Unpacking & Honoring Our Parents’ Stories as Adult Asian Americans
“Do you not have enough money for gas?” my mom asked. “With you fundraising for your campus minister career right now . . .”
It felt like I was about to get a lecture, so I started getting defensive. I talked back and slammed some drawers in my room. Eventually, I ran out of the house because I just needed some space.
When I came back, I didn’t know how to face my mom. I felt bad for yelling at her. And then I noticed that she was in the kitchen. I was like, Okay, she’s cooking dinner as usual . . . ? So are we going to talk about what happened?
A little later, Mom said, “Hey Steph, dinner is ready.”
We didn’t really exchange anything, but as I ate Mom’s food in the kitchen, I made it a point to say, “Thank you, Mom, for cooking for me. Can I have some more?”
From moments like these, it’s clear that, as emerging Asian American adults, we have a lot to unpack with our relationships with our parents. Though this story may seem far from resolved from a more direct cultural perspective, considering things from an indirect culture—like many Asian and Asian American cultures—helps make sense of the tension.
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I think that the invitation “Hey Steph, dinner is ready” was the act of reconciliation from my mom. It was communicating, “Hey Steph, I’m sorry. Come and eat my food.” This was reconciliation without words. In that moment, my mom was approaching the subject focused on my safety. She could have been thinking, Now if my daughter has no gas, the car might break down, and she might not be safe. Financially, does she not have money to pay for these things?
By thanking my mom and asking for more food, I was communicating that I appreciated my mom’s apology and extending my own for getting upset and leaving. Now I make it a point to fill my gas tank and get a car wash to indirectly communicate that I care about my safety too. And this has helped me navigate the tension with my mom.
Before we move on to diving deep into parent child dynamics, we want to acknowledge that some of us come from backgrounds and family structures that might be different. We invite you to receive these stories and explore what could be relevant and helpful for you.
For many of us, our parents taught us—as children and young adults—what to value, how to navigate the world, and how to connect with others, as they were taught by their parents.
But that parent child dynamic can sometimes carry over into our adulthood. They may still see us as “growing up” or not “adult enough.” And as we learn to navigate the world on our own, we may start to develop a different perspective compared to our parents.
While unpacking these dynamics with our parents will be unique for each of us and potentially challenging, it’s a critical chance for us to grow holistically and heal.
As we move forward, here’s one thing to keep in mind: It’s easy to see our parents only in terms of their parental role. We often forget that they are people, who are growing and learning just like us. We must learn to understand their stories. This can help us see how our parents might have been trying to honor us in their own way.
Honoring & Obeying as Emerging Adults
Maybe you’ve asked yourself questions like these: Do I really need to honor my parents? How can I show them that? Do we have to obey every expectation of theirs? What’s the difference between honoring and obeying?
One way we may have been taught the concepts of honor and obedience is through our parents’ interpretation of Scripture and their cultural expectations in a parent child relationship. One go-to passage is Exodus 20:12: “Honor your father and your mother so that your life will be long on the fertile land that the LORD your God is giving you.”
Asian or Asian American parents can sometimes interpret this passage through a traditional lens of a parent child relationship rooted in filial piety, an attitude of respect for parents and ancestors usually demonstrated by actions or service. Therefore, “Honor your father and your mother” can be understood through the lens of filial piety as “honoring your parents means you must respect them by obeying them.”
As Asian Americans, we may not have the same intensity of filial piety as our parents. But it’s valuable to understand the influence of filial piety in your parent-child relationship. It’s also very healthy for us to rediscover the meaning of honor and obedience for ourselves.
Ultimately, to obey involves your posture toward someone in authority. To honor involves your posture toward someone you value. Children are called to obey and honor their parents. But everyone, whether child or adult, is called to honor their parents.
Building Trust through Communication & Setting Boundaries
One way to honor and show our parents we value them is to demonstrate maturity and trustworthiness. This helps our parents see that we understand their motivation to keep us and our family safe and secure. It can also communicate to them that “we see you” and “we honor the ways you sacrificed for us.”
Building trust takes time. It can feel like a bank savings account, where we deposit and accumulate trust with our parents. Our parents’ perception of our maturity comes from the accumulation of all the little moments of trust that were built. And this will have a significant impact when you decide to use it. Withdrawing too early or with no trust value will show that you may not be thinking about your individual safety and security.
Practicing communication and setting boundaries will help us build trust with our parents and honor them. Stephanie, an InterVarsity Campus Staff Minister, experienced this with her mother. When Stephanie came home, her mom, an avid badminton player, would often ask, “Would you come to open gym with me? Come eat with me and meet my friends.”
Sometimes Stephanie would say, “No, I’m too tired” or “I don’t want to go.” This brought a sense of dissonance, where she felt like she was letting her mom down by not being present.
After some reflection, Stephanie started reaching out to her mom even before she got home: “Hey Mom, I know that you want to play badminton sometime during spring break. I have these days free and available. Would you like to go then?” So her answer became “Yes, not right now but how about another time?” rather than “No, I don’t want to, and I can’t.” This was a way to honor her mom’s passions, spending quality time with her, while also setting healthy boundaries.
You might find yourself in similar situations. Boundaries help us and our parents respect each other’s physical, emotional, and mental spaces. When we are preemptive about setting boundaries for ourselves, it can be easier to share our needs and invite our parents to understand our boundaries.
Below are some tips to try as well as some to avoid.
5 Communication Tips to Try
Overcommunicate frequently in multiple ways. Saying more is better than not saying enough. If you see that your parents might not fully comprehend, try sharing another way.
Affirm and reciprocate affection. You may need to read between the lines and look out for ways your parents are loving you. If your parents do things like bring you fruit unexpectedly, make sure you let them know that you appreciate them and acknowledge their acts of love and care (like with Steph’s story).
Demonstrate maturity and life skills. Verbally interpret and freely leave your parents the last word. Do daily chores and help around home without having to be asked. Instead of just grabbing something from the pantry or fridge, ask if it’s okay first.
Let your parents know about your boundaries. Look for preemptive opportunities to help your parents understand them by being ready to say something like, “Yes! Not right now, but how about we do that later at this time?” This is helpful for moments when you might not have as much capacity.
Let your parents know you hear them and are considering their voice. At times, our parents might be trying to express concerns through lectures. Take a moment to hear their opinion and let them know you actually understand where they’re coming from. Respond with something like “Thank you for sharing,” instead of “Yeah, I know.”
5 Communication Tips to AVOID
Poor verbal and non-verbal communication. Pay attention to what your body language and words might be communicating to your parents. Sometimes the things we don’t do or don’t say can also communicate something negative.
Share little to no details. Keeping parents in the dark about something with little to no details can affect how much they trust you. Practice giving them more details and inviting them into important decisions.
Use abstract spiritual language. Comments like “God is calling us to this” can make things unclear. Our parents may not understand what we’re trying to say.
Disrupt familial rhythms. Small things like staying up late or sleeping in can disrupt your family’s rhythms. And your absence can communicate that you might not care to be around your family. Try to adjust your rhythms to respect your family when you’re with them.
Expect your parents to adapt to your views. Our parents may not have had the same formation and experiences as you, so they might not be able to understand your view. You might need to have more intentional conversations about what you value in your life.
These communication tips can help us not only set healthy boundaries for ourselves but help us understand and honor our parents in a deeper way. Andrew, a former InterVarsity intern, has experienced this firsthand. “Why don’t my parents say they love me? Why do they keep bringing me these plates of fruit instead of doing X, Y, Z?” he shared his frustrations with his mentor.
“Andrew,” his mentor said, “do you want Indian parents or White American parents?”
This made Andrew realize he had internalized White American family dynamics through media as normal and that he was lacking the tools to help him understand his family. “I think it would be ideal if we could look at our parents and see how they bring themselves and their culture fully into our relationship and be okay with that,” he said. “Do I want to love them as God created them as Indian people? It’s a question I have to ask myself often.”
Take some time to walk through these questions on your own or with a close friend.
What does communication look like between you and your parents?
How does honor and obedience look like in your relationship with your parents?
What areas or communication tips do you want to grow and develop more?
What are you realizing about how you communicate to your parents? And how your parents communicate to you?
Ashley is an InterVarsity Campus Staff Minister and leads the Asian American InterVarsity (AAIV) chapter at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. You can support her ministry at donate.intervarsity.org/donate#21287.
Over 40,000 students on eight campuses with only one known campus ministry in the most post-Christian city in the US. That was the situation InterVarsity Associate Area Director Jessica Pafumi found herself in when she felt God calling her to plant campus ministries in her hometown of Springfield-Holyoke, Massachusetts, in 2019.