“Do not let the behavior of others destroy your inner peace.” — Dalai Lama
I am second generation Chinese, born in Orange County, California. My parents were both born in China around the time of World War II. Both of their families moved to Taiwan during the aftermath of the war, and both my parents came to the U.S. around the 1960s for school, when they met. I was born years later, and am the youngest of four siblings.
Growing up, we looked like a normal and respected family. After I was born my father opened an engineering business. He was active, loved classical music and playing tennis, and was generous towards his friends and business associates. My mother was well-educated and spent her time being a housewife and mother, and helped at my father’s office. My siblings and I did reasonably well in school, excelled and competed in piano, danced, had tennis lessons, attended Chinese School, and were active with friends.
However, I was a sensitive and insecure child, and there were many times when I was paralyzed in fear. I panicked easily when my mother was late picking me up, which happened often. It was only recently that I learned that my mom was in a deep depression for about a year after I was born, and attempted suicide. I was afraid of my father and my oldest sister, who both had explosive and unmodulated tempers. At a young age, I also developed a fiery temper. I was often unsure about what would get me in trouble as it was difficult trying to navigate contradictions and unspoken rules. Sometimes I tried asking, and would usually be chastised or jeered at for having to ask. If I was upset and cried, I was either further chastised, shamed, or else met with sarcasm. Through this I gradually learned that it was safer to not express my thoughts, and better to stay small. Conversely in other cases if I was hurt, it would be expressed passive-aggressively, or in a full-fledged hellfire.
Several times I found miscellaneous items in the car, such as lipstick and even women’s panties. I would give these to my mom, which she would take without a word. When I was 8, on a rare occasion I was home sick from school, and I eavesdropped on my parents talking. My mom was confronting my dad about finding women’s articles in the car. My dad insisted he did nothing, and then finally conceded he only gave money to a woman because she needed it. I was horrified at the implications, and quietly crept back to my room and talked myself out of what I had just heard. It was not until years later that I recalled this event. Then as I grew older I became painfully shy and withdrawn. I noticed my dad habitually and openly stare at other women, typically Caucasian, including girls younger than me. I was mortified and began dreading being in public with my dad. I remember my skewed hope and logic one time when I thought that if my third sister, who I perceived to be my parents’ favorite, accompanied us whenever we went out then my dad would stop gawking at other women and girls. I was disheartened to find that this did not work.
In high school, my mother went through a difficult menopause combined with depression that lasted two years. My siblings had grown old enough to move out, so I was left at home my mom. My mom was restless, anguished, and weak, and could only wander around the house. On one particularly painful day I suggested she go into a room and scream for some relief. She did this, and released an agonizing wail that broke me. I could only hold together until my boyfriend visited, and I ran out of the house and hugged him in long silent moments. I had my rebellious times, and when I was 17 I discarded the high school boyfriend for a 27-year old man. I snuck out constantly, drank, and smoked cigarettes and pot. It was an unstable relationship with jealousy and possessiveness, and I could not help but be drawn to it. After I broke up with him he continued to stalked me for several years. I was terrified but felt I could not talk to anyone and was relieved when he finally moved out of state.
On the day before Thanksgiving when I was 24, my mother told me and my sisters separately that my father has a sexual addiction. She spoke in a monotone and almost militaristic manner and did not invite questions or discussion. She said that for 10 years he had been visiting prostitutes, had been under house arrest multiple times, and had contracted and passed sexually transmitted diseases to her. Thinking back to the conversation I overheard when I was 8, I knew his addiction behavior occurred for a longer time and likely long before I was born.
My Father’s Story
When my father was a young child, his mother abruptly left with no explanation. His father (my grandfather) remarried when my father was 6, and my father gained a step-mother who protected her own children well, but treated my dad and his sisters very poorly. She placed my father into an ill-maintained boarding school, where the children were abused and bullied, and oftentimes slept in sodden bedding. My father’s two sisters were even less fortunate. Being female, they were perceived to be less useful to the family, and the step-mother discarded them in orphanages, while my grandfather quietly acceded. It would be many decades later that my father was finally able to locate his sisters, who had remained in China, and even more years before my dad’s half-siblings believed these sisters existed. Based on the amount of intervening time, distance, and events however, my father’s relationships with and among his sisters have been all but severed.
Education offered a respite for continuing hardships and mistreatment at home, as well as opportunities, so my father easily excelled in school, and was accepted into the U.S. for graduate school. Being poor, he could only take a cargo ship and was at sea for 30 days before arriving in the states. He worked three jobs during the Summer to save tuition for the Fall semester. My father was also shocked and disheartened to see how the resident Chinese were treated. The Chinese were required to live in Chinatown, and if they stepped outside of the limits, they were likely assaulted. The children similarly could not risk leaving Chinatown, and could only be taught by the adults. Since few adults had opportunities and resources to learn English, the children had little means to learn English, despite being born and raised in the U.S. After graduating, my father applied for engineering positions, and quickly realized he was being discriminated against for job prospects, and was unable to be hired. As a result, he opened a Chinese restaurant, and even employed his colleagues, who were similarly well-educated but were also discriminated against from being accepted into professional workplaces. My father’s restaurant was successful, so he expanded to several locations. He also sponsored his family members, including his father, stepmother, step-uncle, and his four half-siblings to come to the U.S. Afterwards, to help his family members and simultaneously remove himself from his stepmother’s desire to control and drama, my father gave all of the restaurants to his family, and started out with nothing once again.
My Mother’s Story
My mother grew up in a wealthy home, as her father, despite having grown up poor and being uneducated, worked hard to become a successful banker. Her mother, my grandmother, was vivacious in her youth, and captured my grandfather’s attentions because of her beauty. However, later she became passive and dependent, and noncommittal as a parent. My mother was raised by servants, and remembers her hurt and anger growing up when her mother preferred to spend time playing mahjong than to look after her.
As a child, my mother had many friends, and would oftentimes explore and play in the mountain wilderness. However, having grown up during World War II, she also had to endure war hardships, such as fleeing to shelter during air raids, running amongst dead and dismembered bodies during the bombings, and eventually war poverty. Following WWII, her family escaped to Taiwan, since my grandfather, while having working class origins, would have been persecuted by the Communist Red Guards. During college in Taiwan, my mother discovered that three of her cousins were actually her half-sisters, due to her father’s infidelities with her mother’s sister. My mother spent her remaining college time troubled and distraught, and then abruptly decided to move to the United States. While her father adored her, their relationship became permanently damaged, and it was many years before she would speak to him again. In my mom’s case, the major male figures in her life – her father and now her husband – betrayed and broke her love, and in a manner that devalued her self-worth.
Thanksgiving Day, the day after my mother’s disclosure, my siblings and I were in the kitchen preparing dinner for the dreaded gathering, when the oldest broke the somber mood with, “It’s kind of funny when you think about it.” I’m certain I wore a you’re-an-idiot face when I stood up and responded, “What do you mean? This is mom’s life we’re talking about.” The silence resumed. From thereon, my siblings chose to pretend nothing was wrong. I was however, unable to mask my feelings, and stopped talking to my father. My actions conflicted with the denial and silence that the rest of my family chose to follow, and soon after, I was excluded from my family and our gatherings.
Also during that time, I started seeing how my own relationships were burdened by my parents’ problems. One time after I initiated an unfair outburst towards my then boyfriend, I realized I needed help and then sought counseling. I attempted to talk with my mom about how she could help her situation, and on one occasion, mentioned counseling. but was met with her terse reply, “I’m fine. Fine. If You need counseling, then You should get it. I’m Fine.” I left crying, and moments later my mother called to tell me that what happens in her relationship with my father doesn’t concern me or my siblings. On some level I felt like my mom appreciated that I was on her side, but being ostracized from the family I had little contact with her. For some time I grieved and felt abandoned during the time when my life had been overturned. It was also difficult confiding in my close friends, since without resolution for my grief, I felt like I was only dumping my putrid shit on others.
I had counseling for almost two years, which provided an outlet to express and acknowledge my hurt and anger. In so doing, I could process my feelings and begin to look beyond my own hurt. I learned to have more compassion for my parents’ experiences and gradually stopped idealizing them to my expectations. Also, I felt immense burdens lifted when I better understood the sources to my previously unquantified fears. Without intending to, I became a different person, or rather, aspects of my personality matured. I became less dependent on others, more confident, less reactive, and more outgoing. Ironically, as I became less needy, my then boyfriend, the one for whom I originally sought counseling, no longer seemed to understand and ‘fit’ my needs, and we finally broke up. Additionally, despite recognizing its beneficial outcomes, part of me continued to feel ashamed about seeking counseling, and I would regularly want to stop my sessions. From these times, I began to observe that the days I most wanted to end my sessions were invariably the days when we would address particularly painful matters. It was from these patterns that I became aware of when my inner voice tries to lie to protect myself. From this, I also realized that I no longer needed that protection and denial. After the first year of counseling, I was able to hug and talk to my father again, which continues to this day.
In following years, I sought additional therapy during particularly trying times, and also worked through a 12-step program, Adult Children of Alcoholics (and other dysfunctions) (ACA). The 12-step program taught further valuable lessons; among these included the recognition that I had picked up versions of the dysfunctional patterns modeled in my own family. Because of this, I could be and have been both aggressor and victim; but, moving forward, I had the choice to respond in life situations as these instead as a healthy individual. Initially I was perplexed at what normal, healthy behavior entailed, and how one knows where to set boundaries. Eventually I found that these become easier when I practice: practice being honest to myself; practice managing responsibility for my own actions; practice claiming my voice; and practice shifting my inner voice to be one of more self-compassion.
Presently, the addiction and depression cycles, as well as other patterns of dysfunctional behavior unfortunately still occur in my direct and extended family members, as the denial and stigma towards mental health has a stronger hold than recovery, at least through Western means. What I notice however, is that through my own growth and continuing practice, I can change how I interact with my family members. I am much less easily triggered, which leaves more space to be present. I feel that my relationships are more honest and balanced, and in some cases, such as with my mother and father, as well as with myself – they are stronger, more accepting, and more loving.