How Transgenerational Immigrant Trauma Impacted My Adolescence as a Chinese Kiwi
By Rebecca Zhong
A few years back I made a conscious decision to start telling my parents I love them. It’s been three years now, and I think I’ve allowed these words to escape maybe twice. For most, I understand that saying I love you shouldn’t come across as difficult. These words are an expression of love, and they should come out somewhat organically. But if you have immigrant parents, Asian parents, we-do-rather-than-tell parents, it’s a whole other story.
My parents are part of the Asian diaspora – the scattering of Asian people from their homelands to different parts of the world. My dad first moved to New Zealand when he was 26. Like most immigrants he anticipated a better life for his family. He worked tirelessly at a Chinese restaurant for over 60 hours a week, earning only a few dollars an hour. He was driven by the promise that he would receive sponsorship for a visa after two years. Every night he would fall asleep on the lino flooring of the restaurant kitchen.
When he migrated to New Zealand he brought along with him a set of widely accepted Chinese customs and culture. He was oblivious to the fact of how alien they would become to his new home. These generational beliefs would be later passed down to me and my siblings. But these beliefs were out of place here, and as a result our family collectively shared experiences of racism, exclusion and questioning of self-identity.
Like most Kiwi Asians, I’ve been conflicted by the negating viewpoints of individualism which the western society promotes, and collectivism. I frequently find myself in the middle of this debacle. I’m completely lost as to where my Chinese roots begin and where they’ve become intertwined with the same narratives my peers carry.
Growing up I was envious of my classmates' parents. They seemed nurturing and kind whereas mine were stoic and stubborn. We never expressed affection towards one another, we never uttered “I love you,” and we never conveyed gratitude. To do so would be a complete departure from who we were to one another. My parents didn’t leave room for fun in our childhood. We would practice our instruments in our rooms, help out at the family shop and take Chinese lessons on a Sunday. I remember wanting so desperately to be like everyone else, to spend Sunday mornings at home watching What Now and staying in my PJs until noon. And this want to be just like everyone else manifested into every small crevice of my life.
Immigration to a new place is a complex process of psychological adaptation and change, not only for immigrants but also for their children. Exercising compassion for my parents has been a strenuous process. But now as I mature ever so slightly I begin to understand something that gains clarity by the day: my parents were tasked with the job of survival and I with self-actualisation. My parents always understood that no matter how much I tried, I could never be like everyone else. I was inherently viewed as less, and this would continue to be the case for as long as we lived in a western world. My parents are the direct products of how colonial ideals act to other us. They have lost so much in their immigration. I have seen themselves shrink in the presence of confrontation. When snarky whispers were made about being dirty Chinese, Mum would act like she never heard anything. To lighten the tension, she would ask us if we were hungry instead. She never spoke back, she never even checked to see if we were okay. It was like it never even happened.
In most Chinese households, words are few. Actions are our currency, and we’re nothing short of generous. For my family, our love language is strictly cooking. Every time I visit my parents I am overfed on their affection. I am speaking quite literally here. We don’t hug and we don’t say I love you. Instead, my parents recall all my favourite meals and make sure that they can somehow squeeze it all in in a 12-hour window. In all my years, I haven’t gone hungry for long.
My parents were tasked with the job of survival and I with self-actualisation.
I’ve realised that since my core tie to my Chinese identity is through my family, I’ve come to equate being Chinese with my family’s pain. And this seems to be something quite common amongst immigrant families. Intergenerational trauma refers to the phenomenon in which stress or trauma experienced in someone’s life is correlated with stress related health issues in their descendants. A study on intergenerational trauma found that second generation Asian Americans were extremely sensitive to their parents’ trauma and often felt a burden to compensate for their parents' losses. For me this manifested in a need to attain academic success. I understood that my parents gave up their lives and their dreams so we could have a better future, and there was an underlying pressure and burden to fulfill the goals that they were never able to. But for me, what I craved was validation. I was never rewarded with a “well done” or an “I’m proud of you.” Something that seemed so common in all my friends' families. Instead I was put into more study groups and more extra-curricular activities. Nothing ever seemed to be good enough.
Despite being unable to see it back then, I now recognise my parents' harshness as an attempt to safeguard me from all the world has to offer. My parents have lived with the mindset that so long as they were accommodating and passive to the western world, their children will reap the benefits. My parents have consistently been marginalised, excluded and traumatised. Their persistence to offer me all these opportunities has now given me an arsenal of skills to protect myself. However, I can’t help feeling distanced and removed from being Chinese. Growing up I attacked everything that was Chinese, while placing New Zealand on a pedestal. But as I have matured I have seen how systemic racism continues to marginalise my people and stifle my relationship with my parents. I have seen how transgenerational trauma has hurt us and how it continues to make us hurt each other. It occurs so regularly, that its familiarity has made it become normal. For many Asian immigrants, there are limited outlets for acknowledging trauma in their lives. I have harboured a lot of resentment over the years for the lack of emotional vocabulary my parents possess. But for my parents, minimising pain and avoiding tension was a leading mechanism for survival. They have always done the best they could. It is now my duty to process and self-actualise.
Last year over a skype call, I told my parents I loved them. Their awkwardness was undeniably humorous. And my dad’s inability to hold eye contact made me equally as uncomfortable. But before he hung up, he asked me to tell him what I wanted to eat next week when I visited.