Culture Got Your Tongue?

How the word "love" got lost among Asians

Posted Dec 11, 2016

In this gripping video Asian-American adult children were asked to reflect on their experiences of sharing their feelings with their parents, and in particular, using the phrase, "I love you" with them.  None of them could recall such moments.  While this is obviously a very small sample size, it cuts to the core of how generations of Asian families abiding by the cultural honor/shame dynamic struggle with this.

In traditional Asian families, emotional stoicism was valued. So parents not only didn't share their feelings with their children, they often didn't do so with their spouses either.  In return, you have generations upon generations of families who never heard the words, "I love you" from their parents and in return parents never heard the same level of love reciprocated from their children.

Some will dismiss the Western notion of having to articulate your feelings of love by citing the sacrifices their parents made for them (i.e. "Acts of service") as enough proof of love. But as a therapist specializing in Asian-American issues, I and other professionals can tell you this can create a deep void in children leaving some vulnerable and prone to addictions and suicide in extreme cases. "Parents in these homes assume that simply being present communicates the blessing — a tragic misconception." Psychologists Dr. Gary Smalley and Dr. John Trent further explain that this silence breeds confusion. "Children who are left to fill in the blanks when it comes to what their parents think about them will often fail the test when it comes to feeling valuable and secure." 

In milder forms, the impact of this loss can lead to perfectionism, low self-worth, feelings of inadequacy, consumerism, competitiveness (beyond normal), and a host of other relational and identity issues.

Combine this lack of verbal affirmation with a dearth of appropriate touch and children lose out on two of the main ways of communicating love to a child (i.e. verbally and physically).  Smalley and Trent go on to say, "Meaningful touch has many beneficial effects. The act of touch is key in communicating warmth, personal acceptance, affirmation, even physical health. For any person who wishes to bless a child, touch is an integral part of that blessing."  And without the consistency of hugs/kisses and praise from their parents, children regardless of ethnicity can feel confused about their desirability and lovability in the eyes of their parents.

In the video itself, an attempt to end the generational pattern of silence is conducted when the unknowing parents are brought into the room and their adult children share their feelings with them for the first time.  It is an emotional reminder of how significant words can truly have on both parent and child.

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