Check out the Mochi exclusive interview with Joseph Lam, on our YouTube channel.
Deep down, Joseph Lam knew that his family’s dynamics were different from other American families’. Growing up, he would come home after school, barely say a word to his parents, and bunker up in his room. “I don’t want to sugarcoat it. I don’t want to hide the fact that when I came home [that was the situation] because I grew up in these two different cultures: One at school and one at home that were pretty much at odds. I was bullied in middle school so I desperately wanted to fit in and what I did as a result was reject my parents, and reject almost everything that was their norm,” Lam shares.
During meal times, any conversation beyond the transactional — even the smallest comment — would set off fireworks. Lam reflects, “[My parents] were pretty much the only people that I yelled and screamed at. I took out my frustrations and my anger at them, not because they did anything wrong, but because that was the only outlet I picked.” Lam goes on to say that this behavior became a “dark secret” that he was ashamed of because he felt like no other families had such a volatile parent-child dynamic. Now, he wants to normalize these messy relationships and help us dig deeper into the complicated dynamics of being an Asian American family.
In order to achieve this goal, Lam created a card game that provides a framework to start conversations and build relationships with our parents. It’s called “Parents Are Human.”
About the game “Parents Are Human”
The card deck includes blue and red cards. The blue cards prompt storytelling and conversations around certain topics like life events and wisdom. Among these cards are questions like “What was your favorite food growing up?” — a question that, according to Lam, is a real hit with families. The red cards require action and have prompts such as “Share or describe your favorite picture of each other.” In addition, the game is designed to allow two levels of play: one level allows for light and easy conversation, and the harder level pushes families to dig deeper.
A defining feature of the cards is that they not only provide the questions in English, but each card provides a Chinese translation with pinyin so that us English-only fluent children (myself included) can attempt to ask the questions in our parents’ language. (Vietnamese, Korean, and Tagalog versions are coming up next!)
Communication barriers within immigrant families
Parents struggling with English can upset traditional parent-child hierarchies. Children of immigrants can find themselves being the translator for their parents in day-to-day life, whether at the grocery store or parent-teacher meetings, creating a relationship of reliance that parents themselves might not be used to. As the only child of immigrant parents, Lam struggled to find support in navigating the social cues of American culture. “Not having that safety or security at home where I had someone to talk to who would be there unconditionally and understand what I was going through was really rough,” he says.
At the same time, Lam acknowledges that he was reluctant to explain things to his parents in Chinese. “When they didn’t speak English to me, I just [jumped to the conclusion] they didn’t understand and that they were somehow less knowledgeable or had less wisdom. Only now am I uncovering that my mom is so eloquent in Chinese and is almost like a philosopher,” Lam said. “And it just blew my mind!”
Particularly for immigrants, communication barriers can be the cause for the biggest divides — and it goes beyond language. It includes cultural nuances, both verbal and nonverbal. For Lam, he notes that this included hugging his parents, something he didn’t do until he was an adult.
“For the longest time, up until three years ago, I thought I was the only one with this huge divide between myself and my parents,” Lam said. “I didn’t know how to communicate with them, I didn’t know how to receive their love which often came in very confusing ways, and I didn’t know how to reciprocate that love and give back.”
Breaking down barriers
Around three years ago, Lam had to face this divide directly. He hit rock bottom: His company had failed. His relationship had failed. He found himself moving back in with his parents. Like bumper cars, he was avoiding them while co-living with them. That was until he came to a realization that the single most important thing he had to do in his life was to confront the shame and guilt of mistreating his parents all those years. So standing on a street corner, he let it all go. He called his parents to read them a letter he wrote — crying for the first time in 10 years. Nowadays, he even writes about the pains and struggles that he experienced while healing this broken family dynamic.
“They understand a lot of things, but they also don’t understand a lot of things,” Lam admits. “And now, we are just playing this dance of learning how to finally get to know each other, to see each others’ perspectives, and uncover that (holy cow!) everything actually makes sense. If I had grown up in their shoes, I would have the same beliefs, I would have the same habits.”
Today, Lam tries to open up to his parents more and more — although he admits it is a process and that the awkward dynamics didn’t change overnight. He realized he had to change the way he reacts to his parents when their words happen to touch on a sore spot. To manage feelings of frustration from difficult and sometimes triggering conversations, he turns to meditation, punching a pillow, or talking it out with a friend. And it was through conversations with friends that Lam learned he wasn’t alone, that others had families and struggles like his. That’s how “Parents Are Human” was born.
Photo credits: Joseph Lam
This article is part of the Summer 2021 issue. The Summer 2021 issue centered on the theme of Family, scratching the surface of what it means to be an Asian American family, whether that’s from queer families growing to the ways our AAPI community comes together. Check it out here!