My So-called Social Life
How do you date when Mom and Dad are your roommates?
By Jennifer Kim
Ask Lisa*, a 26-year-old Korean American office administrator in Los Angeles, what she's doing tonight and you'll get a different answer depending on who you are. To her parents, she's their very busy daughter who is working late and will be sleeping over at a girlfriend’s place.
"My parent's house is very far from my work and I'm on a leased vehicle, which means limited miles. I have 'a girlfriend' that lives very close to my work, so I'll 'crash' at her house a few nights a week to save on mileage," Lisa explains.
But to her boyfriend, Lisa is the independent woman who’s coming over to spend the night.
Why the dual identity? Six months ago, Lisa moved back in with her parents to help them pay their rent. Unlike the movie “Failure to Launch” in which Matthew McConaughey’s character has a very open relationship while living with his cool, with-it parents, Lisa’s situation is more secretive because of her family’s conservative ways. “I don't speak a word about whom I’m dating or if I'm dating at all.”
According to the 2005 U.S. Census, 10.9 percent of all adults ages 25 to 34 live as the "child of the householder.” (A householder is defined as the person who owns or rents the property.) That’s 4,287,000 adults past college-age sharing addresses with their parents. Of this figure, Asian Americans “live with their parents at a higher rate than their mainstream counterparts,” observes Kristy Shih, a sociology doctoral student at the University of California at Riverside who studies Asian American families.
By Western standards living at home often bears the stigma of being a loser, but for Asian Americans there is a smattering of causes for this lifestyle. Anything from adhering to cultural traditions (living at home until marriage, being a good son or daughter) to economics (family need) to social and societal factors (inequality and/or discrimination in the job market, increasing housing costs) are all factors, Shih says. Some also choose to live at home because they enjoy the cushy nest. Ultimately, the choice is a combination of factors and the experiences vary among Asian American subgroups, Shih says.
For the more traditional, residing at home might actually even make dating easier, adds Philip S. Wong, Ph.D., a third-generation Chinese American clinical psychologist in New York.
“[They may take] greater comfort in traditional paths to marriage – parents involved in matchmaking and arranged marriages – than someone less traditionally oriented would,” he says.
But for the more proactive daters, how much do their parents, who are just a thin wall away, cramp their style? Complaints include the usual ones faced by teenagers – lack of privacy, questioning of whereabouts and the embarrassment of having parents around.
On the adult side, Michelle*, 25, a Taiwanese American fashion designer who lives with her parents in Alhambra, Calif., laments about the hassle of packing before going to her boyfriend’s place. “It's also a drag to always be the one driving over. And sometimes I just want to hang out in my room, something I feel like I don't really do anymore.” Michelle does not feel comfortable having her boyfriend over at her house because of her “self-induced pressure from growing up in a more traditional family.”
Just like Stella lost her groove, Lisa says she has lost her spontaneity. “It would look too ridiculously suspicious for me to leave in the middle of the night to hang out with ‘a friend.’” Lisa also rarely invites any friends over. This is a stark contrast to when she lived in her own apartment, the social gathering place for her friends.
Sunnylicious, 28, the stage name of a music strategist with the South Asian Music Summit, owns the New York apartment building that he shares with his parents. Though they live in separate units (of a four-unit building), he says it feels like they live together. “They’re in the next room right now.”
Regarding female visitors to his South Asian household, "I don’t think a girlfriend staying over is going to sit well. It might be a little odd.”
“I’ve spent a fortune on hotel rooms,” says Peter*, 45, a Korean American professional in Seattle, who owns the house he shares with his divorced mother.
On the other end of the sleepover spectrum is Chris, 26, a Chinese American chemist, who shares a four-bedroom house in Irvine, Calif., with his widowed father. They have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. “I think as long as no one else (his father’s friends and family) is aware of it, it's fine.”
Depending on how traditional the family is, men and women are often treated differently with males given more freedom, says Dr. Wong. Birth order, only child status and the child’s individual experiences growing up also influence how she or he is treated, he adds.
A youngest daughter, Py Kim Conant, 43, Korean American, lived at home in her 30s under the watchful eye of her parents and an older sister. Conant says she made up secret codes for phone conversations.
"Code number one meant ‘I miss you’; number two meant ‘I am horny, I want to
make love with you’; and number three meant ‘Can I see you now?’ So a phone conversation was like this: ‘Hi Neil, yes, I am okay with number one. What are you doing now? Hmm…number two. OK with number three? Bye.’”
And later, perhaps out of rebellion, Conant became a sexpert and the author of “Sex Secrets of an American Geisha.”
One of the biggest hurdles for home-based daters is where to have the intimate moments. Some options: going to the other person's place (granted that they don't live with their parents, too), renting a hotel room, borrowing a friend's place, etc. All the sneaking around has a slight juvenile element to it, but this could also add some excitement, says Steve Nakamoto, the author of “Dating Rocks!” “It's not going to stop people who really care about you. It may screen out some opportunities though."
Nakamoto, who is a third-generation Japanese American and a workshop leader for the Japanese American Citizens League’s singles conventions, recommends going on cruises or vacations and telling parents that it's a group, work or church outing. Other common ruses include road trips with the friends, house-sitting gigs, civic duties, events and meetings.
As if the covert operations are not bad enough, parents who treat their adult child like a child can actually slow him or her down when it comes to getting married and becoming financially independent, Shih says. Adult children might also have difficulty separating their personal needs from family obligations and this is unhealthy. Sunnylicious says, “[Living at home] is making me more responsible and less responsible at the same time, if that makes sense.”
If things get too prickly between family members, Dr. Wong advises seeking out an objective person, such as a psychologist, priest or spiritual adviser, to get to the real source of the conflict, which is usually based on personal experiences rather than cultural ones.
Added stress might occur when the adult child feels they must tell a date where they live. Some daters try to avoid this subject for as long as possible. Peter, the 45-year-old, doesn’t even broach the subject with his dates who are usually white. “Telling Asians might not be so hard because they could understand the Confucian aspect.”
The rest of the interviewees for this story did not have a problem telling people where they live, citing that it made sense for the situations they were in. Chris says if his dates can’t understand then that usually means they have their own place where they’ll hang out. “Also if they have vision, they'll understand that the more money I save from rent, the more assets I have to play with."
Lisa has many friends in the same boat, including guy friends who live with their single mothers, which she finds “commendable.” She has found that her Korean friends think it’s normal to live with your parents, whereas her other Asian friends think it’s OK. In fact, one research study suggests that the “filial obligations of Korean American adult children have a positive effect on their emotional support for elderly parents,” Shih says.
Though dating with mom and dad as roommates sounds like a drag, the living arrangement does have its pros: better food, laundry facilities, cheaper rent, easy parking, more space, convenience and companionship, to name a few. “It’s beneficial for all of us, and it keeps us together,” Sunnylicious says.
Another pro to the situation is peace of mind. Chris, who handles the house bills and documents in English, says, "I stay around so [Pa] doesn't get ripped off by some mortgage shark."
Lisa adds that she even occasionally uses her parents to her advantage when asked out by an unwanted suitor. She can say, “I really should stay home, you know, the parents.” This “seemingly difficult situation” is usually enough to do the trick.
*Some names have been changed to protect privacy
**Illustration by Barbara Pollak