“You Suck!” (Chinese Parenting Explained to Westerners)

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Chinese kid on a pack of noodles, Chinatown, Ottawa, November 2017

I was just finishing a book and my daily break at Starbucks when two customers sat at the table next to me.

“What’s in your bag?” one of the women asked her friend in Mandarin.

I perked up my ear. She spoke with a distinct Northern accent, one I’m familiar with.

“Gym clothes.”

“Oh, you’re working out?”

She shrugged. “My mom told me I got fat.”

The bluntness and casualness of the statement made me giggle, yet I didn’t blow my cover—few Chinese expect your average coffee drinking Westerner to eavesdrop on conversations in Mandarin.

“Why did you bring your laptop?” the gym goer asked.

“My parents said my job is dumb, they told me to email someone they know for a better position.”

Western parents rely on science- and psychology-based books to raise a confident child, handle tantrums and difficult milestones, deal with bullying and learn to listen to kids so that they can become their own person. Meanwhile, thousands of kilometres away, Chinese parents occasionally glance at the memo stuck on the rice cooker—“whatever your child does, just state it’s not good enough.”

Indeed, Chinese parents are impossible to please. Of course, they love their children too, but it’s the kind of love that isn’t expressed directly and comes with high expectations and constant criticism.

I was raised by French parents, so I was merely instructed to respect the needs of grownups, not play with food, get good grades, not get caught doing something stupid and find my way in the world. I think I’m one of these rare adults who escaped from childhood unscathed—my parents screwed up a few things but not us.

It’s only in the second part of my life I experienced second-hand Chinese parenting.

I met Feng parents on a Friday night in February 2002, a couple of weeks before my 19th birthday. I was watching TV, they came over unannounced for the weekend and yes, it was as awkward as you may imagine considering they probably had no idea why a Western woman was eating chips on the couch with their son.

At first, my yet-to-be in-laws treated me like a guest, which meant they asked polite questions about France and fed me around the clock.

In the following years, they regularly visited on weekends, always bringing food in Tupperware containers because who knows, maybe we had no idea how to use the stove and could only manage the microwave. Feng worked night shifts so I spent a lot of time alone with them. Evenings followed a predictable pattern of dinner and Chinese TV programs. In a way, it was comforting, especially considering I felt a bit homesick.

However, arguments were a recurring issue. They were always on Feng’s back about something. Typically, my in-laws would make suggestions of things Feng should do, from buying XY brand of socks to choosing YZ career, and Feng would eventually get mad and tell them to go to hell. I was often caught in the crossfire and I didn’t really understand the dynamics, not to mention that my degree in Chinese studies hadn’t included a “shouting in Mandarin” 300-level class.

So, when I was alone with my in-laws, I was making sure to share positive things about Feng. I told them stories where Feng had saved the day, I highlighted the skills he had. Probably influenced by these feel-good American movies I kept on watching to learn English, I thought I could fix any misunderstanding between the three of them. Maybe it was time for Feng and his parents to have an open discussion about expectations, clear the air, hug, cry and become closer than ever.

Cultural imperialism 101 mistake. I was imposing my views and norms without understanding the context.

“Why don’t you accept a few suggestions, like the innocuous ones, to make them happy?” I asked Feng.

Granted, most suggestions required Feng to overhaul his entire life and reconstruct his personality.

Feng sniggered at my naiveté. “Yeah. As if it’s gonna help.”

But I wanted my in-laws to be proud of us. I wanted them to like me. I wasn’t yet that confident women I should have become by now, and I was looking for approval.

I never got any.

“I have a new job!” I’d say. “Oh, but that’s too far,” they’d reply. “I graduated from university!” I’d announced. “Feng has two degrees,” they’d argued.

“How did you manage to become a confident adult?” I asked Feng many times.

“That’s just the way it is. They criticize me because they care.”

And apparently, my parents don’t care about me because they “let” me leave home and live my life.

Even Mark, our biggest achievement, failed to impress my in-laws. I mean, Mark is okay, but we really suck as parents. We don’t dress Mark for the weather, we don’t buy him enough toys, we didn’t register him for after-school programs, we didn’t put him in the best school, we don’t feed him nutritious food, we don’t care enough, we’re not careful enough… the list is long if you bother listening.

“I’m doing the best I can!” I told Feng many times. “I don’t even understand where I failed and why! How am I supposed to guess what your parents want? It’s not like I’m trying to piss them off on purpose!”

So far, Mark escaped Chinese-style criticism. My in-laws spoil him rotten and treat him like a baby, while Feng is way more lenient than I am. So somehow, I became the bad cop, the one enforcing rules. Ironic, isn’t it?

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

23 Comments

  1. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I love this!
    I mean, it’s a hard way to learn cultural differences for you, but I find it interesting!

    I also laughed because I tend to be like them when I like people I have A LOT to say
    about what they can do better and how.
    I will try to remember this post so I don’t go too far. 🙂

  2. Je serais devenue dingue depuis longtemps. Tu cites un point important : “il faut avoir le contexte – ici la connaissance de la culture chinoise – pour comprendre”. Cependant c’est drôle que Feng n’est pas reproduit une partie de son education. Ou peut être que Mark n’est pas encore assez grand … 🙂

    • Je crois que Feng ne sera pas un père chinois traditionnel dans le sens où il ne critiquera pas Mark sans cesse. Ceci dit, il n’a pas le compliment facile (avec moi, c’est pareil!) et je comprends pourquoi. Il n’a pas été habitué lui-même à en recevoir.

      Je dois aussi noter que finalement, mes beaux-parents sont assez soft. Ils sont au Canada depuis assez longtemps pour… disons, avoir un semblant de politiquement correct. En Chine, c’est pas la même délicatesse! Combien de fois j’ai entendu les “tiens, lui il est moche” et “elle est grosse” dits d’un ton badin! Et les gens ne semblent pas offensés en plus, c’est juste un état de fait exprimé tout haut 😆 S’attaquer au physique n’est pas du tout tabou et n’est pas vraiment perçu comme une attaque, d’ailleurs.

  3. As you said it’s cultural differences , I have seen the similarities in my country also. I hope these over Careness came from the society implications
    Its lot of people surrounded by them so the competition is more for everything. To give a better future to the kids parents become dictators
    As per the Asian society (too hard word ) if you are not over caring your kids you are the bad parent and you are spoiling your kids future
    Being close knitted culture people are afraid about the criticism . I hope it will get moderated in future because of economic complacency in the countries

    • Were you raised like this as well? Where are you from?

      I understand how much parents care about their children and I do think Chinese parenting (or this kind of parenting) can be good as well. However, like with every theory and practice, it can’t be too… extreme.

      • Ramesh sundararajan on

        From india,yes I raised by that way only ,not after university
        After my university degree not much too much parenting from my parents because they understood that the education will give me a clear path for life (may be not in every case and every person)

        All is well if it’s not crosses the limit

        • Looking back, would you say your parents raised you well? You could take the best from your education and change what you think it’s harmful or useless.

  4. Ramesh sundararajan on

    Now I have a responsibility to raise my kid in Canada. I don’t know I am going to be an Indian parent or Canadian parent. I am on a cross roads

    • It’s good to question your parenting style, though, and I’m sure your child will benefit from a bit of both–Canadian and Indian parenting 🙂

  5. Bee Ean Le Bars on

    Somehow, I appreciate the bluntness. I can always ask my family something and they would tell me the truth. Like I’m fat, I’m too short… whereas my husband and his parents stay in the polite terms. There are many things they don’t talk about (like salaries, parenting methods…), I feel like there are so many taboos, my parents in laws would only comment on certain things if we ask. I mean, sometimes I wish they would give us some advice, I don’t mean giving instructions, but just sharing experiences.

    • I see what you mean, I’m not a fan of taboo topics either, especially with close friends or family members. I guess balance is the key… it’s okay to be blunt but you also have to praise when it’s time to do so. Criticizing non stop isn’t very effective.

      I’m surprised to hear your in-laws don’t give advice! But come to think of it, French grand-parents often consider it’s not their role. They had their kids already, as grand-parents they like to spoil their grand-children, not raise them. Chinese parents may think differently.

  6. This has been one of the most difficult things for me to understand about my own in-laws, who are Indian. They have a similar cultural way of speaking to my husband. It used to bother me that he was never good enough for them, and I felt defensive and angry. On the other hand, it really bothered them that I seemed to never say what I really meant, and when I politely agreed with them then didn’t actually follow their advice, they were hurt.

    It’s been more than 20 years and I’m not sure we have figured this one out yet. It’s a tough one for sure!

    • I’m learning through the comments and feedback on the article that apparently, India also has this “tough love” culture, which I didn’t know! Like you, I still feel defensive and angry at times because even though I understand the culture and the background, I’m not “wired” to spontaneously accept it.

      How about parenting? Is your husband an “Indian parent” or a “Canadian parent”?

  7. I see you’ve discovered the ‘secret’ to Chinese parenting. I will now share the ‘secret’ of surviving Chinese parenting.

    -Ignore everything they say.
    -Watch what they do.
    -If the action appears to make them happy(ier), try imitating it. If not, don’t.
    -Don’t think too hard about why they do stuff, they sure don’t. It’s all reflexive.
    -Don’t try to call out contradictions in their behavior.
    -Don’t taunt them by saying the stick they grabbed to hit you with doesn’t even hurt. They will always find a bigger stick.
    -Don’t take it personally, not because they don’t mean it personally (they do), but more for your sanity.
    -Don’t pick a fight with Dad until you can take him.
    -Don’t pick an argument with mom until you get a car.
    -Don’t assert your independence by preparing your own meals, you’ll just get fed twice and get fat.
    -Move out and move far, at least far enough to be out of the way for a casual drive.
    -Don’t give them your real phone number. This is what burner phones are made for.
    -Don’t let them move in if you want well adjusted kids. Consider buying property in neighborhoods with people they

    I can’t say with certainty Chinese culture is the worst culture, but it is one developed in what was a 3rd world country until only a few decades ago. It was shaped over time for survival, not fulfillment. It has more contradictions than a book by Stephenie Meyer (Isn’t it strange that the people known for ‘bluntness’ also invented the convoluted social dance of ‘keqi’?) It’s most well known philosopher was born in 551 BCE and would only find a job writing horoscopes if born today. It’s greatest mass murderer is now printed on all its money, and it’s history of social engineering has lead to spectacularly awful results.

    Now it’s not all bad, you will likely have an easier childhood than they did. You will never go hungry and will almost certainly go to college. You will go to better schools and be overprepared for college, where you will likely study something that can pay for therapy for the rest of your life. The food is also pretty good, though I suppose that one is subjective. But trust me on the stick.

    • Okay, this is an awesome comment. I laughed and I nodded, as much as a Western can. Side note about the “keqi” culture… this one puzzled me for a long time time, I wrote about it too: http://correresmidestino.com/keqi/

      Do you think it’s easier to be parented by China parents in China (where such parenting style would be the norm) or in the West (where your friends will come over for food but won’t understand why you’re so mad at your parents because they will only see the good welcoming side of them)?

      I will trust you on the stick. And on everything else. And as a daughter-in-law, I will try to remember the “don’t take it personally”!

      Are you writing online by any chance? You sound like someone I’d love to read 🙂

      • I very much enjoyed your article on ‘keqi’, it made me notice how absurd it is that it came from the same people that seem to have no filter in criticism.

        I can’t imagine being parented in China, mostly because their school system is so rigid. When my cousin bombed their version of the SAT’s, my Dad’s brother in law supposedly beat him until his head bled (or was it broke his skull?). From what I’ve read, they spend their entire gradeschool years preparing for the GaoKao (high test), as it dictates which colleges you can go to. It’s very all-or-nothing, and combined with the expectation that you need to take care of both your parents when they get old, the whole thing sounds downright dreadful.

        I kind of had it both ways growing up in SoCal, as my high school had almost 4000 students, and 74% of them were Asian. Everyone attended after-school programs or tutoring, and you were expected to have at least 3 AP classes. Most of my peers seem to be 2nd generation kids with 1st generation parents, though everyone I knew had really dysfunctional families, or at least everyone Asian. What passes for ‘discipline’ is often child abuse, and whenever I would visit their home, the mom was always the one wearing the pants. I guess you can say I was ‘lucky’ in that my parents split when I was young, so I only had to deal with my Dad’s anger issues every other weekend. My relationship with my mom isn’t that much better.

        In my entire life, I can count on one hand the number of families that I would describe as “well adjusted”, and none of them are 1st generation Asian. But I can’t really fault them too much, as they often had insane childhoods themselves, where many probably raised themselves, and they overcame monumental obstacles to immigrate and adapt to a completely foreign land. That kind of upbringing does a thing to a person, sort of like how people who went through the great depression are obsessive about saving stuff. Most learned how to get tough and work hard, but never had role models for parenting.

        Plus there is this seemingly universal cultural obsession with ‘saving face’, which is partly why I think most of them are so messed up. It makes them so hypervigilant about giving the impression their family is perfect, that they seem to care more about what other people think of their dynamic as opposed to what their own kids think of it. It’s like how you might be quick to anger and reprimand at a company picnic so your kids don’t embarrass you in front of your boss. Asian parents never seem to turn that off. They carry the same attitude to parenting, where they never want you to think they don’t have everything figured out and they always know whats best for you. As a result, I’ve never had a real heart to heart with either of my folks. Atticus Finch they were not. But I’ve had plenty of personal talks with my (white) friend’s parents funny enough, even on the first visit (they were the most well adjusted family I know).

        So take comfort in knowing that you will almost certainly be a better parent, even if you aren’t always a better breadwinner (we do seem to kick mighty ass in that area). And you pretty much nailed it on the head with the maddening degree of cognitive dissonance generated when they act like the nicest person in the world to your friends. It’s even creepier when during the middle of a fight, the phone rings, and they go from screaming their heads off to sounding perfectly pleasant like switching a light.

        Unfortunately I don’t do much public writing aside from a few opinionated articles about the insane state of US politics. If you are looking for a good read on this, I’d recommend Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom and Big Little Man. I wonder how much your husband can relate with the latter, as I definitely saw my Dad in there.

        • It’s funny because I find Chinese and French cultures have many common points in some areas, including education. French study hard as well for the Gao Kao (“le Bac”, as we call it) and graduating from high school is both hard (national exam over a week, pretty unforgiving) and valued as a rite of passage. French parents care about formal education and respect teachers, more than North American parents I find. And also, slapping your kid isn’t exactly taboo… although newer generations of parents are moving away from that.

          I did read Tiger Mom and I had had a hard time figuring out what was true and what was simply written for shock value.

          To be honest, I’m not sure Western families and kids are more adjusted. There is still a sense of accomplishment and a bond that exist in Asian families that kind of lacks in the West… Okay, we are all fucked up in one way or another!

          I’d read your articles and views on US politics!

          • I think a big difference is how parents often relate with the teachers. Every teacher or professor I know has horror stories of parents who blame them for their kids poor grades or make weirder demands. One of my high school teachers had a quadriplegic (I think that was disability) student who wanted to be a paramedic. The parents (and maybe even the district) forbade him from ever telling the student she can’t do it due to her disability. I’m not sure what good that does a person. Reality is going to hit her like a brick wall at some point. Chinese parents are known to be much more differential to the teacher, which isn’t always justified either.

            I bet if you had parents sum up in one word what they want their kids to grow up to be, most western parents would say ‘happy’ whereas most Chinese parents would say ‘successful’. Western parents invest alot and often expect little, and not in the altruistic. It’s more like they are conditioned to supporting their kids irregardless of what path they take. Chinese parents invest EVERYTHING and expect EVERYTHING in return.

            Western education does benefit from being adaptable and will change over time. Of course this can backfire with fad theories, but its a better mindset for adapting to the times. Chinese people are still dragging the anchor of Confucianism around. That’s why Americans hope to get their standardized testing grades, but they want our system. They send their rich kids here for their entire college education, we send ours there to sight see.

            I think this extends to parenting as well. We’re dealing with the fallout from the ‘me’ generation and all the narcissists it spawned, but China isn’t really that much better. There was a documentary on the dating scene in China and how materialistic it is, with the most memorable quote being “I’d rather cry in a Mercedes, than smile in a Honda.” So maybe this ones a wash.

            Though I do wonder how much we have benefited from not having a one-child policy. Most of the well adjusted people I know had siblings, which was rare in China until recently when they lifted the policy, but the preference for 1 son remains.

            As for our politics… you’re better off staring at a dumpster fire. US politics is awful and just when you think things couldn’t get worse, life finds a way. We’re about to elect a child molester to the senate, and that’s just the tip of the crap iceberg with this dude.

            What’s that saying? “The people have spoken. Damn them.”

          • The last time we went to China, in 2014, I was shocked to see how selfish and individualistic Chinese were turning. This was compared to previous trips between 1999 and 2008. Back then, there was still a sense of… cohesion, it felt. Now in major cities Chinese turn to consumerism and just want to succeed and spend money. Outside any ideological bias I may have, I found it sad. I can only imagine how materialistic the dating scene is :-/

            I like the way you put in, Chinese parents make an investment and expect everything in return. I never thought of it this way but it explains so many attitudes I find puzzling.

            As for US politics… yeah, I don’t envy you. It stopped being funny a long time ago, even from a foreign perspective. Although I must admit I did laugh when I read on Twitter “Manson died before Trump could find him an office”.

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