Li Shen: A Labor of Love

Parental love manifests in different forms.

by Sabrina Li Shen | 5/3/18 2:15am

I can count on one hand the number of times my parents and I have said “I love you” to each other. In Chinese culture, love is something people show through their actions; it is weird to express it with words. The action of love is not shown through hugs and kisses, either, but rather through sacrifice and diligence. It is something that I have never felt comfortable explaining.

I remember the controversy that arose when Amy Chua’s book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” came out in 2011. My white friends asked me — mostly with aghast expressions — if my parents were also “like that.” I hardly knew what to say in response. In 2011, I was 12 years old, right in the middle of puberty and middle school, not to mention a brief crisis in which I experimented with the way I smiled in pictures because I was convinced my smile looked weird. Needless to say, middle school was a strange time for everyone — but it was even stranger when I had to defend my home life against people who thought I was being raised poorly. Sure, my parents started having lengthy conversations with me about college before I turned 10; those conversations were annoying, but the same thing happened to my other Asian-American friends, and then to the rest of my friends as they got older. Sure, my parents made me take piano lessons and enrolled me in outside-of-school math classes at an early age; I hated those never-ending hours, but now I have eight years of classical training and a love for music to show for it (math remains on my bad side). Sure, my parents’ expectations were high and seemed unreasonable; I fought against them, but the college application process made it clear to me that admissions offices’ expectations are higher, and they do not accept “I’ll work harder next time” as an answer. In many ways, much of what my friends referred to as parenting “like that” was just a preview for what they would later experience in life. In retrospect, I cannot fault my parents for trying to prepare me for an often unkind world. And yet, in response to the “like that” question, I just laughed nervously and denied that my home life was any different from what I saw on TV.

In Western culture, people are taught that parental love looks like trips to the ice cream parlor, stories read aloud at bedtime and “I love you!”s yelled out of the car window. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but I saw parental love in the way that my father offered to learn piano with me when I tried to cry my way out of a lesson. I saw it in the way that my mother always ate the leftovers while making sure I had fresh food, and I saw it in the way that my non-religious parents got down on their knees to pray for my college acceptances. Just because they never said “I love you” does not mean that I did not hear it. But still, I doubted it. Everything I read in books or saw in movies — the images of a cookie-cutter, white-picket-fence family— pushed me to believe that those families were the only “right” ones. As a result, I grew up alternately fostering resentment toward my parents and defending them against the people who fed that resentment. I still struggle with that today. In some ways, that struggle stems from a lack of diversity in media’s representation of families. In other ways, that struggle stems from my genuine disagreement with my parents’ beliefs.

Most of the time, I do not regret my childhood or resent my parents for it (the other times, I am being a brat). They gave up everything for my sister and me, and we have led incredibly privileged lives thanks to their sacrifice. We have not wanted for anything, while my parents grew up without shoes or indoor plumbing. That is probably the root of much of my disagreement with my parents — they grew up with nothing, so they want me to have everything, and they have a very specific idea of how I can get there. In fact, that is probably the root of this whole misconception of the domineering, cruel tiger parent. They do whatever it takes to get their kid into the top college, so that their kid can enter a well-respected professional field and earn a high salary to support their own family. Sometimes “whatever it takes” looks draconian, demanding and downright harsh. “Whatever it takes” was the only way my parents could come to America and create a better life for themselves. Me, on the other hand? I have access to entire worlds of opportunities. I do not have to follow that specific, limited path of imagined success — perfect grades, the best college (Harvard/Princeton/Yale, sorry, Dartmouth), the best medical school, etc. — but just try and convince my parents of that.

So yes, my parents and I have big disagreements: on politics, on social justice, on cultural norms and beauty standards, and definitely on life aspirations. It is difficult for someone to feel like they can never please their parents, like nothing they do will ever be good enough, even when they know their parents’ expectations come from the belief that their children are capable of being perfect. It is an unrealistic belief, no doubt about it, but that is a parent’s love. And love is the one thing that my parents and I have never disagreed on.

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