Families are messy. We fight. We cry. We laugh. For some folks, family means their biological relatives. But for many, family also consists of close friends, mentors and others who provide solace, support and joy.
Because Mochi’s Summer issue centers on the theme of “Family,” we want to explore all types of families and not shy away from even the most difficult of situations. During this time, we want to offer support for readers who might be estranged from their birth families, highlight resources for coping with family stress and also celebrate relationships that provide support. To do this, we spoke with Bay Area therapist Lia Huynh.
For over 20 years, Huynh has advised her clients on building and navigating relationships, be it romantic, platonic, professional or familial. Huynh also happens to be Chinese and Japanese, with a Vietnamese spouse who is also a mental health professional. As a therapist with lived experience as an Asian American, Huynh is uniquely positioned to speak to the question: How might our cultural identity shape how we view families and conflict? She acknowledges the highs and lows in practices like saving face, filial piety and respect for our elders, and also explores how tension might arise from those cultural expectations.
Why might families fight?
Generational values and communication might be a reason.
Huynh states, “So many of us feel indebted to our families, whether by choice or not by choice. There’s often that conflict, especially when the expectation is more than the child can bear.” While it’s not to say all Asian American families have tiger parents, studies have shown that Asian American students do face higher levels of stress and depression than their white peers connected to the pressure to succeed academically. And even beyond the expectation to make the grade, the sense of obligation to honor our family by finding the “right” job or partner or by making other life choices according to their advice can be downright overwhelming.
It’s especially true if our desires to express ourselves clash with our relatives’ values and beliefs. Because Asian Americans are commonly told it’s disrespectful to talk back to our elders, it makes it hard for us to show our discomfort or disagree with our parents. Huynh points out, “My Asian clients say when they’ve gone to Caucasian therapists, they’ll be told, ‘You just need to talk to [your parents].’ And it’s like, well, it’s not that simple, right? Because you can do more harm by talking to them if you become so vulnerable.”
Huynh suggests the importance of setting boundaries to protect one’s mental health, and then returning to the conversation from a healthier place later on. But let’s say we’ve tried that, exhausted all efforts to communicate, and boundaries continue to be crossed. Or say, it’s a situation involving physical, verbal or emotional abuse. If it comes down to it, we might stop talking to our parents altogether.
Does silence make us bad daughters?
The answer is no. Huynh asks, “What does a ‘bad person’ mean? Everyone has a reason for why they do what they do. I mean, there are exceptions…evil things that happen in our world, right? But not talking to your parents, that’s never a choice that I think people make because they want to.
“We don’t get to choose the people that we were brought up with. Sometimes those people, although they are family and we love them, they often have their own baggage and their own struggles.” Huynh suggests that space can provide an opportunity to break free from unhealthy patterns and emphasizes the courage it takes to make that decision.
Just to make it clear, Huynh states, “This is not about, ‘Let’s bash our families and hate them and leave them forever.’ It’s about, ‘How do we take care of ourselves?’”
What does self care look like? And who are the people we might turn to?
Self care is necessary when dealing with tough family situations. Beyond bubble baths, Netflix and other relaxing activities, it might also mean creating distance from people who cause us pain, even if they’re close relatives. It’s recognizing that even though we love our parents and relatives, our own opinions are also valuable and it’s okay to disagree.
Self care could also mean finding a support network, whether it’s people already in our immediate circle or outside help. This can include speaking with close friends, mentors or therapists.
Sometimes these relationships evolve into a “chosen family” of people who support us in ways that are traditionally thought of as family roles. Historically, this has happened organically among groups of like-minded, marginalized people like queer-identifying folx and minorities, and these kinship communities continue to play an important role today. Huynh elaborates, “A lot of times we have to find that chosen family, such as role models that we never had or people that can support us in ways that we didn’t have growing up.”
She adds, “You have your family of origin and then you have this community of people that have shared values and that are your main support system. I think that’s something that I really value and believe in.”
How do I know if I’ve found a “chosen family”?
Huynh says we often feel it intuitively when we have found the people who could be a good influence. But if we had to quantify it, we could ask the following questions:
- Do they bring out the best in me?
- Do they make me a better person?
- Are these people that I trust and that can provide good advice?
- Do I feel loved by them?
- Do I feel like I have to be a different person or can I be myself around them?
What’s next? Can I ever repair relations with my birth family?
In the end, everyone’s situation is different. Some people are able to renew ties with their birth families after taking the time and space to heal, while also keeping their chosen family or support network. Huynh explains, “It doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. You can have both. It’s fluid. You can have times when you’re closer to your family of origin and then sometimes when you’re closer to the family that you’ve chosen.”
But for some of us who can never work out our differences with our birth families, at the very least, our chosen families can give us hope. No one has to feel alone forever.
There are options. Some might turn to church or other faith-based organizations. Online communities and apps like BetterHelp also serve as virtual safe spaces. Additionally, nonprofits can connect us to people who can help. Organizations like the Center for the Pacific Asian Family and women’s shelters provide critical services for people facing domestic violence. Meanwhile, identity-based groups like API Equality for LGBTQ individuals and Maitri for South Asians in the Bay Area can be a resource for those facing family conflict.
With the help of our chosen families and other support networks, we can discover our sense of self and belonging. We hope that Mochi magazine can be a source of comfort, and also encouragement for you to find support through groups like IAMWOMENKIND, Asian Women’s Shelter and more. And if you find yourself fortunate enough to do so, please also consider donating to these causes or volunteering your time to help your fellow sisters.
Special thanks to Lia Huynh, who provided deep insights and wisdom that inform this article. She can be reached at her website: liahuynh.com.
Photo credit: Gabrielle Henderson//Unsplash
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!