[Music begins and fades under narration, “Game Hens”]
Sarah Mizes-Tan, Host: Allright, with this episode, we’re going to get a little personal. I want you to meet part of my family.
Lisa Tan: Yeah, my name’s Lisa. Lisa Tan. I am — in case you couldn’t tell by the sound of my voice — I am Sarah’s younger sister. We sound very similar. I identify as an Asian-American woman.
Sarah: And another member of my family.
Maryann Mee Ryung Park: My full name is — Americanized full name — Maryann Mee Ryung Park. So you can identify me as Mrs. Park. I am Sarah and Lisa's mama.
Sarah: Like a lot of Asian-American mothers and daughters, I think there’s a generational gap and a cultural gap between myself, my sister and my mom … and maybe some of you can relate.
For one, because my sister and I were raised in America, we have this particular view.
Lisa Tan: I think my idea of a mother-daughter relationship is very influenced by the American idea of what a mother-daughter relationship should be like. And also, TV shows like “Gilmore Girls,” where the mother and daughter are on totally equal footing. Like they can just talk to each other like they're best friends and they can tell each other everything.
Sarah: But for my mom, who was born and raised in Korea, this idea is pretty ridiculous. To her, parenting isn’t about being equals.
Maryann Mee Ryung Park: You know, I think it is really important to have that certain amount of deference to their parents, because your parents cannot be your friend. Parents are not your friends, you know?
Sarah: You can’t talk about the Asian-American experience without also talking about the mother-daughter relationship … the expectations that come with it, and also that cultural in-between space that Asian-American daughters end up in.
Many of us are caught between trying to be two opposing views of ourselves — our mother’s and our own.
[Music ends, “Game Hens”]
Sarah: This is an issue that’s been talked about a lot recently. Maybe you’ve seen “Everything Everywhere All At Once” or Disney’s “Turning Red,” two movies where a mother and daughter get locked in a battle of wills over a mother’s expectations for her daughter and her daughter’s true nature.
[Soundbite: Clips from “Turning Red”]
[Sandra Oh: (As Ming) How could she do this to her own mother?]
Sarah: More familiar words have never been said.
And this is exactly where I want to center this episode — the Asian-American mother-daughter relationship. Because okay, I can tell you from experience, I know this can be a tough one. And I know so many other Asian-American women who say this relationship can be difficult, too. So I’d like to give us space to dig into it.
[Theme music begins and fades under narration, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]
Sarah: I’m Sarah Mizes-Tan and this is “Mid Pacific,” a podcast exploring Asian-American identity. This time, through the lens of the mother-daughter relationship. We’ll be right back.
[Theme music swells and fades out, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]
Sarah: One thread that kept coming up in my conversations with my mom and sister was this idea of sacrifice. And when I spoke with a therapist who specializes in Asian-American mental health, she told me that was actually pretty common, especially within Asian families.
Soo Jin Lee is one of the founders of the Yellow Chair Collective, a therapy group geared specifically for Asian Americans. And she says for Asian-American women in particular — struggling with their relationships with their mothers is very common.
Soo Jin Lee: It wasn't something that we thought we would be specializing in, per se. I think it just kind of found us in a way.
Sarah: She says a lot of the difficulties that come up in this relationship stem from cultural and generational misunderstanding. And for reasons like gender norms and gendered expectations around what role women play in families, Asian women end up really experiencing this tension the most.
Soo Jin Lee: I mean obviously any mother-daughter relationship can be super complicated and there's so many layers to uncover. But specifically, I feel like within the Asian community, the mother-daughter relationships, there's obviously the love, maybe overly love. And then there's the sacrifice portion. And that sacrifice piece comes with so much guilt. Right? And then that guilt creates a lot of anxiety.
Sarah: Oh, yeah, definitely a lot of anxiety.
But I think part of this sense of sacrifice comes from my mother seeing the two of us as extensions of herself. Soo Jin says this is also pretty common for her clients. And while the answer for White Americans might be to draw firm boundaries, it isn’t always that easy for us Asian Americans.
Soo Jin Lee: I hear this a lot for clients that have had white therapists that you just need to create more boundaries with your family. And that's kind of the solution to the enmeshed relationship that you are having with your mother. You're taking on too much of her guilt. You're taking on too much of her responsibility into your life. And for us, as you know, Asian women, that doesn't work. That tends to not be the solution. We cannot just disconnect from our entire family and be expected to survive, right? And our survival sometimes does really rely on — our emotional survival — does rely on being able to be connected with our family, be connected with our mothers. And their survival vice versa. And so to just say you have to have boundaries, just doesn't work.
Sarah: Soo Jin says she’s tried to build looser boundaries with her mother without fully distancing herself — doing things like not always picking up her call or not immediately texting back.
Soo Jin Lee: So it's not that we need to have a total disconnection from our mothers, but that we want to create enough space in our mental and emotional mind and space to be able to process what it is that they went through, to be able to really discover their story. And that comes from a space of trauma. Right? And when we put that into perspective, then we can always understand that what they're doing is just a reaction of trauma.
Sarah: Basically, our mothers have baggage, and sometimes that gets moved onto us … and we’ve gotta find a way to break out of that. She tells this to her Asian American clients — try to figure out what you want first.
Soo Jin Lee: With the tiger mom phenomenon, for a lot of the times, the mother's sacrifice was translated into the definition of how they saw success. And so the way that they define success in order for their sacrifice to be met, was the total control. For us as daughters to look successful in a certain way. And so we had to adopt that. Right. We had to really work towards their definition of success. And so then we work under the control of their definition of success so many times.
Sarah: So we can’t personalize it when our mom projects their trauma. But … sometimes, for us to come out from under our mother’s control and expectations, we also need to redefine the expectations.
Soo Jin Lee: And I think when these daughters show up in our sessions, then we start to also identify for the first time what success might look like in our lives. And that tends to be a very difficult conversation because we've never imagined what our life would look like, what our success can look like.
[Music begins, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]
Sarah: Imagining what our success can look like to ourselves is definitely something my own sister is really struggling with right now. So I called her up. When we come back, we’ll hear that call with my sister.
[Theme music swells and fades out, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]
Sarah: And now, back to my conversation with my sister.
[Music begins, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]
Sarah: My sister Lisa … like many other Asian-American women, is someone who’s grappling with the weight of my mother’s expectations, while also trying to define success on her own terms. We both logged on to Zoom recently to chat about it.
[: Sarah: Yeah, I guess maybe, do you want to just, like, start off by talking about, like. When I say Asian mother daughter relationship - what is the first thing that comes to your mind?
LIsa: I think about expectations. The expectations that have been placed on the both of us for as long as we can remember. I think of how our mother’s voice is always kind of something in the back of my head, telling me does she approve of this or that … It's kind of like that.
Sarah: Yeah, I think that’s something a lot of listeners would relate to and I want to talk to you personally about this because you are an example of what I think a lot of people do feel in their mother-daughter relationships. So will you explain where you are right now and how did you get to this place?
Lisa: So right now, I'm in medical school. I'm finishing up my last year and it's been very difficult. But I, I kind of feel like this is something that I was very encouraged to do. It wasn't something that I initially intended on doing when I was in college. With the encouragement of our mother. And so I, I always kind of feel like when I think about why I'm in medical school, you know, like in my lowest moments where I'm wondering like, why the hell did I choose this career path, this is horrible, that I kind of think, well I knew that this is something that our mother would approve of.
Sarah: Growing up as my younger sister or your sister. And I feel like you always were someone who was a little bit quieter and you've always been really good at art. And I guess like when I think about what I thought and I mean whatever, I'm sure people have feelings about their older sister. It's also like my perspective, just as your sibling. I had always thought that in a way you would have pursued art as a career or something creative because it's so good with your hands and like your illustrations have always been so much better.
Lisa: No, that’s not true. Like, if I were to ask myself when I was like, I don't know, in ninth grade or 10th grade or yeah even just like anytime in high school, I feel like I would have said that I wanted to do art and I wanted to go to art school. I always wanted a very creative career, but it was like go to college, get into the best college you can, you know, like succeed, get good grades in high school and then you go to the best college you can and then that's your career already.
Sarah: We have heard clips from ”Turning Red” and ”Everything Everywhere All At Once.” And it just seems like the mother daughter relationship is such a huge part of, like, the discourse around Asian-American identity. Like, what did you feel when you saw those movies in terms of their depiction of the mother-daughter relationship?
Lisa: Yeah, but I did watch “Turning Red,” and, yeah, I definitely could appreciate her, like, how she felt with her mother. I mean, she has a really, really strong, close relationship with her mom and everything. She was like, you know, she wanted her mom's approval so badly. And I definitely can relate to that. And I think that the mother-daughter relationship and the Asian-American, Asian-American community has been like I think it's been talked about in the context of like “Tiger Moms” and like moms who really, really push their daughters or sons or their children. But I think that what should also be talked about is kind of like, at least in our case, in my case, it’s had a deep psychological effect on how I view myself, how I view my Asian-American identity, how I view myself as not only an Asian-American, but also as a woman.
Sarah: I also think that something that is pervasive in our relationship with her is also this sense of sacrifice, along with the expectations. Is that something you think has been an undercurrent?
Lisa: Yeah, I was just about to say that. I felt bad when I couldn’t get a job after college. I was like, she tried so hard, she and Daddy tried so hard to put me through college and I couldn’t succeed after that. And I felt really guilty and stupid and I felt like I had to do something to redeem myself in their eyes … so maybe I needed to sacrifice a bit of my own joy.]
Sarah: Lisa believes that in order for us to get our mother’s approval, we need to sacrifice a bit of our own joy. And that thought stuck with me. I wondered, did my mom think this way too? And to get to that question, first, I wanted to hear a bit more about my mom’s relationship with her own mom.
Marianne Mee Ryung Park: My mom was a disciplinarian.
Sarah: That’s my mom, Marianne, talking about my grandmother.
Marianne Mee Ryung Park: She was not the kind of mother that we can easily go and talk to because she was always busy. She was always busy taking care of five daughters. And in Korean society, fathers really don't play a huge role in child rearing. But it was not a mother who I could go and talk to when there is an issue because there is a certain amount of deference towards my mom all the time. Respect was a huge thing in my culture. So you don't talk back to your mother. If your mom says “Jump,” then you say, “How high?”
Sarah: My mom immigrated to the United States from Korea when she was 17, so she really has a culturally different idea of what a mother-daughter relationship should be than what you’ve just heard my sister talking about. And I think that’s this clash of cultural expectations that creates misunderstanding. When I asked her if she knew how unhappy my sister was pursuing medicine, she actually said she had no idea.
Marianne Mee Ryung Park: Yes, I'm really surprised that she didn't have a passion for medicine. Then what did she have a passion for? And if that was her passion, art, she should have done it then. She should not have applied for some other major that I don't know. I mean, was her passion political science? Her passion? I don't know. She shouldn’t be suffering because if she finds happiness being a starving artist and that's all she wants to do and she'll be happy, like she'll be happy, you know, being that, so be it. But I don't think so.
Sarah: My mom has a lot of expectations of us, if you couldn’t already tell.
Marianne Mee Ryung Park: Perfect daughter to me is somebody who is happy. Somebody who is a contributing member of the society, who feels that they are maximizing their potential and with maximalizing their potential that they are happy doing what they are doing and making a living … and who do they marry? That’s one area …
Sarah: I’m not sure if she recognizes all the contradictions — that she wants us to be happy, but also with successful careers that make us a lot of money. We have to be independent, but also deferential.
Marianne Mee Ryung Park: Somebody who is compatible with you and somebody who is your equal … in terms of social standing and in terms of intellectual and doesn't have to be a high standing person but it has to be somebody who is a good person who is their equal in intellect.
Sarah: And we need to marry someone whose social standing is equal to or better than ours.
Marianne Mee Ryung Park: There's only one person in the world who is truly, truly, genuinely happy for your success. It's your mother.
Sarah: I’m sure you can hear in this conversation just the difference in understanding of what “following your passion” means to my mom and my sister, and I think that’s a generational and cultural gap coming through, along with this sense of familial duty and respect for elders.
[Transition music begins, “Dusting”]
I’m not sure my mom or sister has really worked out this rift just yet, but I did want to speak with an Asian-American mom who has — or at least is trying.
Marsha Aizumi is a Japanese American who’s recently written a book. It’s called “Two Spirits One Heart: A Mother, Her Transgender Son and Their Journey to Love and Acceptance.” Her son, Aiden, was born female, but when he came out as transgender to his mother, Marsha initially struggled to accept him.
She says yes, this may be a universal struggle for all parents, but for her as an Asian mother raised within a traditional Japanese family, this journey to acceptance was even harder.
Marsha Aizumi: I think I was raised to conform and to not do anything that would be shameful or bring dishonor to my family. Asian families are very collective in thinking, very family oriented versus the American culture, which is more individualized. So I think my mother kind of instilled those kinds of thoughts into who I was. And so that carried on to being a mother myself.
[Transition music fades out, “Dusting”]
Sarah: Marsha says it was hard for her not to put expectations on Aiden when he was born. And when Aiden came out to her, Marsha had to reconcile within herself a lot of the expectations she had been putting on him - many of which came from her own upbringing in a traditional Japanese household.
Marsha Aizumi: You know when you talk about these pictures you have for your children and then all of a sudden they've changed. Then I just felt so sad that he would never be able to walk down the aisle wearing a dress. He would never be able to have children. All those things I had. And as far as a career, if he is a marginalized person on top of being Asian, can he be successful? So, you know, there was sadness there.
Sarah: And Marsha also admits that, like many other Asian American mothers, she originally saw Aiden as a daughter, and therefore an extension of herself and her own hopes.
Marsha Aizumi: When Aiden came out to me, I think there were three predominant feelings. The first one was shame. And I think our Asian culture has this part of, you know, honor saving face, you know, not doing anything that would bring shame to the family. And I think that's part of our culture. But also I think that is part of, like I said, some of the history that Asian Americans go through on discrimination.
Sarah: This tension eventually led the two to having a falling out, and for some time when Aiden was in high school, the two didn’t talk much. Marsha says it was this fight that was a turning point for her to realize that this wasn’t the kind of relationship she wanted with any of her children.
Marsha Aizumi: The other part of me recognized that if I forced them into a box and didn't allow them to be who they were, then that was not supporting them to be successful and happy.
Sarah: Marsha’s ability to step outside of Asian family traditions and accept Aiden on his own terms is really admirable. But I think for a lot of Asian mothers and daughters, there’s always going to be this push and pull of claiming our own identity, while also trying to meet our mother’s expectations.
I think in a lot of ways, Punjabi American poet Damneet Kaur really captured this balance in a poem she wrote called “Lessons on Breaking.”
Damneet Kaur: So first I am the eldest immigrant daughter …
Sarah: Damneet’s family immigrated from India when she was just five years old, but as the eldest in her family, it was often her job to take care of her younger siblings when her parents had to work.
Damneet Kaur: I think I would identify with that one because there's a huge age gap between me and my siblings. And, I would say, I helped raise them. So when I was 8, my mom had my sister, and so she would go to work and I would watch my sister while my dad was also working. That's a responsibility a lot of oldest immigrant, like immigrant kids get, you know, just take on. Like they help watch their siblings. They basically help raise their siblings. I was cleaning my sister's diapers. I was feeding her while my parents were at work.
Sarah: And she says with all these expectations and responsibilities, sometimes she loses herself a little.
Damneet Kaur: Being the eldest daughter, there's so many things that I think about, like, what's going to happen to my parents, like if I get married, right? Like, like, how do I make sure that I'm showing up for them even after I get married or, you know, like moments where I've had to really figure out how can I voice being me?
Sarah: She wrote “Lessons on Breaking,” and it really encapsulates what a lot of Asian-American daughters feel, as daughters of immigrants, or daughters who just feel caught between two identities: It’s long, but I think it’s important we hear some of it now.
Damneet Kaur: You can call this eldest immigrant daughter and sister syndrome. I say I'll make it work. Note this: a lesson from my heart to the hands. My body makes things work. I was raised with women who have always known to struggle and hustle, to make work in a country that works. It has also known that broken is the poor woman's word. We know self-preservation before we ever know self-love to carry our hands, our hearts, our heaviness into every place we make. Sometimes it is the only way we break back. And this now a lesson in manufacturing parts and healing dear homegirl, to the woman who is not here, to the woman who will never hear this, the mother who is perhaps cleaning, working and or finding comfort and being left. We do not always come equipped with the tools, the words, the level of heart.
Give your freedom, a name, name your healing. So shall the question be asked? Who broke you and did you break them back? We know the world to break us. Know men to break into us. And nothing is more powerful. Nothing is more Punjabi than a woman, like a river, who breaks free.
[Theme music starts, “Can’t Go Back”]
Sarah: When she says “give your freedom a name and to name your healing,” it was powerful to hear her talk about breaking out of those cultural norms. And it may sound corny, but actually doing it can be so difficult for us.
As Asian Americans, we often find ourselves inhabiting the inbetween, that place between belonging and unbelonging, between acceptance and rebellion, between being seen and invisibility. And I often think, if only others could really hear us and see us and try to understand us, maybe we could all find a bit of peace.
But like so many others have said before me, it’s being in that in between that makes us powerful too.
Thanks to my mom, and my sister, and to all of you for joining me, I”m Sarah Mizes-Tan and this is “Mid Pacific.”
[Theme music swells and fades under, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]
Sarah: “Mid Pacific” is a CapRadio production, reported and hosted by me, Sarah Mizes Tan.
Our producer is Jen Picard. Associate Producer is Jireh Deng. Antonio Muniz mixed the sound.
We had editing help from Nick Miller and Shayne Nuesca. Sally Schilling is our Executive Producer. Special thanks to Alyssa Jeong Perry.
Chris Bruno is in charge of marketing. Our designs were created by Marisa Espiritu. Renee Thompson is our Digital Products Manager.
Our theme song is Can’t Hold Us Back by Polartropica. You can find it on iTunes or Spotify.
To make sure you don’t miss a single episode, be sure to subscribe, follow or add us to your podcast feed.
Thanks for listening to “Mid Pacific.”
[Theme music swells fades out, “Can’t Hold Us Back”]