Img credit: Warner Bros.
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.
“It’s like speaking another language,” my friend said, reflecting on her counseling sessions. The advice the counselor gave was reasonable from an American viewpoint: Kindly ask your parents to stop next time they speak critically or share problems indiscriminately. But my friend, sensing the counselor didn’t quite understand the cultural dynamics at play, eventually stopped talking about her family.
Hers isn’t a standalone incident. Other Chinese-Americans have recounted to me similar experiences of disconnect during Christian counseling, especially when talking about parents. Counselors told them they weren’t acting like independent adults and that they needed to curb their parents’ influence on their lives. While well-intentioned, they often advised my friends to act in ways deeply offensive, divisive, and hurtful in an Asian family.
The Cultural Key To Crazy Rich Asians
A few posts ago, I wrote about watching Crazy Rich Asians with versus without an understanding of Chinese culture. Through an American lens, the movie might be summarized as follows: Nick (the protagonist’s boyfriend) is tied down by his manipulative and controlling mom, Eleanor. Eleanor’s main concern is to keep her son heir to the family business and fortune. As a result, she disapproves of Rachel (the protagonist) because she’s an outsider to Singaporean-Chinese high society. Ultimately, Eleanor backs down because Rachel stands up to her, strategically outwitting her. Romantic love and self-assertion win against outdated traditional values.
But rewatch the movie wearing Chinese glasses and see how the story changes. Nick is torn because of his love for Rachel and his responsibility to family members who’ve sacrificed for him all his life. Eleanor, Nick’s mother, has made choices others may not understand (e.g. letting her mother-in-law raise her son) but always because of what she believed was best for him. She disapproves of Rachel because she is an American who wouldn’t understand the privilege of giving up her passions for the sake of family. Feeling responsible for her son’s future, she acts viciously but from a place of deep devotion.1 Ultimately, she gives approval to Nick and Rachel’s marriage because she sees Rachel is capable of doing the very un-American thing of denying her own happiness for Nick’s relationship with his family.
In the first viewing, the movie reads like a standard American romantic comedy starring Asians, the second, not so much. What makes the difference?
Filial Piety And The Good Life
The key to understanding the movie, and my friends in counseling, is grasping the Chinese vision of the good life. While we often describe a culture by practices (e.g. speaking respectfully to elders) or values (e.g. honoring elders), underlying both are the deep roots that nourish them. Every culture holds a vision of what human flourishing looks like. This vision of the good life is cast by the narratives we learn in families, read in books, or watch on screen. It can be seen in a country’s laws or a set of unspoken rules, and it shapes our motives, morality, relationships, and dreams.2
Generally speaking, the American notion of human flourishing is centered on the individual. We believe each person is born with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A flourishing society is thus made of fulfilled, free individuals doing what makes them happy. Influential Western psychological theories place self-actualization quite literally at the pinnacle of a hierarchy of human needs.
This American vision of the good life means that in families, the goal is to raise independent adults who are true to themselves, fulfilling their individual passions or callings. Parents raise their children toward this end. Adult children are expected to make major decisions independently based on what is best for them and, if married, their new families.
In contrast, most Asian cultures are collective, not individualistic. Particularly in those influenced by Confucianism, filial piety and communal harmony are central to a vision of human flourishing. Parents make sacrifices to raise their children. Children are expected to honor and obey their parents, considering their wishes into adulthood and even after death. Parents are expected to play an influential role in the lives of grown children, giving input in every area of life. (You see this in Crazy Rich Asians when Nick’s grandmother blames his mother for his actions, saying she let him stay away from home for too long.)
In these Asian cultures, human flourishing is defined as harmony in relationships, first within the family, then out in wider society. Decisions in Asian culture are thus judged by how they impact a complex web of relationships. The orienting question is not the American, “What do I truly want?” or “What will make me happy?”, but “What is best for everyone I care about?”
Most Asian Americans have grown up in two cultures, internalizing two visions of human flourishing. Understanding both American and Asian visions of the good life, and the ways they can conflict, is often a crucial first step in ministering to Asian Americans. Here are a few reasons why this is so:
First, it explains the pressure many Asian Americans feel to perform and succeed.
The way we were reprimanded as young children and how we observed our parents interact with our grandparents have formed in us a sense of the rightness of making decisions for our parents’ pleasure. Children of immigrants especially hold in our consciousness how much our parents have sacrificed for our sakes, and it usually feels proper that we do the same for them.
Because Asian parents express care through meeting physical needs, they are often very concerned that their children are financially secure. Additionally, children are responsible for providing for aging parents. Thus, Asian Americans often feel immense pressure to get good grades and land high paying jobs. The pressure isn’t merely about an internalized standard of perfection. Rather, there is a deep sense that our successes or failures are never just about ourselves, but tied to the emotional and physical wellbeing of our families.
Secondly, it helps us not be overly simplistic (or American) in thinking about familial obligation.
When my friends received counseling, their relationship with their parents signaled immaturity to their advisors. Allowing their parents to influence them was a sign they were not acting as mature adults, not “leaving and cleaving.” But in Asian cultures, adulthood is not defined by making choices independently based on your own judgment. Rather, maturity is seen as a willingness to fulfill your rightful duties, including the responsibility to honor your parents.
Additionally, the idea that children are to seek to please their parents, even as adults, means filial piety is often reduced in the West to a negative sense of obligation. But Asian cultures wouldn’t describe duty to parents as “obligation” any more than Americans would describe taking care of their own children as an obligation. It’s just what is right and good to do. To neglect to account for parental wishes and needs in decision-making wouldn’t just mean facing parental disapproval, it would mean violating what we’ve come to believe about how life ought to be lived.
Thirdly, it helps explain the guilt and bitterness many Asian Americans struggle with regarding family.
Asian Americans often feel simultaneously guilty and resentful toward their families. Having grown up in American culture, Asian cultural expectations can feel constricting and oppressive. Many are bitter at their parents because they feel they have wasted years, forced down career paths they didn’t prefer. Others are hurt that their parents don’t support their ambitions unreservedly the way American parents seem to do. Still, having internalized the desire to make decisions that are best for the family, they cannot choose to merely disregard their parents’ desires without an immense sense of guilt.
Lastly, we get a picture of the complex world Asian American Christians are called to navigate.
For some Asian Americans, following Jesus necessarily means denying our parents in major ways. In confessing Christ as Lord, many Chinese Christians are effectively saying they will not maintain traditions thought to be necessary for their parents’ prosperous afterlife. Non-Christian family members may strongly oppose their faith, feeling threatened by their devotion to God as it takes away time and focus from the family. Less black-and-white decisions can be confusing too, like who to date, whether or when to go into ministry, and choosing a profession when our desires conflict with our parents’. 3
Trying to discern what obedience to Christ looks like in our contexts can be very difficult and confusing. It would be hard, but straightforward, if Asian American Christians simply cut off all ties with their parents. But as we honor God first, we seek to obey his command to honor them, obeying them unto the Lord.4 This means needing to assess whether we’re truly obeying Christ or acting in culturally offensive ways in his name. And it’s hard to know sometimes whether we’re hurting our parents because we are making godly decisions or just being very American.
Christ And Human Flourishing
Thankfully, Scripture is not silent when it comes to culture. Christians understand the world and its cultures as created by God. Therefore, every culture contains hints of truth about his plan for our flourishing. Regarding individuals, we know each person is created uniquely, for a relationship with God, ultimately accountable to him for their own actions alone. At the same time, his word casts a beautiful vision of family and harmony as we fulfill his divine calling to love one another.
But Scripture also tells us that every culture’s vision of human flourishing is tainted by sin and rebellion against our Creator. Asian American Christians cannot blindly accept the American narrative of living to pursue our passions, nor bow to the Confucian mandate to live for parental approval. Neither of these visions fully honors God as the Sovereign King of all– individuals and families.
So we look to Christ to reorient our visions of human flourishing and realign them to his created purpose. The locus of human flourishing is neither the individual or family, but in Christ. In living for him, we find our purpose, approval, and fulfillment. As individuals seeking his will, our passions are submitted to him. As children honoring our parents, he is our final authority. Moreover, Jesus brings peace as he empowers us to forgive our parents if they’ve sinfully pursued an incomplete vision of the good life, and he forgives us when we repent of doing the same.
When we submit to God’s vision of the good life, we are not ruled by American nor Asian values and can choose to navigate both cultures in freedom, love, and obedience to God. We do whatever is in our power to love our parents in a way they understand, but freed from the responsibility to live for their happiness. We can choose to honor them by laying down our preferences, joyfully obeying Christ’s call to love. When we must make choices against their wishes, we do so in humility and gentleness. And if they withhold their approval because of our allegiance to the Lord, we stand secure in the approval we have in Christ.
Though American, we are not defined by our ability to stand out as exceptional individuals nor do we fear not fulfilling our dreams. Though Asian, we are not defined by what our parents think nor are we paralyzed by the threat of their disapproval. Rather, as those who belong to Christ, we flourish as we love and obey him, submitting our lives and families to his vision of the good life above all.
1 Says Crazy Rich Asians co-screenwriter Adele Lim, “This hold that parents have on their children is a specifically Asian thing. It presents itself in really aggressive ways sometimes, but it comes from a place of deep devotion.”
2 See James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom.
3 Hence, the need for whole books like Following Jesus Without Dishonoring Your Parents. The topic of decision-making is too large to handle here, but this book is a good place to start for those wondering about practical implications.
4 In Message To The Ephesians, John Stott addresses the imperative to obey parents and writes about the need to understand different cultural contexts regarding how long a child is expected to obey.