Resentment, acceptance, gratitude: the paradox facing Australian children of ‘tiger’ parents

“Asian parenting” has become a hot topic of public conversation lately. In a sign of their growing maturity and confidence, second-generation Asian migrants in Australia and other countries have become more comfortable sharing stories of their complex relationships with their “tiger parents”. In social media forums such as Subtle Asian Traits and its numerous spin-offs, young people express resentment, acceptance and other reflections on the way they were raised. But the reckoning is not limited to social media.

Recent films such as Disney and Pixar’s Turning Red and Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Everything Everywhere All At Once also explore intergenerational relationships within Asian migrant families, depicting the burden of expectations and children’s attempts to meet, defy or negotiate them.

Marvel star Simu Liu (Chang Shi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) goes further in his new memoir, We Were Dreamers, by tracing extreme “tiger parenting” he experienced to deprivation and trauma experienced in his Chinese parents’ own lives. In his book, the Canadian actor says he felt that his parents “wanted to rid my life of joy or happiness”. Like many children of Asian migrants, Liu describes suffering under the weight of what he describes as impossible expectations, “to be the star child, the studious academic, the obedient son”. He was belittled and physically punished, he writes, for every perceived failing.

Related: Asian Australian students’ success is often maligned – but it’s our education system that’s unequal | Christina Ho

Homework, Harvard and high expectations

We’ve been conducting research with young Asian Australians, aged between 16 and 30, for the last eight years and this tension between resentment, understanding and acceptance marks the relationships that many children of Asian migrants have with their parents. The Asian tiger parenting stereotype, according to our research, is real: all our research participants, more than 60 in total, said that their parents had extremely high expectations of them. Almost all spent hundreds of hours completing extra homework tasks set by their parents and attending private tutoring centres, often multiple times a week throughout their schooling years. Many echoed Liu’s sentiments when he described the “true purpose of childhood: getting into Harvard”.

Many of our interviewees expressed frustration at their parents’ narrow focus on educational achievement, to the exclusion of all else. Rebecca, a recent university graduate, was scathing of her parents’ “obsession” with education. Her failure to achieve a place at a top selective school was a source of “shame” for the whole family, she said. Others reflected on their enormous study loads in the lead-up to the selective schools admissions test, some saying they worked harder when they were only 10 years old than at any other time in their lives.

Linda said her adolescent depression was largely caused by her parents’ unrealistic expectations, and to boot, “culturally people from China don’t really know what depression is”. This meant it was almost impossible for her to talk with her parents about what she was going through.

Related: ‘Don’t worry!’ ‘He’ll be right’: Why do we say all the wrong things to parents of children with a disability? | Ellen Fanning

Others were resentful at not having the freedom to choose their own subjects or university courses. They felt forced into “safe” or “prestigious” fields such as medicine, law or engineering, having their passion for the arts and other “useless” subjects crushed. Trades and services were not even on the radar.

Reckoning with parents’ past

In We Were Dreamers, Liu explores the personal histories of his parents, who survived some of the worst excesses of 20th century China, to explain their extreme outlook on life. Like Liu, many of our participants also understood why their parents adopted such harsh parenting practices, because they knew about the deprivations they had suffered and their continued struggles as migrants in Australia.

Those in our study with families from China sometimes mentioned the Cultural Revolution and their parents’ sadness at being denied educational and other opportunities. Vietnamese Australians talked about the impact of the war and subsequent exodus on their parents’ education and livelihoods. They recognised that their parents did not have the opportunity to realise their potential.

In Australia, our participants could see the discrimination their parents often endured, and the sacrifices they had made to build new lives. They understood that their parents’ obsession with study and good grades was ultimately an attempt to build a secure future for their children in an unequal society.

They are acutely aware of the opportunities open to them that their parents did not enjoy.

Sally recalled how hearing about her parents’ migration was “a way to remind me, ‘you have no reason to fail in your life’”. Implicit in this is an ultimatum that success is the only option.

Reflecting on their upbringing, some of our participants expressed gratitude at the tough-love parenting they endured, saying it did indeed open up pathways to professional success. As painful as it might have been when they were younger, they were now enjoying the fruits of that hard work as young professionals.

I didn’t really know what it was like to grow up hungry... my biggest concern was figuring out why I wasn’t more popular

Simu Liu

But some found it harder to reconcile with the way they were raised. They found that understanding their parents’ context did not mean acceptance of their behaviour. They still resent the unrelenting burden of their parents’ expectations and the lack of emotional support within their families. The legacy of their parents’ migration “dwarfed” their own challenges, as one participant said.

The paradox

These young people are caught in a paradox – while they understand their parents’ struggles, they simultaneously feel resentment that their own hardships are invalidated or overlooked. They also feel guilt for complaining about these troubles in the face of their parents’ hardships.

This generation of Asian heritage people raised in the west experience an unresolved and perhaps unresolvable tension between understanding and acceptance. Understanding their parents’ context and motives can help young people see their parents as holistic human beings rather than just tyrannical slave drivers. But it still may not lead to acceptance of their harsh parenting.

The profound and sometimes unfathomable differences in the life experiences of first- and second-generation migrants can create limits to mutual empathy. As Liu writes: “I know that my father was not evil, and I know that he didn’t deliberately intend to inflict deep emotional scars. It must have been difficult empathising with a child who he wholeheartedly believed had a far easier life than he did. I didn’t really know what it was like to grow up constantly hungry because there wasn’t enough food, or to have to uproot your entire life to travel halfway around the world to start from the bottom all over again; my biggest concern was figuring out why I wasn’t more popular at school.”

Liu now enjoys a happier relationship with his parents (though one can’t help but wonder if this was enabled by his mammoth professional success in Hollywood!). As such, his story offers glimpses of how first- and second-generation migrants may be able to successfully coexist with each other, despite unresolved tensions. Being able to live with that lack of resolution and lack of absolute acceptance is perhaps an important aspect of any family relationship.

There might not be a Hollywood ending, but the continual journey towards mutual understanding might be even more fulfilling.