To Hug or Not to Hug (East West Magazine)

To Hug or Not to Hug [Featured on NPR. Click here for audio link.]
Meet the Parents, East West style

By Jennifer Kim

Alecia, a vegetarian, remembers “wanting to die” the first time she was asked to cook a steak.

It was also the first time she was having dinner with her boyfriend’s family at their regular Sunday gathering. Part Filipino and part Irish, Alecia eagerly wanted to make a good impression on her boyfriend Malan’s parents, who are first-generation immigrants from Taiwan. The moment Malan’s mother handed her the steaks, though, Alecia began to panic: “I just had no clue, and I didn’t want to fail,” she remembers, “and I didn’t want to ruin any chances I had for a future with Malan.” So she humbly asked for help.

“My mom got really nervous,” remembers Malan, who describes his upbringing as traditional Chinese. “She was thinking: ‘If you’re going to be my son’s wife, what are you going to cook for him, how is he going to survive?’”

Thus began the first of many “hoops of fire” that Alecia had to jump through to win the approval of Malan’s parents, especially his mother.

It’s never easy meeting a date’s parents, but for Asians/Asian Americans the first face-to-face can often carry lofty expectations. In Confucian-influenced and South Asian cultures this encounter could be translated into: meet my future daughter-in-law or son-in-law and their family clan, and as a result, even in modern times, some Asian Americans hesitate to bring a date home for fear of questioning by anxious parents. Put two Asians together and many parents may instantly see marriage.

Psychologist Lubna Somjee says it is important to understand what the expectations of the first meeting are. “Each of the ethnic, racial and religious groups that comprise Asians is different,” says Somjee, advising people to study and learn the specific cultural or religious norms of the family and to also be mindful that there can be “huge differences” depending on region, socio-economic status, family culture and levels of assimilation and acculturation.

If you are still hesitant or feel as if you are about to step into disaster, East West, with the help of four couples, would like to offer some pointers for getting through your own personal version of Meet the Parents. Perhaps the best rule of thumb is one used for railroad crossing safety – stop, look, listen and live.

Generation Gaps

On her MySpace page, Camy Tang describes herself as “a loud Asian chick who writes loud Asian chick-lit (think Amy Tan meets Bridget Jones).” A fourth-generation Japanese American from Hawaii, Camy, 34, is the author of forthcoming Christian chick-lit novel “Sushi for One” (Zondervan, 2007). She also played co-ed volleyball for seven years before injuring herself, and she met her husband, Neal, through volleyball activities.
Neal, an engineering project specialist, is a third-generation Chinese American from Arizona. Both of Neal’s parents were born in the United States; yet Camy wondered how her fourth-generation and Hawaiian laid-back ways would mix with their second-generation heritage. Neal’s parents, though Americanized, also hold traditional values such as children taking care of their elderly parents.

A few months into dating, Camy and Neal met his parents for dinner at a casual restaurant in Las Vegas during a volleyball tournament. “I was just very careful to be polite, to show deference, to try to get a feel for their cultural influences. I wasn’t sure if they were strict Chinese who expected girls to be quieter,” Camy says. “I wasn’t sure if they wanted a traditional Chinese mindset.”

She was pleasantly surprised and relieved that his parents were easy going and warm. They gave her a hug and touched her on her shoulder when they were talking. “Most Chinese, most Asians period, are not that physical,” Camy says. The conversation revolved around Camy’s work and church youth group activities. Neal’s gregarious father loosened up and even started teasing her before the night was over.

Overall, Camy feels the first meeting went well because she waited for Neal’s parents to make the first move and because his parents were very friendly. She advises couples to meet parents in casual settings and to keep the numbers small, saying friends who have met parents during big family parties and events reported more stressful first encounters.

“It’s Just a Chinese Thing”

Now married for four years (though a couple for nine years), Alecia and Malan Lai, 30 and 31, live in Whittier, Calif., just 10 minutes away from the elder Lais.

Malan, the general manager of his family’s manufacturing business, is the second of three sons and was the first son to get married. To his mother, Alecia represented the daughter she never had. A “protective” Mrs. Lai wanted to train her daughter well and to pass on the family ways. In other words, she made sure Alecia did things “her way.”

Alecia had to learn, or in many cases re-learn, several daily activities and life lessons, including how to wash dishes (“with a bucket and boiling hot water”), how much food to cook (“always too much and never too little”), how to express emotions (“verbal expression of emotion is not common or direct”), how to be a good person (“faith and service: there’s no such thing as too much of either”), and, of course, Alecia eventually learned how to cook meat (“not too well, but never rare”).

“In retrospect, I felt like every time I met with Malan’s parents it was a ‘first’ meeting because I never stopped feeling nervous about being ‘good enough,’” says Alecia, a compensation analyst. She says she was well aware that his family wanted him to marry Chinese.

When Malan first met Alecia’s mom, he was expecting the same type of stern mother he had, so he was surprised when Alecia’s 4’11” mom wrapped her arms around him (Malan is 6 feet tall) when they first met. In Malan’s eyes, the hug was a warm gesture, but to his family the act is seen in a wholly different light.

When the two families came together for the first time, these differences were evident. There was tension when Alecia’s family embraced Malan’s parents who were “statues.” Malan’s parents later told him: “We don’t hug. We don’t know how to respond to that.” To which Alecia responded, “Well, my family are all huggers, so they’ll just keep hugging even if your parents just stand there. They’ll keep hugging.”

Alecia says she was often told, “It’s just a Chinese thing,” when she couldn’t understand the way the Lais did things, such as when Malan’s mother would make demands on her son, who would drop whatever he was doing and immediately oblige. Also, Alecia was referred to as “Malan’s friend” until they married. Nothing more, nothing sooner. She later learned not to read into the phrase.

After their experience, what are Alecia and Malan’s tips to other couples? Observe, respect and learn when in a new situation. “My brother-in-law once dated a girl who couldn’t pick up a dinner roll with chopsticks so she would stab the roll,” Alecia says. “Expressions at the table said it all!”

InterEthnic Tension: She’s What? He’s What?

Karen*, 26, a financial planner, is Vietnamese whereas her boyfriend Albert*, 27, a medical student, is Korean. They’ve been a couple for almost three years and live in Kansas City

The first words out of Karen’s father’s mouth when he met Albert were: “He’s Korean?” “It didn’t sit too well with my father,” says Karen, but she adds that her protective father would disapprove of any boy she brought home. Her mother, on the other hand, adores Albert because he “is sweet and has good direction in his life.” Before the meeting, Karen taught Albert how to say hello in Vietnamese, which charmed her mom.

After three years of dating, though, Karen has not yet met Albert’s parents even though they are aware of her. “We are both afraid to meet his parents,” she says, since Albert’s parents don’t approve of him dating someone Vietnamese.

The situation is hard on the relationship. “As Asian Americans, we grow up thinking as Americans, so of course we’re much more open minded to who we date than our parents. Our parents are taught to believe certain things about other cultures. Some cultures look down on others based on assumptions,” Karen says.

But she keeps her chin up and suggests to other couples in the same situation to remember not to take it personally. “We both know it’s the way our parents were raised, and it’s not because we are not good enough.” She hopes patience and time will help heal the tension and foster acceptance.

In the meantime, Karen says she loves that her boyfriend and mother get along so well. As for her father, the couple accepts his attitude but doesn’t let it bother them. “Life is too short; we have to be happy!”

Asking for the Blessing

Maria and Patrick Casebeer, 33 and 31, a couple from Arizona who have been married for seven years, recommend doing cultural research before meeting parents, especially before the marriage proposal. Patrick, a Caucasian, decided to go the old-fashioned route of asking Maria’s Filipino parents for their blessing before proposing to their daughter. He wanted to surprise Maria. But her parents promptly went home and asked Maria if she knew Patrick was going to propose.

“We didn’t know we were to discuss marriage first and then go to her parents as one and ask permission,” Patrick says. “There went any chance of a surprise!”

Maria’s father also asked Patrick if he knew that they were of different ethnic backgrounds. “It was funny, but you knew he cared about us as a couple and our possible challenges,” Patrick adds.

Unlike the other women in this article, Maria says she didn’t stress over meeting her future husband’s family. “I wasn’t too nervous to meet his parents at all,” she says. Then again, his parents aren’t Asian.

To avoid misunderstandings like this wedding proposal, Somjee stresses the importance of doing your homework. She gives a scenario:

“If visiting parents who happen to be Muslim and permit dating, find out about their particular family culture. If the parents are orthodox, it may not be appropriate to shake hands with the mother. However, if the parents are not, it may be appropriate to do so. Many Muslims do not drink alcohol for religious reasons….bringing a bottle of wine as a gift may be considered insulting.”

“Above all,” she says, “it is important to research the specifics of the family culture versus meeting them and making assumptions and generalizations. Always do your research!”

* Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of the interviewee.

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