowledge her feelings, she knows that she exists, that she is important, that people will take care of her, and that it’s okay for her to express her needs. (For those of you wondering where this is coming from, my beliefs are reflective of what is known in the world of psychology as attachment theory, which is the basis of the attachment parenting approach. This theory states that a child’s relationship with her caregiver in early life is the building block of her psychological development.)

I did not always believe this. When I left home for college, I believed that since I was no longer living with my family and lived a very different lifestyle than theirs, I was officially a separate entity, completely unaffected. My bubble no longer bumped into theirs. Poof, they were gone. And from a distance, I could build a new life and remake myself.

But a number of life’s shit storms forced me to rewind my life and examine my relationship with my parents, particularly in how it has influenced my personality. Why is it that I have perfectionist tendencies? Why is it that when I face something that makes me feel even slightly incompetent, I become paralyzed and want to abandon it? Why do I have trouble asserting myself in relationships? Why do I over accommodate others? Why am I often rigid? Why do I always needs validation from others? These were the questions I began to tackle during my college years. It was not an easy, fun, or fast process. I resented having to revisit my childhood but had little choice.

Like many Chinese immigrant parents I know, mine were emotionally distant, overworked, and just trying to get by. And I’m confident that their parents from pre-Vietnam war era were the same. My parents provided a life for us. We always had home cooked meals, were able to get to and from school, and had occasional outings to theme parks. During my childhood, we spent a lot of time in the same space together but, at the same time, alone in our own worlds. I didn’t feel like I knew my parents in a deep way until I was much older. I’d say that they don’t know me deeply even now.

Interestingly, my parents demanded high expectations for success but in a very hands-off approach. It was a lot of commanding statements like “You need to get straight A’s” without checking that our homework was complete. At the end of the year, they just had to trust that our report cards indicated that we were meeting their expectations.

As teenagers, we had a lot of freedom to do what we wanted. Even though our parents expressed their desires for us not to date or go out past ten o’clock, they never enforced the rules. I’m not sure they had the energy or skills to know how to do that.

Also like many Chinese people, my parents were very loud and very quiet at the same time. Very loud in their speech volume and the intensity of what they talking about, yelling about how tasty the shrimp is—and very quiet in that they were not direct in their communication, rarely talked about feelings or personal stories, and often avoided conflict rather than confronted it.

Analyzing these traits (and some others I’ll refrain from sharing) about my parents and Chinese culture helped fill in the puzzle of my identity crisis. No wonder I had poor boundaries in my relationships. No wonder I had difficulty sharing my feelings with others. No wonder I used my grades, awards, and achievements as a measure of my own self-worth. Whether I liked it or not, the fact was that subconsciously or genetically, I had inherited a large piece of my parents’ way of being and thinking.

About six years ago, I finally came to a place when I no longer blamed my parents for my life challenges and personality flaws. My parents are the products of their own upbringing, culture, and time. And I am the product of mine. They parented the way they did because it was the only way they knew how. We must all accept what is and forgive what can be forgiven.

The more I came to understand about my family of origin, the more I am able to understand myself and what it is I am to do in order to become a good mother. I feel like I’ve spent my whole adulthood fixing what felt like a very deficient person. And I don’t want my daughter to ever feel that way. I don’t want her to spend precious years patching up wounds and compensating for a less than ideal childhood.

There are times when I prefer being static or am simply too tired to work towards change. And there are other times, such as this past four months, when I have energy and enthusiasm for growth. Every day during my current growth cycle, I have reached some sort of milestone in becoming a better wife, daughter, sister, friend, worker, and global citizen. It is no easy task. I am constantly examining what I am doing and asking why I am doing it. I am constantly watching other people and learning from them. I am constantly looking for things that no longer serve me so that I can purge them. It requires so much energy, but I receive more energy from the process as a result.

I am grateful to have more expansive and educated ideas about parenting than my parents did. I am grateful to have a husband who shares similar ideas about parenting. And I’m also grateful that my parents are open to my parenting approach and can see that she is thriving as a result. I aim to grow myself so that I can be a healthy reflection for my daughter.

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Why Asian Moms Don’t Want You To Hold Your Baby

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Being a first-time mom and the first daughter in my family to have a baby, I expected much nagging from my Chinese-Vietnamese family. For the first few weeks of my baby’s life, my husband and I had to tolerate a barrage of small Asian women telling us a number of things that we should do, shouldn’t do, and are doing wrong. The one advice that was most commonly shared was to not hold our baby too much because that would spoil her. When my baby cried when my parents were over at my house, they would try every which way to get her to stop crying instead of just picking her up (by the way, after several weeks of visiting her, they learned that their method was very ineffective).

“Don’t hold her too much.  If you do, she won’t EVER let you put her down!”

Almost every single relative relayed this vital baby lesson to us as if it was the only thing that was important for us to know. Considering that I am a mom who loves holding, wearing and napping with baby on me, this really irritated me. And, I mean, it irritated me so much, I would lay awake in the middle of the night fuming. I hate not only unsolicited advice but especially advice that makes absolutely no sense to me. But after I had a recent conversation with my mother about why she could not hold my brother much when he was a baby, it framed the “don’t hold the baby” advice into  real-life context for me.

When we moved to America from Vietnam in 1989, my father went to work at a restaurant while my mother stayed home raising my siblings and me. She took a job sewing clothes—it was a job where she could work at home on her industrial machine and got paid for each item that she completed. And so she sewed during the day while taking care of my infant brother who was born soon after we moved here, my sister who had just started elementary school and me, age three at the time when we moved here. It was no wonder she didn’t want my baby brother to get too used to being held too much…she couldn’t physically hold him because she had to work during the day and take care of two other kids at the same time! After hearing her account of raising us, I felt much more empathy towards her and the other women in my family who had to juggle multiple roles while caring for their babies.

Still, this simple story does not fully explain why my Asian family does not want us to overly attend to our babies, nor does it justify letting babies’ cries be ignored. I am almost certain that the women in my family believe in the outdated practice of letting newborns cry and learn to self-soothe although modern science shows that newborns are not capable of self-soothing and need comfort through human touch. I am also sure they are unaware that research shows that responsive parenting during infancy generates human beings who are more confident, capable, and caring. I have to be forgiving of them for not well-read and informed about the science of babies. And I have to remind myself that they raised children in social and economic contexts that are different from mine—and many women do not have the ability to attend to their babies even if they wanted to!

And so here I am, a middle-class, first time mom with the luxury of not having to work for three months and my primary job during this time is to dote on my child. Thank goodness that I actually HAVE the time to just sit there and hold my baby while she is napping. Thank goodness I do not have to ignore her cries because I am caring for other children or working.

I can relish in this beautiful window of time when I can be alone with her, become in tuned with her, and let her know she is loved. Right now, I don’t have anything more important to do besides to rock, bounce, nurse, and hug my baby. The laundry can wait until the next nap time (and thank goodness, I have a baby who can entertain herself for short periods of time when I need to attend to other things). In this moment, the only thing I want to do is gaze at the beautiful sleeping baby that is my daughter and hold her for as long as I want.

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An ode to my parents and to all parents

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I’ve only been in this parenting game for less than six weeks and, already, I have a new understanding and appreciation of so many things in my life.  Tonight, I was trying to sneak in an 8pm nap while my dear husband was faithfully bouncing my “witching hour” baby up and down on a yoga ball when I had a sudden inspiration to write about my parents and my expanding appreciation of their sacrifices for me. You see, my parents and I didn’t really having intimate conversations until these past few years, and I can already tell that our relationship will continue to change—hopefully for the better–as they see me raise my daughter. Whenever they come over to visit me, I ask them for more stories on what I was like when I was a baby and what they did as young parents.

The other day, my father told me about the conditions of hospitals in post-war Vietnam: unsanitary, crowded, and a dangerous place to deliver your babies.  Communist rule had it so that hospitals (as were most other public services) were underfunded and overrun. He claimed that many of the hospital doctors were young, inexperienced yet put in positions where they were unsupervised and responsible for people’s lives.  Fearful that they would be under the care of one of these intern doctors, my parents rounded up a substantial amount of money and gifts to offer to a senior doctor at the hospital to guarantee that he would care for my mother when she went into labor—apparently this was common practice in the 1980s in Vietnam.  They would ask for the address of the senior doctor, knock on his door and convince him to take in the mother and baby as his patients.  Once at the hospital, families would also pay the nurses to  ensure that they were getting the best care as well as the security guards if you wanted to access the hospital room after hours. My mother had me via c-section and  I was a healthy baby. My mother was able to breastfeed  thankfully, as formula was unaffordable to common people. and babies were often fed nearly-expired cow’s milk if the mother was not producing sufficient milk.

This is only one of the stories that he has told me about my birth so far, and I expect that many more stories will spill as time goes on.

I moved to America when I was three and I had a very typical first-general Chinese-Vietnamese-American childhood. I did a lot of homework, I stayed indoors mostly, and I was used to not having my parents home because they worked restaurant hours. I used to resent my parents for not giving me the idyllic childhood that I wanted. I never attended dance lessons, never learned how to swim until I was an adult, was not allowed to sleep over at my friends’ houses, and did not have the sort of relationship with my parents where I could go to them with my life questions and be listened to. Even though I would’ve greatly benefitted from a more secure and emotional attachment to my parents, I—now having been responsible for a human being for six weeks—have the new understanding that the fact that I was kept safe, warm, and fed from birth to adulthood is a miraculous feat! Sure, my parents were not affectionate and were distant. However they never resorted to physical discipline, never neglected us and instilled in me strong morals and work ethic. Considering that my parents came from a war torn impoverished country, had little education, and were immigrants to this country, what they provided me was way more than I could ever ask for.

The beautiful thing that comes with the way my parents raised me is that I have a bigger and better idea of what parenting can be & that I have the ability to provide a different experience for my daughter.

The pains of pregnancy and labor, the nighttime feedings, the loss of sleep (and some sanity), the financial investment, the loss of freedom that was once enjoyed…all of these are the physical and emotional sacrifices to raise a child. This is only the beginning of this adventure for me.

No parent is perfect. No parent can EVER be perfect. I guess we all do the best we can considering what we have and what we know.

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Chinese Superstitions About Pregnancy

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asianbabyWithin five minutes of telling my Chinese parents that I was pregnant, I was recited a list of every rule that I must follow in order to guarantee a healthy, good-looking baby. My husband and I laughed through most of the superstitions as it was hard to conceive of the scientific reasoning behind most of them. I did hope to find a Chinese medicine practitioner who could substantiate at least some of these claims but I haven’t met anyone yet with enough knowledge to elaborate more on these superstitions.  For now, I’ll share what I’ve heard for sake of pure entertainment.

1) Hammers and scissors should not be used in the bedroom, my husband was firmly told. Why, you ask? Because it will cause facial defects, such as scars and a cleft lip, as if the tools could literally cut into my child’s face (is that graphic enough for you?).

2) I should not eat pineapples. The reason? My baby will grow sharp, prickly bumps – like that of pineapple skin – on her head.

3) No eating watermelon during pregnancy.  It is considered a “cold” food in Chinese medicine and can make me susceptible to illness.  (Ironically, ten minutes after dinner, my dad sliced up half a watermelon for me to bring home to eat.)

4) No squatting! The baby will literally slip out right underneath me. If only labor was that easy…

5) I should post up large magazine posters of babies on my bedroom walls.  I have seen the inside of many bedrooms in Vietnamese plastered corner-to-corner with calendar photos of babies and cartoon bears.  The images of babies are supposed to help mom with positive visualizations and feelings about her baby

6) I shouldn’t make a habit of rubbing or touching my belly too often. To reinforce this rule, my mother scolds me every single time I even think about touching my belly bump. No one explained to me why this is bad, but according to this website, the Chinese believe that rubbing one’s belly will cause the child to be spoiled and overly demanding.

These are only some of the many rules a Chinese woman must follow during pregnancy.  Wait until you hear the rules the mother must follow after the baby is born.  Here’s a quick run through: limit exposure to water in the weeks after birth (this means limit showering, bathing, standing in the rain, hand washing clothes, etc.), no eating raw fruits and vegetables, no leaving the house for the first month, no wearing clothes that bare too much skin…and the list goes on.  And of course, I imagine that different Chinese communities modify these rules as they see fit – a first generation Chinese family in America may adhere to these rules less than a family in rural China.

I do continue to find myself questioning if some of these rules have any scientific validity.  For instance, I wonder if Chinese mothers (and babies) are less likely to get sick due to a strict diet and limiting their exposure to cold elements?  Are there less miscarriages in Chinese populations where women are more careful in not overexerting themselves and more likely to keep themselves homebound during pregnancy?

If someone can help answer these questions without my having to do a scientific literature review (because that is SO not happening in my last two weeks of pregnancy), I would love to hear it!

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What it feels like for a tiny Asian lady to carry a nearly grown baby in her stomach

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After having such an energetic and comfortable second trimester, I am surprised by the level of exhaustion and change I’ve been experiencing in my last trimester.  Once I hit 27 weeks, I saw my energy slowly wane and suddenly tank like nobody’s business.  I went from going to the gym 2-3 times a week to exercise on the stationary bike and swim to only having enough energy for my short and slow morning and afternoon walks with my dog. My husband is back to cooking most nights because I just don’t have the physical energy or motivation to cook a proper meal after coming home from work.  Thankfully, I still have enough energy to do some housework and preparation in the baby room.

I normally can operate on 7-8 hours of sleep, but now if I don’t get 9 hours or more, I feel very drained during the day.  The pain I’ve been having on my right hip has been easing in the last few weeks, but weirdly enough, a new symptom I’ve been experiencing is slight numbness in my right leg.  I’m guessing there’s something going on with my circulation there.  Bending at the waist is the most difficult thing to do when you’re only five feet tall and your center is rounded up like a bowling bowl. I wish I could teach my dog to put my socks on for me!

I have been successfully gaining 1-1.5 pounds a week in the last two months.  Apparently, I’m at the stage when baby is about at her maximum length but packing on the cheeky baby fat.  Thankfully I’m one of the people where most of my added weight has gone directly to my belly.  My legs are getting quite a workout from carrying the extra weight.

As challenging as I’m making these last few months sound, I don’t think I have it too bad compared to the average woman’s third trimester.  I am still mobile and have proven that if I really did want to go back to the gym, it’s possible…it’s just a matter of whether or not I want to exercise right now.  My food cravings have stabilized (though I still enjoy regular servings of ice cream). My memory is bad, but at least I have enough brainpower to still do my job competently. I’ve been spending a lot of time practicing my visualization exercises, meditation, and yoga.  It’s been easier to go into a quiet internal space these last few weeks, which is a good indicator for my planning of a relaxed, meditative labor.

Reality is settling in.  In only a couple of weeks, I will be waking up in the mornings (and several times in the evening) to not only my husband and my doggy, but a newborn human in my room!  It sounds a little insane.  We have no idea who she is or who she will be, but we are very excited to meet her and to help her grow up. I hope that she takes after her parents’ calm, low-key temperament.  I hope she is blessed with health and gets stronger everyday. I hope she makes us first-time parents feel confident and at ease in raising her. I hope she and our fur child will love each other as siblings.

And I’m writing this on a Sunday night and it’s 8:15pm. Yes, this means good night for exhausted Hippie Asian Mom!

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Thai Red Curry With Tofu & Vegetables

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Vegetarian curryI’ve made red curry a few times using online recipes, and the result has either been a curry that is either too bland (not enough spices) or too spicy (too much curry paste).  I found this one on AllRecipes.com —originally a red chicken curry recipe—and modified it to make it vegetarian with the exception of a few dashes of fish sauce (blame that on my Vietnamese taste buds).  I also changed the recipe based on recommendations of other site users and replaced some of the ingredients with vegetables that I enjoy.

This is my best attempt at red curry to date! Here it is for your enjoyment and experimentation.

Thai Red Curry With Tofu & Vegetables
Servings: 8

What you need:

Grapeseed or olive oil (for sauteing)

1 package of organic firm tofu (cubed)

3 carrots (sliced)

2 potatoes (cubed)

3 cups of green beans (cutin half)

1 cup of broccoli florets

1/2 yellow onion (sliced)

3 garlic cloves (minced)

1/2 teaspoon of ginger (minced)

1 tablespoon of chopped cilantro

{for curry sauce}

4 tablespoons of red curry paste

2 tablespoons of fish sauce

1 tablespoon of peanut butter

1 lime

2 cans of coconut milk (14 ounces/can)

1 tablespoon of cornstarch

Salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Toss in the cubes of tofu. Fry all sides of the tofu.  Set aside. (If you need a more detailed and expert description of frying tofu, check out this page.)
  2. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in skillet.  Sauté minced ginger for one minute and then add in minced garlic for another minute.  Add potatoes and carrots.  Stir as needed and cook until soft (~10-15 minutes).
  3. In another skillet (yes, I had to use another one because mine isn’t big enough to cook all of the vegetables at once), heat two tablespoons of oil.  Saute onion for 1 minute.  Add green beans and broccoli.  Saute for about 5 minutes.  When done, mix this together with the potatoes & tofu into one large skillet.
  4. In a large bowl, add a small amount of coconut milk and stir in corn starch until dissolved.  Add in all of the curry sauce ingredients and mix thoroughly with a whisk.
  5. Pour curry sauce mixture into skillet with vegetables.  Bring to a boil, then simmer over medium heat for 1 minutes. Add salt and pepper as needed. Turn off heat and add in cilantro & fried tofu before serving.
  6. Serve with white or brown rice.

Note: This was not quite spicy enough for my husband, so I scooped about 1/3 of the dish aside and mixed another 2 tablespoons of curry paste to add an extra kick.  I like the tinge of red on his version better but can’t handle the extra spice! 

Vegetarian cury 2

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How to be a good Chinese daughter in a Westernized world

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Hippie Asian Mom - Chinese daughter
As a child of a traditional immigrant, Cantonese-speaking household, I was well-aware of the rules that I had to follow in order to maintain my reputation as an obedient Chinese daughter: get straight A’s, no dating until after college, no makeup and other shows of excessive vanity, no drugs, and no hanging out with “bad people”. Additionally, all good Chinese children in America should set as one of their goals to graduate as the high school valedictorian.  Statistically speaking, becoming the top student out of the  a graduating class of several hundred  students is difficult—but not entirely impossible.  My parents expected this of my siblings and me. After all, my four oldest cousins succeeded in becoming the valedictorians or salutatorians at their schools, why couldn’t we?

All things considering, I would say I earned a “B” grade in my parents’ evaluation of my performance as a Chinese daughter.  I did not become valedictorian—or came even close to it—but I compensated by getting accepted into a top university.  I did date in high school and managed to get away with it until the very tail end of high school, which is quite impressive considering the number of Chinese relatives and friends who have the potential to act as spies for my parents. I was involved in what seemed like odd extracurricular activities to my parents, such as the Earth Club that I started at my school and volunteer activities around the city every weekend, but at the end when I received a few scholarships for my work, they reasoned that I didn’t completely waste my time in high school.  All in all, even though I was growing into a somewhat eccentric hippie activist by my senior year of high school, I came off accomplished enough and gave something for my parents to be proud of.

The expectations for me after adolescence were more unclear.

The only one that was in-your-face explicit revolved around my studies and future profession.  Like many other cultures, Chinese parents only want their children to work in one of two professions: medicine or law.  As Google and Facebook boomed, there was more talk in my family about how “doing something with computers” was a good thing but I got the sense they only expected boys in the family to be able to do that, so I was off the hook on that one.  When my parents learned how difficult it was to earn a medical degree and how much money it actually costs to attend medical school, they acquiesced to the prospect of their children becoming pharmacists.  I followed none of their recommendations, and eventually they accepted that I was going to do what I wanted despite their strong wishes.

Even though I did my best to be a good Asian kid, I grew up thinking that Asian expectations for their children were too narrow and often unrealistic.  Since I lived away from my family during the first stage of adulthood, I mostly disregarded my cultural values and tried to follow my own wishes and the ideals of my surrounding environment. Since I lived in Berkeley for the most prominent years of my life, I undoubtedly was strongly influenced by “granola”, New Age-y, spiritualist values.

I moved back to San Diego for graduate school and met the man who would be my husband.  Once I met him, It occurred to me that I was not going to live a free-spirited, childless life on some distant organic farm that I had long imagined.  For the first time in my adult life, I was excited about the idea of having a family and living what you might call a “mainstream” life. I knew that If I wanted to have a harmonious relationship with my family, I could no longer reject my cultural values—I had to adhere, at least somewhat, to Chinese customs from here on out.

It was at this point that I wish I had in my back pocket a handbook on the Chinese expectations for the upcoming stages of my life: engagement, marriage, and parenthood.  I have several siblings and cousins around my age, but I was one of the first in my family to go through these stages chronologically so I had to learn mostly by experience. Thankfully my sister got married the year before me, and I was able to learn a few special protocol about wedding ceremonies before I got married (for instance, don’t use white envelopes to send out your invitations!).

Since my husband is Caucasian, my parents was lenient on our compliance with traditional customs and accepted that our communion would be a blend of Asian and Western practices; for this reason, I am certain there still are many customs of which we are completely ignorant.

One of the hardest traditions we had to deal with was the “bride price”, a practice in which the groom must offer money and/or material goods to the bride’s family in exchange for the woman’s hand.  (This is the opposite of the dowry, where the bride’s parents must pay the groom.) According to to this website, the  original purpose of the bride price is to help pay for the parent’s needs after the bride has left the house.  In China, grooms in certain provinces  pay up to $24,000 to marry their lady.  Since my husband was already the primary funder of our wedding (grooms are expected to pay for Chinese weddings), I was not happy that my father suddenly told us about this custom and expected payment from my husband. My father saw that this was going to be a financial hardship for us and we negotiated an amount that was acceptable. However, this still remains somewhat of a grievance.

Now that I am going through this next stage of carrying a child, I am consequently barraged by all of the do’s and don’ts of pregnancy (which I will cover in a later post) when I see my family. My current stance is to know these rules well enough that I do not break them in their presence in order to minimize my mother’s annoying “reminders” that I should not do things like squat, rub my belly, drink cold water, etc.  I think I would feel differently about complying with Chinese guidelines if I was living in rural China and surrounded by others who also followed these rules.  But the truth is that I live in America, am in a biracial relationship, and have greater exposure to other cultural practices than to Chinese practices.  In addition, my parents are Chinese who grew up in neighboring country, Vietnam, so I am certain that the original rules have already been distorted through integration with a second culture.  The purity of these customs is questionable to me for those reasons.

I appreciate growing up in a culture where tradition is strong and standards are high, but given my multicultural surroundings, I am okay with taking in what I think fits me, modifying some practices, and putting the rest aside.  And as much as my parents would like me and my siblings to strive to be the perfect, loyal, traditional Chinese children, they can see with their own eyes that my generation is going to live by a mishmash set of rules and practices.  Negotiation is central to this multicultural give-and-take, and if neither the parents nor the children can be flexible with the others’ wishes, hell and disharmony easily break loose.

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