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5 Asian Love Languages

The Therapist Strikes Back

"Art by Lela Lee, courtesy of Angry Little Girls, Inc."
Source: "Art by Lela Lee, courtesy of Angry Little Girls, Inc."

One year after I posted a tongue-in-cheek piece about the Asian-American family dynamic titled, "The 5 Asian Love Languages", vociferous feedback continues to stream in claiming the article does nothing but perpetuate Asian stereotypes.

(see link for original post)…

Since the satirical blog post has been taken seriously, an elucidation of the original is needed.

First off, here's some of the choice feedback I received from my avid fan base:

  • It's stereotypical and racist. Ridiculous to see this level of writing on Psychology Today."
  • Is Mr. Louie suggesting that Asian parents are cold, distant and unloving? That they ought to be more like white American parents?
  • "Your description is one of exaggeration and does not reflect the norm."
  • "I am still offended. This lists pits Asian against Western parenting with the implication that Asian parents are inferior."
  • "Every family regardless of race has its issues." (interpretation: Why single out Asian families/issues?)
  • "Satire can be funny if it's generally regarded as true, however I think you're describing a minority."
  • "Are you sure you are not like the self-hating Asians you write about?"
  • "Clearly, you don't really know the core and understand Asian culture. What you know is so general that you misinterpret and/or hurt other Asian cultures."
  • "This was meant to gain you some traction in publicity through racial stereotyping. Asian cultures are rich, diverse, nuanced, varied."
  • "Without ever getting into the reasons behind these actions of our Asian parents, you're affirming the beliefs that some Asian children have that their parents don't love them."

First off, there is a lot of diversity when it comes to the term "Asian" which consists of more than 40 different Asian ethnic groups. However, despite the diversity, it's equally important to acknowledge the commonalities comprising traditional Asian ethnic groups. The comment that "every family regardless of race has issues" implies that there shouldn't be an overemphasis or focus race yet that notion dismisses the significance of how race and ethnic cultures play into the unique Asian patterns of communication and relating. "Although it is necessary to emphasize the heterogeneity of Asian groups, it is equally important to acknowledge a certain level of cultural similarity among them." (Lee)

When Asian families immigrate to the United States, the cultural, relational, and familial expectations and norms of a collectivist society based on interdependence, harmony, emotional restraint, and deference to authority collide with western ideals of autonomy, independence, assertiveness, emotional directness, and challenging of authority.

"Individualism pertains to societies in which the ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after himself or herself and his or her imme- diate family. . . . Collectivism as its opposite pertains to societies in which peo- ple from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive ingroups, which throughout people’s lifetime continue to protect them in exchange for unques- tioning loyalty." (Hofstede)

"Unquestioning loyalty" is a mantra that has served collectivist cultures to maintain harmony and social order for centuries upon centuries. These stark differences present the greatest challenges to the first and second generation of Asian-American families as family members for the first time must straddle two very different cultures with opposing cultural values. "The strain of maintaining, in individualistic America, a stystem that sees 'proper behavior toward parents and elder brothers' as they very 'trunk of Goodness' weighs on all generations." (Leonard)

Immigrant parents hold dearly to their cherished traditions of collectivism, cooperation, and interdependence whille the "Americanized" children are holding the tension of living in both a collectivist mindset and one based on individualism and self-expression.

What adds to an already difficult transition to life in America (i.e. language, culture shock, loss of community, discrimination, etc.) is the complexity traditional Asian parents have in raising Asian-American children. This complexity is highlighted by Asian-American children growing up in a western world often devoid of any cultural understanding of their Asian ancestry and relational patterns. In other words, Asian-American children often have no reference point for their parents' actions.

"Confucianism teaches students to strict obedience to elders be it an older brother, uncle, parent, or extended family members. "What is the proper attitude to parents, Confucius is asked. 'Never disobey!' he replies. He is asked again. 'Never disobey!' This powerful loyalty created very stable political structures in China, from the Han dynasty on. People who behave dutifully to their parents and elder brothers never start a revolution, the Analects claim." (Leonard)

But in the U.S. once the sons and daughters of Asian immigrants step foot outside their home, what they see in their interactions with "Americanized" teachers, classmates, parents, business owners, and society at large is a system that rewards and encourages direct communication. This starts very early in school where students are asked to "speak up". Francis Hsu, a cultural anthropologist notes how subtle this can take place in the educational system without much awareness of its implications.

"American schools foster a desire and a skill for self-expression that is little known in the Chinese schools. Even in nursery schools, American children are taught to stand up individually to tell the rest of the class about something they know- perhaps a toy or an outing with old-style Chinese schools there was nothing like public performance at all. For purposes of recitation, the teacher listened to each pupil, standing beside him one at a time and facing the wall, as the pupa loudly repeated that section of the classics assigned the day before. The rest of the class, which might contain up to thirty boys, could not hear the performing pupil because they would all be busy reading aloud their own assignments." (Hsu)

Hsu believes it's this early inculcation on individualism and autonomy that plays a role in acculturating Asian-American students to unconsciously develop a more individualized way of thinking which is then tested back home.

"The American emphasis on self-expression not only enables the American child to feel unrestrained by the group, but also makes him confident that he can go beyond it. The Chinese lack of emphasis on self-expression not only leads the Chinese child to develop a greater consciousness of the status quo but also serves to tone down any desire on his part to transcend the larger scheme of things." (Hsu)

These similiarities are embedded in traditional Asian cultural values expressed in the "5 Asian Love Languages". Here's a more thorough explanation of the following:

Part of the reasoning for the article is to highlight how cultural interpretations or misinterpretations can impact the health of Asian-Americans. "Available research strongly implies that major mental health problems exist among various Asian American groups, contrary to the widespread belief that Asian Americans are well adjusted." (Lee)

1) Words of Affirmation = Lecturing.

Kids need to be praised for who they are. They need to be empowered to trust their instincts. Instead many Asian parents simply lecture their kids and treat them as non-entities.

There are few words of affirmation because of the Asian beliefs in deference to authority and humility. Bringing attention to self, one's achievements is frowned upon due to a fear of leading to a sense of self-importance and arrogance that would disrupt social order. Consequently, words of affirmation will be scarce in traditional Asian families since the concern is the individual child may see his/her self superior to the group or family.

"Asian Americans are discouraged from appearing bumptious by talking about their accomplishments or expressing their opinions and are encouraged to be humble and modest. They may not want to seem boastful or self-centered because this also could be seen as reflecting negatively on the family" (D. Sue & Sue, 1993)

The lecturing comes from a Confucian tradition where children are to know their place in society and this comes from teaching kids through a conversational pattern that is very rigid and hierachical in nature (i.e. Younger children defer to older children, children defer to parents, parents defer to grandparents, etc.) Within this hierarchical structure, authority and obedience to authority trumps. In the Asian family, nothing is held more sacred than the relationship between a parent and child. "Filial piety is characterized by respect, honor, fidelity, devotion, dutifulness, and sacrifice on the part of children for their parents. Filial piety demands unquestioning obedience to parents as well as concern for and understanding of their needs and wishes, with the intention of comforting them." (Kim)

This is clearly exemplified by the "dutiful son" role, where the eldest son is obligated to bring honor to one's parents by modeling what it means to prioritize the parental and family interest over one's personal needs. "The dominant relationship is more likely to be placed on the parent-child dyad rather than the husband-wife dyad." (Lee)

In a more egalatarian society, conversations and relationships are based on a premise of equality. You get to share your opinions, thoughts, feelings with others, even those in authority. This is unheard of in a collectivist culture predicated on authority. The idea of allowing your children to have their own thoughts or feelings runs counter to establishing stability in the household, community, and country.

2) Quality Time = No time to play. You play piano

In the more traditional Asian family, play is usually non-existent. Parents are too busy working and trying to make more money. There was no such thing as leisure time to "play" like a white family going skiing, hiking, or camping.

Once again, in a hierarchical structure roles between parents and children have been defined for centuries. There is no blurring of the roles where children and parents are seen as "equal". This sense of equality in relationships is more of Eurocentric viewpoint than one of Asian families where your identity, status, and role in life is defined by your relationship to others as a son, daughter, cousin, uncle, brother, father, etc. Traditional Asian parents will hang with and "play" with their age-appropriate peers while leaving their children to do the same.

3) Physical Touch = You get B+? You get spanking.

Hugs, kisses, and physical signs of affection are scarce. I can only remember vague memories of my dad holding my mom's hand. I've never seen them kiss each other. Consequently, it's almost taboo for Asian parents to display physical affection to their kids.

Stoicism or the need to show emotional retraint was needed for surivival under a Confucian system where expressing negative emotions against authority figures could get you killed. Consequently, withholding outward displays of affection is not only common but more the rule than the exception in traditional Asian families.

"Traditional Asian culture encourages the suppression of emotional conflicts and discourages the full expression of emotions (Uba, 1994). Thus, many Asian Americans are taught to have self-control and to exercise restraint when experiencing potentially disruptive emotions (Kaneshige, 1973; Leong, 1992; Murakawa, 1986; Tinloy, 1978; Tung, 1985; Uba, 1994). According to Uba (1994), these cultural values force many Asian Americans to be reticent in their interpersonal communication style." (Kim)

Consequently, physical and verbal expressions of love is not commonplace. Whether it's between parents or parents and their children. Some argue, children should know their Asian parents love them even without outward displays of affection. But this is where intergenerational conflict emerges.

"Western ideals espouse that children have the right to disagree with their parents and express their emotions freely, while their traditional Korean parents may see this as being disobedient and disrespectful. Traditional Korean family values are based on Confucianism, which calls for obedience from the child to the parents, filial piety, and respect for elders. In addition, Korean parents, may not show physical and verbal affection as openly as American parents, which may confuse and frustrate some Korean youths."

When it comes to the obsession with education and grades, that also has Confucian roots. Within Chinese society, rigorous civil service exams gave any citizen who could pass these tests prized positions in government and a place in society. In addition, entry into a higher status brings honor and prestige on the family. Unfortunately, this slavish devotion to upward mobility through educational achievement is linked with physical punishment or the threat of being physically hurt.

4) Acts of Service = You have enough to eat? Here, you eat more.

This is the one love language that most Asian parents think overrides the need for everything else. If they feed you, clothe you, and put a roof over your head, they believe they've done their job. Rarely, will they recognize the need for emotional nurturing and oftentimes are dismissive and critical of Americans' desires to give attention and time to their kids.

In the world of therapy, attachment is a key to understanding healthy relationships. This is not meant to be a West vs. East dichotomy but one that cuts across cultures. Even within Asian cultures there are families (i.e. primary caregivers) who are more emotionally attuned to their children. But in those where emotional attunement is discouraged, the risk of children being emotionally dismissive or avoidant is high. With avoidance or dismissiveness come the perils of being in relationships devoid of deeper emotional intimacy.

5) Gifts = I pay for your tuition. I make you food. What more do you want?

Gift-giving is also big in the Asian culture. If they give you money, buy you things, then they believe that should suffice for caring for you. Why should they need to empathize or try and understand your point of view when they can just buy their way out of emotional entanglements?

Once again, this ties into the earlier explanation of how children need to feel cared for otherwise they may suffer from the impact of conditional love, perfectionism, criticalness, or simply being emotinally of touch to their inner world and those around them.

This is not an indictment against Asian culture or parenting rather it is to understand the strengths but also the shortcomings so future generations can grow, adapt, and reconcile the vast cultural differences between a collectivist Asian culture and an individualistic, Eurocentric one.

Related Resources:

Danico, M.Y. 2004. The 1.5 Generation: Becoming Korean American in Hawai'i. Honolulu and Los Angeles: University of Hawai'i Press and UCLA Asian American Studies Center.

D. R. Atkinson, G. Morten, & D. W. Sue (Eds.), Counseling American minorities: A cross-cultural perspective (4th ed., pp. 199-210). Dubuque, IA: W. C. Brown.

Hofstede, G. (1991). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. London: McGraw-Hill.

Hsu, Francis Americans & Chinese: Passages To Differences 3rd Edition

Kim, B., D.R. Atkinson, & D. Umemoto Asian Cultural Values and the Counseling Process: Current Knowledge and Directions for Future Research…

Lee, Evelyn The Assessment and Treatment of Asian American Immigrant Families

Leonard, G. (1999). The Asian Pacific American Heritage: A Companion to Literature and Arts. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.

Sue, D., & Sue, D. W. (1993). Ethnic identity: Cultural factors in the psychological development of Asians in America.

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