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Column: Family dynamic in Chinese culture

<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/al1n01/" target="_self">Amy Lin</a>

Amy Lin

April 9, 2022
It has only been the second week of school and a few girls and I were sitting around in the common room of our dorm sharing our thoughts on this completely new learning and residential environment. After heated discussions on topics of classes, homework and people we’ve met, the subjects of home and family came up.

Everyone shared their degree of homesickness and how often they call home. Through the conversations about their connection with their families, I caught a glimpse of the diverse family dynamics in various cultures. From the “I love you” at the end of each call to spilling secrets and drama to the most excruciating of details, I realized the apparent contrast between other cultures and my own Chinese culture.  

Family dynamics in Asia are usually reserved — traditional in the way that parents are clumsy in expressing their love through words or intimacy. The generation gaps between my grandparents to my parents, then from my parents to me, are evidently distinctive.

In general, throughout my upbringing, the parent-grandparent interactions I witnessed differ from the relationships between parents and children of this generation. Of course, not all families have the same connections, so I can’t speak for everyone, but this piece is based on my experience as well as on those around me. 

My parents are extremely respectful to their parents. Talking back or arguing is not even a problem to consider. I grew up hearing stories after stories about how much my parents contributed to their families even as kids.

Learning about their interactions made me reflect on my own relationship with my parents, and allowed me to recognize differentiation in parental guidance across generations. In my household, for example, voicing my opinions is greatly supported.

So, I was raised being comfortable talking to my parents about anything, anytime — this could be a byproduct of moving to California and being Westernized in their parental approach. As children, we’re allowed to complain here and there and be the kids that we are, but I can’t imagine the consequences if my parents did the same to theirs.

In Chinese culture, I noticed the distinction between the relationships of grandparents with their kids as opposed to their relationship with their grandkids. There seems to be a voluntary option that grandparents are meddling with. They have the ability to love, but they voluntarily don’t exhibit their love directly with their children — there appears to be a barrier to intimacy.

In contrast, with their grandkids, interactions are more openly intimate. I’ve thought about the reasons why that may be and came to the conclusion that grandparents feel full responsibility towards their kids — their kids’ futures depend on them [the parents] and the growth environment, so grandparents tend to be more strict and demanding towards their expectations for their kids.

However, with grandkids, the relationship is more relaxed, because instead of being the leading enforcers in the kids’ lives, grandparents would play the supporting roles. 

In general, Chinese parents show love and affection to their children in a subtle practice. This “muted love” translates across other Asian cultures. I grew up with fruits always on the table; food seems like their fundamental way of displaying their care for us. Constant reminders and the daily nagging are other acts that demonstrate their love.

Some examples are whenever I sneeze, I can always see my parents in the corner of my eyes, eyeing me to check if I have a jacket on. If I do, they would check if the jacket is zipped up. Then, they would close the window. Before I leave for school or any other places in general, they always remind me to stay hydrated and safe. Although there is less intimacy and sweet-talking, the parents’ loving presence still resounds loudly.  

Narrowing it down, even more, different family members show love and affection in their own ways.

Fathers in Asian cultures tend to be portrayed as a disciplinarian with an aloof presence. One time, a friend and I were talking and the topic of family was brought up. She told me about the relationship she has with her father: they’re not close at all and barely communicate with each other. In order to get to her father, it goes through her mother first.

I was quite taken aback, but she expressed that most Asian families are like that. Mothers in the family tend to be more affectionate and caring. They’ve been taught to assist the household and take care of the children, which is why kids tend to develop more intimate relationships with their mothers.

Children, affected by the environment that they grew up in, also tend to express love differently than in other cultures. “I love you” is a rare phrase coming from kids, especially as they mature. To show love and care, the kids work hard toward their studies and help around the household. 

Due to cultural gaps, family dynamic deviates from the norm in each culture that was set by generations from the past. For example, having been raised in California, my relationship with my parents varies from the traditional relationship of parents to children.

I remember a time when I was seven and was entering first grade. As my dad and I walked up to the front of the school for dropoff, I caught sight of many parents bending down and giving their kids a hug and a kiss and showering them with “I love you!” and “Have a great day!” Thoughts raced through my head as my dad patted me on the shoulders and reminded me to pay attention in class.

They all revolve around the question: “How come other kids get this special treatment but I don’t?”

A few days after the encounter, my parents and I were in a slight argument about some of the improvements that I needed to make, and I sought the opportunity to speak up about my discontent: “Well, then why can’t you guys be like other parents?”

I proceeded to rant and compare how I see everyone else’s parents showcase their love openly to their kids and how they [my parents] never did that. Although at the moment, there was not much reaction; as time went on I started to see slight changes in the ways my parents, especially my dad, interacted with me. Eventually, I was also one of the kids who were sent off to school with a hug and a kiss on the head. When I asked what changed, I clearly remember my parents said “Didn’t you love for us to do that?” 

Family dynamics differ across all cultures. It can be seen that in Chinese culture, families tend to express love more subtly. However, through generations, changes to expressions of love and affection became quite obvious.

Generation gaps are created and relationships differ significantly. It’s quite hard to predict the future, as there are many factors that can affect what’s to come. However, I can imagine that when my generation of Asian American kids become parents, our relationship with our children would be much more intimate and communicative.