When Cultural Differences Become Toxic
Words by Judy Mei
I remember the first time I read a TIME Magazine article about the “Asian Tiger Mom”. It summed up everything that my mother was - a domineering parent who demanded relentless perfection from their children in all aspects of life. From childhood, my life was an endless stream of music classes, dance classes, sports practice, study, exams, and competitions. I was taught that I had no time to enjoy life - everything I did had to be useful to my future and add value to my future CV. There was no time allowed for hanging out with friends because every spare moment was spent studying, practicing, or attending extracurricular classes after school.
Failure to meet expectations resulted in yelled tirades of wasted money on a lazy and ungrateful child. Everything always led back to that, you see. I was an investment first, and child second. Family conversations always revolved around grades, competitions, and exam results, with constant reminders of all the financial sacrifices made by my parents. Looking back, an underlying message lay throughout all my childhood and teen years - your worth lies in your achievements and your accolades, not as an individual.
In my household, only the best grades, distinctions, or trophies were acceptable, and anything below that considered failure. Every punishment and angry lecture was for my own good, to ensure my success and prevent me from adopting the “Western” ideals of laziness and mediocrity. I was Taiwanese, and my mother was bringing me up with the proper Asian ethics of hard work and discipline. Questioning my mother was a sign of severe disrespect - disagreeing with her, even more so.
For most of my life, I shrugged off the immense pressures I faced at home to living with an “Asian Tiger Mom”. My friends didn’t understand why I allowed my mother to dictate my life in such a heavy-handed manner and grew angry on my behalf when they heard of how my mother would treat me. I would sigh, and say that my mother was too “Asian” in her parenting mentality and refused to adapt to Western ideals of family or lifestyle.
I never spoke about all the hurtful words thrown my way on a constant basis, of an immense fear of failure, because the smallest mistake resulted in punishment or yelling. I didn’t tell my friends about constant barbs about my weight, my intelligence or my personality. It seemed pointless to do so. After all, didn’t it all come down to cultural differences? How could I expect my mother to behave differently when she refused to change her traditions or cultural beliefs?
I didn’t realize that a child should never be afraid of telling their mother about injuries or accidents, in order to avoid her rage and verbal abuse. I grew to expect the anger, the screaming, and the canings at home. Surely all immigrant children went through such experiences?
For so long, I constantly felt like there were so many things wrong with me. I grew up with lectures that I was too talkative, too nice, too headstrong, and too boyish. I wasn’t talented at mathematics and I would never be beautiful. I felt that I would never be smart enough, thin enough, or feminine enough to satisfy my mother. Sometimes it’s frightening to think that if I had never left home to study overseas for university, I may never have realized all my strengths and talents, crushed underfoot by a mother determined to destroy any shred of self-confidence in her children.
But suddenly, in my years abroad, I found myself blossoming and enjoying my studies and student life, as I had never been able to back home. My grades rose until I was a straight-A student, and I would hear praises from my music teachers to my football coach. I received glowing recommendations from professors about my hard work and intellectual curiosity. For the first time in my life, I loved learning and discovered an avid interest in engineering. I graduated with honours and went on to be accepted into engineering graduate school at a top-ranked university.
I had guys tell me that I was pretty and people tell me that I was a charismatic person who was incredibly easy to talk to. I thrived on connecting my friends together and organizing dinners and parties. I have a boyfriend who tells me how lucky he is to have me in his life. And bit by bit, all the vicious criticisms I had heard my whole life were proved wrong… Until I realized that freedom from a toxic mother made me more hardworking, more successful and more confident than ever.
My mother still tries to take credit for all my achievements, even as I approach my mid-twenties and settle into adulthood. She still makes barbed comments about my weight and flies into a rage when I disagree with her. I have never heard her say she loves me, or that she is proud of me. I don’t expect I ever will.
But I see her toxic words for the emotional abuse that they are, and that realization has irrevocably changed my life for the better.
Judy is a graduate student currently finishing up her Master’s degree in Civil Engineering at the University of British Columbia. Born in Taiwan, she moved to New Zealand at the young age of four, and grew up feeling like a “third culture kid”, (someone caught between two different cultures, who never completely fit in with one or the other). She studied abroad at New York University Abu Dhabi for her four-year undergraduate degree, and then moved to Vancouver, Canada, where she plans to remain and work in the country after the completion of her Master’s degree at UBC.