Outward affection wasn’t part of my culture growing up. I have made a different decision as a mother

·7-min read
<span>Photograph: MoMo Productions/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: MoMo Productions/Getty Images

Can you imagine not giving your kids a kiss goodnight? Or not giving them a big hug before dropping them off to school? My parents didn’t do either of these things. I was born in Australia and thought it was totally normal until I started primary school, where I was one of only three Chinese girls. I began to notice my western friends’ parents squeezed them and said, “I love you” at the school gates.

At the same time, I noticed other Chinese families, like ours, didn’t show that kind of affection. I slowly accepted that it wasn’t part of my Chinese culture, and never questioned it.

Kelly* also Chinese, moved to Australia from Vietnam at nine years old and had a similar experience growing up. She says affection was reserved for birthdays only. “It was maybe a quick hug,” she says. “Then I saw on TV, western people hugging and kissing. It didn’t bother me, I just accepted that was their culture.”

My parents worked hard … That to me is everything.

Similarly, Gianna, who came to Australia from Taiwan when she was three, said she noticed more affection on western TV shows and tried to do the same. “When I went to bed I’d give mum a kiss on the cheek. It was very rare she’d reciprocate.”

Despite noticing the affection I didn’t receive, I never thought that my parents didn’t love me. I felt cared for through their gestures. For example, if I was travelling, they gave me bundles of remedies, in case I got ill on the plane.

Kelly also felt her parents’ love in other ways. “After migrating here, we moved in with grandma, and my parents worked hard to save money so we could move out. That to me is everything. They always bought stuff for me, kept my room clean, just little things.”

But, she says “they didn’t say anything affectionate. They normally told me off.”

Kelly, an only child, also observed a gender difference in how children were treated. “My dad’s mum often cooked the boys their favourite foods, but less often for the girls. They never requested the boys to clean or cook. Whereas the girls were expected to.

“Mum told me she had to withdraw from university because she had to find a job to support her family. The boys had to join the army. Back then, unless you were smart or rich, it was hard to get into uni or even complete high school. Mum studied hard and got a scholarship to go to uni but she had to decline it.”

Yingjie Guo, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Sydney, and Joanna Zhu, a clinical psychologist from Melbourne Chinese Psychological Services, both use the word “stoicism” to describe the Chinese approach to parenting. Guo thinks this stoic way of teaching is perhaps because parents feel the need to toughen their children up for the world, having had to overcome their own challenges of life in a country with a huge population and fierce competition for resources.

Dr Monika Winarnita, an anthropologist, refers to this style of parenting as “tiger parenting”.

Chinese parents, in general, express love through acts of service or making sacrifices

Joanna Zhu, Melbourne Chinese Psychological Services

“Numerous studies refer to this as … authoritarian, rigorous tactics to teach skills and work habits, to drive children towards academic success and prepare them for their future.”

This parenting style has deep roots, she says. “This partly can be traced back to Confucianism, an ancient Chinese philosophy, whereby investment in their children’s education was one way of showing affection.”

Personally, I make sense of my upbringing through Gary Chapman’s concept of the Five Love Languages – how people communicate love and prefer to receive it. I realised my parents’ primary love language was through acts of service. The other languages are physical touch, affirmation, quality time and gifts.

Zhu explains, “Chinese parents in general express love through acts of service or making sacrifices, such as making food [and] working hard so their children can have the best education.” But, she says “for children, showing more affection is of crucial importance”.

Related: Everything I thought before the birth of my son now feels naive and misinformed | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

This is something she has found in her clinical work. “Often Chinese children say, ‘I know my parents love me, but when I’m upset I cannot open up to them. Either they give me a solution I don’t quite agree with or they tell me to be strong.’

“When children’s feelings aren’t heard, validated and supported, they find it more difficult to share inner experiences with parents.”

This is an experience Gianna can relate to. Growing up, she says, “I felt like my problems were insignificant or a burden if I told [my parents]. I think it’s why I’m so introverted, because I kept a lot of feelings to myself.”

Kelly also struggled opening up with her parents. “I think I was more afraid I would get in trouble.”

Zhu says: “Chinese parents tend to assume if they work hard to provide for children, and look after them as well as they can, their children should feel loved and will naturally grow closer to them. Unfortunately, it isn’t always the case.”

Becoming a parent allows us to … make decisions about whether we’re going to do something different with our children

Joanna Zhu

Though Zhu says expressions of affection were not common for previous generations, she has noticed “parenting practices have been changing significantly over the past 20 years”.

Guo discusses how here in Australia, Chinese parents seem more relaxed and selectively adopt western parenting techniques. In China, with higher living standards, less social competition and less need to toughen their children up, parents are also more prepared to show affection.

Zhu explains that apart from cultural factors, “on an individual level, if someone didn’t receive that overt expression of affection as a child, it may be difficult for themselves to express it in adulthood”. But “becoming a parent allows us to reflect and make decisions about whether we’re going to do something different with our children”.

Gianna, who now has three children, says “I tell my kids I love them, kiss and hug them all the time. It’s different because we were raised seeing it happening around us.”

“I feel it’s something I lacked growing up and has meant I’ve lacked confidence. I’d like to give that to my kids, so they will feel more confident.”

Experiencing how my parents showed their love for me, among other cultures here in Australia, I learned that people express their love for each other in different ways and sometimes we have to decipher it. However, as Zhu says, “from a child’s point of view, it’s difficult, as they’ve not yet developed the cognitive capacity to understand the unexpressed loving intention”.

Like Gianna, I’ve chosen to show lots of affection towards my own daughter. Even though I didn’t question it back then, and I knew my parents loved me, I have made a different decision. I can feel my parents’ tiger parenting style comes out at times.

In a way I’ve become grateful I have this to pass down to her, to toughen her up for the world. However, I balance this out with twice the warmth. I want her to come to me if she needs help emotionally; and at four years old, I’m happy to see she already does.

*Names have been changed

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