Friday, January 21, 2011

Holding grudges for how we were raised, and how yoga and Buddhism can help

(Sorry about the length of this post.  I just can't keep seem to keep my posts succinct.)

Arturo mentioned about an article by Amy Chua, a Yale Law professor called Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior, which fueled a lot of online and media controversy.  Some readers felt bad about their own parenting skills after reading it; others call Chua's parenting style child abuse or human rights violation. Some Chinese readers got defensive and pointed out that not all Chinese parents raise their kids in this extreme way, while other non-Asians stood up and declared their parents were just as tough as what Chua had described.

Below is a partial list of things that Chua said she did not allow her daughters to do (the whole list looks pretty tongue-in-cheek to me, but generated outrage and shock for many people nevertheless):

- be in a school play
- complain about not being in a school play
- play any instrument other than the piano or violin
- not play the piano or violin

For me, one group of responders of the article really caught my attention: people like Lac Su, who have achieved success on the surface but have below-average self-esteem and struggle to find peace within themselves. Now my mother is nowhere nearly as strict as Ms. Chua. In fact, I'm one of the few rare Asians of my age who has never taken a single piano lesson (gasp!).

A major problem with strict parents (I'm going to use "strict" instead of Asian) is that they grant conventional subjects more importance than they deserve (eg. piano, math, science).  Another problem is that some conservative parents are prone to deciding everything for their kids, from which school to attend to what extracurricular activities to pursue, whether the kids like them or not. I was surprised (and jealous) when I heard my Canadian friend lets her 5 year old daughter pick her own outfit sometimes, however funny the result may turn out; I wasn't allowed to pick my own outfits until I was quite old, like 14 or something like that.  Kids raised this way get so used to not being allowed to decide what's best for themselves that they don't feel comfortable about making their own major decisions when they are finally allowed this freedom at adulthood. Because they haven't had much practice, at this point they don't really trust themselves any more, so some people try to make decision based on what they think their parents would like for them.  I think this is where the permanent sense of inadequacy and self-doubt comes from. I thought my sense of self-doubt and despair came from the fact that I didn't listen to my mom and pick the right major that would easily land me a professional job (like medicine or accounting, for example). A fancy job where the salary matched my education would make me feel much better about myself right? From reading Lac Su's article and some of the comments for Chua's article, I am learning that even with a successful career and a happy marriage, it's still possible to posses low self-esteem and to feel inadequacy with life.

Now some people don't mind having their parents planning their lives out for them.  In fact they're quite thankful while living out the career and perhaps with the companion that their parents had chosen for them. Others put up with it but have already secretly planned out their own life agendas in their heads; the minute they're given the freedom to make their own decisions they proceed happily with their lives according to their own plans. Perhaps it's the ones who disagree with their parents making decisions for them all the time but never did anything more than having verbal arguments with parents who end up holding the most grudges. I'm talking about myself here.

I'm not going to criticize Chua's way of raising children because I think it works for some kids.  For other kids it may cause permanent emotional scars.  The "soft" western way of raising children may bring up some brilliantly creative geniuses, some not-so-highly achieved but happy beings appreciative of themselves + satisfied with their lives, and some under-achievers who wished their parents had given them a push or honest constructive criticisms instead of endless non-constructive praises + euphemisms.

I'm going to try to tie it all to yoga again.  As I mentioned previously my mother is a pretty anxious person and whatever she's worried about would make me concerned as well, in addition to a long list of issues I already worry about. When I finally started choosing my own paths, whenever things didn't work out, I would really doubt myself, like I'm not fit enough to make decisions for myself. Is my life sucking because I didn't follow what my mother suggested? What should I have done instead? If I could turn back time, how should I do things differently? I tried so hard to not waste time; why do I still feel like I'm so behind? Why is everyone else so content with their lives and I'm so miserable for no reason?

So I constantly feel crappy about myself and like to lash out at my family for no reason. My mother even asked me to go see a shrink, but I don't see how it would help, because I can't think of any instances when I was abused during childhood; I'm not suffering from financial hardship or relationship abuses; my grad school experience is comparatively better than so many other grad students I know; nothing's visibly wrong with my life. I'm just a whiny brat who can't stand any sort of setbacks or deviations from dream outcomes in life and should learn to count her blessings. Somehow knowing that still doesn't make me feel better.

... until I encountered yoga and Buddhism philosophies, which RECOGNIZE THE MIND LIKES TO TORMENT ITSELF!   Is this the best-kept secret of the modern world or what? Why don't public schools teach about samskaras and problems with the ego liking to tell frivolous stories? I guess the teaching of "Jesus loves you no matter what" works to heal some people, but just doesn't do it for me.  What helps me is learning that whatever happened in the past, no matter how major or how minor, has formed grooves in my mind (samskaras) and in my body as well. I have a locked-in way of thinking in a certain pattern (feeling sorry for myself, being too critical, etc). There are these yoga and breathing techniques that can help me diminish or "burn off" these grooves, and allow me to learn a new pattern of positive thinking. These emotional imprints are real, not imagined, because sometimes doing certain yoga asanas will cause me to burst into tears for no reason (pretty common in yoga classes actually).  How do I heal? Get in touch with myself by paying attention to body sensations, sensation of the breath. Eventually get back in touch with my intuition, which knows what's the truth, what I want and what I'm meant to do (this has been suppressed for a long time). Recognize thoughts as these things that come and go and not as "me".  Oh and go to yoga classes where yoga teachers shower students with loving kindness and attention.

I'm having trouble wrapping this up again.  Basically, I don't think there's a single "right" way of bringing up a child. All the people criticizing Amy Chua - I doubt that they're perfect parents themselves.  Will Chua's children grow up with emotional issues? Who knows. They might be happier if they were given more freedom to think for themselves and make choices on their own. I think the academic and  financial successes or even happiness of offsprings are not the only indicators of the superiority of parenting skills.   I think exposing more people to the philosophies of Buddhism will help save the world more than making your kids get A's at school, but that's just me.


  1. Now that you've explained further the contents of the book, it helps. And as Christine mentioned in her comment in your scaredy cat post, some of us with different cultural backgrounds share commonalities. I studied hard. I played the piano and accordion until I was 16. I don't think my parents where edging me on. But my godparents (actually my sister's godparents, but I called them my godparents) edge me on. Their names, to us, where Mom and Pop. Mom was like a school teacher, always saying how we had to strive and work hard. Her daughters were very accomplished through those means, so it paid off. I feel as if I am a product of everyone who had an input in my upbringing and education, and that includes the nuns and priests of the schools I went to, and my teachers - not just my family influences.

    But I observed that Asian kids where usually the ones who strove hardest in college, and who also balanced studying with playing musical instruments. To us non-Asians, that was admirable.

    Now I'm rambling.

  2. I read this quote in a book of fiction, but it stuck with me and has helped me get over myself many times:

    "Before the age of 25 you can call yourself a victim. After that, you're a volunteer."
    Chip Kidd

  3. Wow, there is so much material here that I don't know where to begin. Your experience resonates with mine (Chinese Singaporean now living in CA) and I can certainly identify with the bit about self-doubt and the torrent of 'what ifs' that accompany what seems like a 'bad' decision. Chinese parents are fond of disparaging their kids in order to motivate them to work harder and mine were no different. Unfortunately for them, this tactic didn't work for me and only served to fuel a deep reservoir of resentment. On the upside, our constant arguments helped me to find my assertive side ;)

    Now that I'm living away from home, I feel lucky, in a sense, to have a second opportunity to build a life on my terms. The only problem is that after 28 years of living with my parents, my mother's disapproving voice is hard-wired into my brain. I guess yoga/meditation should help me find the switch to turn that voice off.

    On a side note, you do realize that the article as presented in the WSJ was taken out of the context of her book, and edited to maximize its sensationalist appeal, right?

  4. Hi Arturo, haha I don't know about "balanced". I guess one way to do better than others is to never be satisfied with your achievements so far. Not sure how healthy is that :)

    Sereneflavor: Thanks for that line! I've come across that sort of saying before, but it didn't fully "get it" until I took a 2-hour karma workshop, where the teacher went into details explaining how as adults, we're the ones inducing emotional pain to ourselves.

    Savasanaaddict - another Singaporean! Man, we should all do more yoga and meditation. Hope Chinese kids 20 years from now will not have gone through the same kind of strict/disparaging upbringing. I do realize the excerpt is very sensational, and it's got a lot of media attention! I wonder if the tactic will help boost the book to become a best-seller. I for one have no interests in reading this book.