Setting Boundaries as Asian Americans

Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

Note: This is Part 2 of a series where we’ll be using Crazy Rich Asians as a launching point to explore different aspects of ministry to Asian Americans.

Disclaimer: It is worth noting that while Rachel, the main character in the story, is a Chinese American, many characters are not Chinese Americans but rather are Chinese Singaporeans. A movie centering on a specific set of Chinese Americans and Chinese Singaporeans does not reflect the experience of all Asian Americans. While the term “Asian American” is used in this series, it will often be used in specific ways, and it is also not intended to be representative of all Asian Americans.

Perhaps the most pivotal scene of the movie Crazy Rich Asians was the mahjong scene. Prior to this scene, much of the storyline could have come across as a typical Western love story—two people love one another, but they need to overcome the obstacles that prevent them from being together. This narrative is the heart of classics like Romeo and Juliet and modern-day movies like The Notebook. However, the mahjong scene encapsulated a significant shift from this narrative.

At this scene, the protagonist Rachel invites Eleanor, her boyfriend Nick’s tiger mom, for a public chat over a game of mahjong. Eleanor, at this point of the movie, had been the main antagonist. She was the leader and the face of all forces that were preventing Rachel and Nick from being together. But while playing the game, Rachel calmly but commandingly recounts that Nick had just proposed to her—much to Eleanor’s surprise—but she had said no. Rachel explains that she understood Nick’s dilemma—choose her and lose his family, or choose his family and lose her—so, at great loss to herself, she chose the second option for him. Therefore, Eleanor was able to win her son, but it was only because Rachel willingly surrendered and allowed Eleanor to win. And to drive this point home, at the end of the conversation, Rachel powerfully reveals that Eleanor had won that game of mahjong only because Rachel chose to lose by handing over the final piece that Eleanor needed.

Rachel’s decision to say no to Nick flies in the face of most other Western romance movies. In other movies, Nick’s decision to leave his mother and propose to Rachel would have been the happily ever after ending to the movie. But Rachel believed that she could not in good conscience say yes to Nick because she did not believe, unlike many lovers throughout literature, that her relationship with Nick was the only thing that mattered. She did not think that their relationship was so important that it was worth sacrificing Nick’s relationship with his mother, family, and fortune.

The reason I think this scene was so powerful for me was because it embodied something that many Asian Americans long for but don’t know how to obtain—a powerful union of cultural values.

Asian Americans, like many descendants of recent immigrants, often find themselves trapped between two cultures: the culture of their families and the culture of their peers. Asians are often interdependent, while their American peers are often independent. Asians are often harmonious, while Americans are often assertive. Asians are often hierarchical, while Americans are often egalitarian. As a result, Asian Americans find themselves holding a contradictory set of values, and they feel unsure of how to react in ways that are true to themselves in difficult situations.

Rachel’s difficult situation is one that is familiar to many Asian Americans. Should we give in to our Asian values, humbly and quietly respect our elders without confrontation, and go back home? Or should we give in to our American values, boldly stand up for our relationship, and get married without parental approval? Rachel did what seemed to be impossible. She maintained her own agency to make the decision for herself, but she also chose to bring honor to Nick’s family. She embodied both boldness and respect, both confrontation and surrender.

Enter the Asian American Christian. Many Asian American Christians also feel caught between two worlds: the Asian church and the American church. Many of them grow up in Asian immigrant churches led by Eastern perspectives, but as they approach adulthood, many find themselves intersecting with American churches that embody mostly Western values. And although the core belief systems are the same, they often find that the practices and habits and emphases are different.

One of the main areas of distinction between the two Christian worlds concerns the concept of boundaries. Boundaries is a psychological concept that was popularized in the Christian world by Dr. Henry Cloud, and in essence, it is to have a clear understanding of one’s identity and responsibility. He writes in his book Boundaries, “Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership.”

Having healthy boundaries entails not taking on someone else’s emotional or physical load when you feel you already have enough of an emotional or physical load to handle. It entails accepting your perceived limitations in work, ministry, and relationships and recognizing that you can’t fix everybody else’s problems. It entails being okay with not pleasing other people when you think that they make unreasonable demands.

The basic concept of boundaries has Christian undertones. When we get married, we should draw boundaries between our spouse and our parents, since Genesis 2:24 states that “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife.” When people continuously ask us for help, we should draw boundaries so that we know when to stop helping, since Paul states in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” And when people around us are behaving in un-Christian ways, we should draw boundaries to limit the amount of time we spend with them, since Paul commands, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?”

When I first read up on boundaries, it was a truly eye-opening experience. It almost like like I was discovering a type of freedom that I never knew existed. I was freed from having to fulfill burdensome obligations, freed from living up to relational expectations, and freed from the pressure to always say yes. I had the sensation that I had been doing everything wrong, but now I finally had the tools to make everything right.

But looking back now, although the concept of boundaries in of itself was not a bad concept, I realize that my application of the concept was sometimes inappropriate. In essence, I was using boundaries as an excuse to throw out my Eastern values and adhere to Western values. I was perceiving my Eastern values as unbiblical and perceiving my Western values as biblical. However, what I didn’t realize at the time was that I was understanding what was biblical and what wasn’t biblical through a Western lens.

The concept of boundaries is almost exclusively a Western concept. It relies on a Western understanding of self-knowledge, self-expression, and self-esteem. It values personal independence, personal fulfillment, and personal security.

In the Eastern paradigm, the community is considered more significant than the individual. Thus, the family’s needs take priority over the individual’s needs. That is why so many first-generation Asian immigrants spend so little money on themselves but are so willing to pay their children’s college tuitions. That is also why so many Asian families invite their grandparents to live with them. To traditional Easterners, the Western idea of boundaries would come across as selfishness.

On top of that, regardless of one’s culture, boundaries cannot be the end-all-be-all solution, simply because the gospel story itself runs against the concept of boundaries. There once was a great boundary between God and humanity. However, Jesus crossed that boundary by choosing to take on human flesh and entering our world. And not only that, but he chose to be pushed beyond his “limits.” Even when he was so emotionally distressed that his sweat was like drops of blood, he selflessly prayed, “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). He then voluntarily chose to be shamed, tortured, and killed. If Jesus strictly adhered to a Western understanding of boundaries, he would not have died, and we would all still be dead in our sins.

And not only that, but Jesus also tells us, “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34). If Jesus loved us so much that he even gave beyond his limits, then it must follow that we must sometimes give beyond our own limits. Therefore, although it can be good to set up our boundaries, there are also clear scenarios where it is good to remove our boundaries.

Now, I firmly believe that understanding healthy boundaries is pivotal for every Asian American Christian, and in particularly those who are constantly physically or emotionally overburdened. Many Asian Americans need to be freed from the heavy shame that often comes with a lifestyle of no boundaries. However, I am also afraid that the overapplication of boundaries has done great harm to many well-intentioned Asian Americans. It has unfortunately been received with the implied message, “Leave your Asian cultural values and adopt Western cultural values, for they are more biblical and more healthy.”

One of the most obvious ways I’ve seen this understanding of boundaries play out is in the relationships between first generation Asian Americans and their children. Often times, the immigrant parents, because they do not have a boundaries paradigm, will seem to “overstep their boundaries” and push things onto their children. They will be very opinionated about what their children will study in college, who their children can date, how their children will raise their own children, etc. Meanwhile, the children of the immigrant parents will go to mentors or counselors to ask what they should do, and they will often be encouraged to set healthy boundaries. They need to stand up to their parents, lay down ultimatums with their parents, draw up lists of expectations with their parents, or, if nothing else works, cut their parents out of their lives altogether.

Obviously, every scenario is different, and extreme scenarios may give reason for extreme actions. However, in most scenarios, I’ve often found that people are very conflicted about the advice they receive. On the one hand, it does feel emotionally healthy to set those boundaries. But on the other hand, it also feels selfish and disrespectful.

So what should we do when we are tempted to draw boundaries?

In Crazy Rich Asians, Rachel drew a boundary line. But unlike most boundaries that we draw, it wasn’t a boundary line to protect her emotional health. It was a boundary line that both asserted her independence and protected Nick’s family. Rachel boldly drew a line, knowing that that line would prevent her from being with the love of her life. However, that move was so powerful that it won Eleanor over, and Eleanor would eventually invite her to cross that line to join the family.

Obviously, Rachel’s action is not prescriptive. It would be ridiculous for us to follow in the footsteps of a fictional character whose faith or lack of faith is not known. But it does suggest that there is a way to boldly draw boundaries in a family-honoring way.

What does the Bible say? Well, the Bible doesn’t give us clear-cut answers to specific scenarios. In fact, Paul writes in Galatians 6, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” and then a few verses later, he also writes, “For each will have to bear his own load.” It seems that we need to be taking both of these principles into account when we make these decisions.

As Asian Americans, this is especially true. Our Asian collectivism side may want us to bear the burdens of others, but our Western individualism side may want us to recognize that people need to bear their own loads. But maybe that tension is a good thing.

So when we feel that our parents are overbearing, we should not conclude that laying down firm boundaries is the only biblical solution. Humbly laying down one’s rights and privileges for the sake of the family may also be a biblical solution. In fact, in many scenarios, it is very possible for there to be several biblically informed solutions. Therefore, instead of quickly aligning ourselves with one solution, we should sit in the cultural tension and exercise biblical discernment in our decision-making process.

Navigating conflicting cultural values may seem stressful or paralyzing at times, but it is an opportunity to live out who we are. The beauty of being a product of two different cultures is that we often experience the tension of competing values, and as a result we have the unique privilege of bridging the gap for others.

Having paradoxical values gives us insight into the paradoxical nature of the gospel. The gospel calls us to live with both power and meekness, both grace and truth, both unity and diversity. And, I would add, it calls us to live with boundaries and without boundaries.

Larry Lin

Larry was born and raised in San Jose, CA and now lives in Baltimore, MD. He has a BS from Cornell University and a MDiv from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Larry is the husband to Van-Kim and the father of one daughter and one son, and he enjoys songwriting, basketball, Wikipedia, graphs, and conversations about politics and culture. Larry previously served for 8 years as a vocational pastor at Village Church Hampden in Baltimore, where he continues to serve as a lay elder.

6 thoughts on “Setting Boundaries as Asian Americans

  • September 11, 2018 at 5:32 pm

    Thank you. I appreciated how you drew out Rachel’s unusual decision.

  • September 14, 2018 at 5:37 am

    I like the background photography

    “Asian Americans, like many descendants of recent immigrants, often find themselves trapped between two cultures: the culture of their families and the culture of their peers. Asians are often interdependent, while their American peers are often independent. Asians are often harmonious, while Americans are often assertive. Asians are often hierarchical, while Americans are often egalitarian. As a result, Asian Americans find themselves holding a contradictory set of values, and they feel unsure of how to react in ways that are true to themselves in difficult situations… Having paradoxical values gives us insight into the paradoxical nature of the gospel. The gospel calls us to live with both power and meekness, both grace and truth, both unity and diversity. And, I would add, it calls us to live with boundaries and without boundaries.”

    Paradox -> analysis paralysis, but the gospel has to have feet! We as Christians are defined by Christ Himself. His body is interdependent while independent, and these each stand true because the body is united by the standard of the cross, and death to self could not have occured without self-existence as a forethought, the dread of separation from His grip in the moment of truth, and His Eternal existence as the launching point and correcting motivational engine that compels the sowing and the reaping thereafter. Just as accounting for a cross borne yields its multiple when harvest comes, responsibility binds with our words, and the bread cast upon the waters returns to the both to the sender and those who follow after, whether pretzels, meatloaf, or red bean hot buns have been baked. Christ is harmonious while assertive, because understanding precedes true generosity in speech. This last part was harder for me to parse out (an uncrucified Korean was still kicking around a bit), but the truth is that Christ is also hierarchical while being egalitarian. Considering others better than oneself within the Body is how to serve the LORD as Christ did in the hierarchy of the kingdom, and indeed that like mind of Christ is what the whole Body is being built up towards, such that if all are built up (in their respective times! no seven headed dragons or three headed dogs here) into the Head, equality is manifest in how the least of these His sheep are affected indeed moves the entirety of His consideration as offense or blessing done to Himself. Power with meekness is wrought simply through submission to authority that sets bounds for boldness, grace with truth through forgiveness returning to the forgiver. Those last two points about unity/diversity & boundary/no boundary are too broad and not clearly referential to wrap my head around, maybe you can detail in a later piece?

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  • October 9, 2018 at 7:56 pm

    Thank you for this. I relate so much to it. I have been really wrestling with the concept of boundaries as an Asian American myself and I haven’t found anything out there addressing this until your post!

  • October 30, 2021 at 7:04 pm

    Thank you for this article.
    I am not Asian American but Egyptian Australian (so to speak). I have had similar struggles and indeed our culture is also collectivist. It is hard to tease out what is purely cultural and what is simply good psychology/theology. Your article takes a step in the right direction.

    I find there are many eastern cultural rituals that may be ‘lost in translation’. For example, in middle eastern cultures, there is a classic ‘fight to pay’ after a meal or drink. In anglosaxon cultures, if someone offers to pay, you might offer once then simply thank them. Yet in the middle eastern culture, simply accepting others to pay for you without also bandying about your wallet may be considered rude.

    It would be great if someone wrote a book on all these differences.


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