Ma, Ba, may we talk?: The East Asian dinner table conversation, and what it says about mental health

Cailin Hoang

At 14, you were braiding your younger sister’s hair into a Chinese ladder when Mom called both of you downstairs. It is dinnertime, and your grandparents, parents and older brother are already seated around the table, the thick aroma of pork potstickers and fresh jasmine rice wafting through the kitchen air. And just like an alarm set for 7:15 p.m. every night, Grandma asks your brother if he is ever going to bring home a girlfriend so he can finally give her the great-grandchildren that she has always wanted. You look at your brother, and the two of you laugh nervously. The entire table follows suit, erupting into a light chuckle.

***

It starts as a circle.

In many East Asian cultures, family dinners like this represent a quintessential element of the everyday. For just an hour or two, a pocket of invaluable time opens up in a world where parents always seem to be working, where children are busy studying at school and where grandparents are practicing tai chi at the local park. For just an hour or two, everyone is together in the same place, and to the outsider, this looks like the textbook embodiment of family therapy and health.

But for Cindy Luo, 24, and many other East Asian Americans who grew up eating dinner with their families every night, this outside perspective offers only a very narrow, incomplete glimpse into the “feelings” and nuances attached to the dinner table. The actual table is more than a place of congregation; it is a place of both dialogued and wordless conversation that forges and reinforces the many layers of what it means to be an East Asian.

The first of these layers is a newfound understanding of the extraordinary — and at times, harrowing — background of her parents, the recent University of Pennsylvania graduate says. Raised with three siblings in a working-class family, there was nothing Luo respected more than her mother’s determined effort to always make time for family dinner despite everything else that might have been going on that day.

“My mother didn’t know much English and she didn’t have the capacity to be completely involved in her children’s education,” Luo says. “Cooking and food were her ways of providing and honoring a sense of duty to her family. I always wondered what her dreams were outside of being a mom.” 

But while Luo never once denied the gratitude she had for her parents, dinnertime was far from always comfortable. Beneath a shell of immigrant resilience lay generational tensions that pit the younger against the older in a space where sides aren’t supposed to exist, according to Luo. Certain topics such as mental health and “personal battles” are heavily stigmatized in Asian culture — rarely ever gracing the dinner table — and she observed that oftentimes, the children were left in their own bubbles while the adults conversed in their heritage language. 

“There were a lot of feelings that went unexpressed because I felt like I didn’t have the adequate language to express it,” Luo shares. “At some point, my siblings and I would communicate with each other just solely in English, creating a language disconnect. I remember also hearing my parents say, ‘We don’t understand you,’ or ‘What are you talking about?’”

Luo’s experiences resonate with Korean American marriage and family therapist Kyoung-Hi Dickson, who remembers her childhood dinner table as a place of mostly calm and quiet unless the older generations felt the need to talk. Younger family members aren’t “invited to speak” much in South Korean culture, Dickson says.

Honor is shaped like a circle. It needs to go around.

The products of this specific dynamic are interactions between generations that center mostly on the mundane — on what is most immediate and most important for getting through the day-to-day. There is a selective precipitation on not only who is allowed to talk the most, but also on what can be discussed. The parents know what it takes to make sure that their children are okay on the surface, but they aren’t able to ask the deeper, more complex questions, Luo says. While this wasn’t a huge problem for Luo personally, it can be an added challenge for the youth whose struggles and identities fall outside the scope of “acceptable” talking points around the traditional East Asian dinner table. It’s easy to bring up the neighbor’s new adorable Pomeranian — but not his lesbian daughter.

Psychologist Sehee Lee, whose clients include queer Asian Americans, explains that there is little more heartwrenching than trying to communicate “emotional distress” with family who “feel like … queer identities … [and] mental anguish [aren’t] a real thing.” Older family members, especially first-generation immigrants who come from “poverty-stricken countries,” have a hard time processing what could possibly be more difficult than paying rent or putting food on the table, Lee says. They see sexual orientation and the culturally unfamiliar as tangential to survival — as a choice — and thus not as deserving of investment or discussion.

What we then see is that at dinnertime, depressed, queer and neurodiverse youth take the imaginary backseat in what is thought to be a circular table where every seat is equidistant from the center — where every family member is valued. They wallow in the quiet, suppressing their hurt. They are left confused as to how to create healthy boundaries with their parents and grandparents.

Sometimes the tension stems directly from the dinner table. In a culture that glorifies excellence and bringing honor to your family, toxic comparisons are made and an inflexible definition of success is peeled off like a wax label and slapped onto the center of the table for everyone to see. Mom tells you that her friend’s daughter is heading off to Harvard Medical School in the fall, asking you for the 10th time this week how much of your Common Application essay you’ve finished. Dad was just on the phone with your friend’s mother, and she told him that her son landed an internship at The New York Times. He turns to you, asking about your plans for the summer, and the two of you awkwardly stare at each other. Grandpa reminds you to watch your figure, saying that in the olden days, everyone was slim because they sweated all their fat off in the fields.

“There’s this pressure that your culture expects of you and that your family expects of you,” Lee says. “Some Asians don’t want that level of achievement. And that creates a form of failure on their part where they feel extra critical of themselves.”

Confucius and his circle of relationships.

This co-evolution between top-down cultural expectations and a defined family hierarchy is not a new concept — it is thousands of years in the making, shaped and charted by Confucian principles that have diffused throughout East Asia, according to Yale Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Scholar in Religion and Ecology Mary Evelyn Tucker. And upon immigrating to the States, older generations carry segments of their “cultural DNA” with them.

In traditional Confucianism, the human person is not an isolated individual, but rather a person “embedded in relationships,” the first one being the family, then teachers, society, politics and nature. Family becomes a metaphor for the environment — with the earth as a mother and the heavens as a father — and subsequently, piety translates to more than a commitment to the immediate family. It extends to the whole cosmos and endowed upon the children is a responsibility “to care for the earth and for future generations,” Tucker says.

Unfortunately, tension in the family — and around the dinner table — surfaces when older generations find this cultural DNA suddenly thwarted by the growing influence of Western values brought back home from school and the workplace. The upper rung of the American corporate ladder. Materialism. Hyperindividualism. While individualism is seen positively in the West, almost as a symbol of independence, East Asian parents and grandparents might see it as a sign of infidelity to the family or as a lack of appreciation for their sacrifices, as a hedonism to pursue one’s own interests and leave history behind. 

But this doesn’t have to be the case. Confucianism, according to Tucker, is malleable, and she urges us to look back at its continuous evolution and survival throughout history as motivation to adapt a contemporary version of the philosophy that caters both to core historical values and new Westernized identities. There is a misbelief that Confucianism dissolved completely after the political dissonance and anti-intellectualism that characterized the Cultural Revolution of the 20th century, but it has since seen a revival as both a cultural and academic institution in recent years, with many universities in East Asian countries re-examining “national learning” through the lens of Confucian classics and modern scholarly interpretations of them.

The heart of the Confucian tradition is to become a fuller… contributing human being, especially to society,” Tucker says, suggesting that dedication to family need not be compromised in the process of acclimating to a different political and cultural climate. “So it’s not just to become a robot that takes values and pastes them on.”

Nonetheless, creating an organic dinner table where all members of the family can feel unapologetically themselves is not a blaming game meant to guilt-trip older generations or strip away their voices. John Allen Grim, Tucker’s husband and co-founder of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale, explains that older and younger generations differ in both their sources of grief and their coping mechanisms. Traditional East Asian cultures place extraordinary emphasis on the connections between mental and physical health, he says, as his wife brings up the example of grandparents spending their evenings dancing tai chi in parks.

For these people, it can be challenging to directly speak up about unresolved trauma, to express grief through the open dialogue that the youth are comfortable with, because it’s simply too painful, according to Cambodian American psychologist Sotheang Terry Khieu. Sometimes, older generations — who are particularly susceptible to isolation as children move away and partners pass — find joy in the simple act of being present in the moment with their family. Folding wonton skins and watching their grandchildren laugh are their ways of grappling with trauma, displacing constant open conversation as a prerequisite for happiness. The dinner table thus becomes a mental health binary: whereas the elderly see it as an essential way to preserve connections with their loved ones, that same tool meant to keep the family structure intact is now fracturing it as the youth feel disconnected from their conservative culture. 

Growing up, Khieu didn’t have nightly family dinners. Her parents, who moved to the United States after living in a refugee camp during the Cambodian genocide, are divorced, and she rarely saw her family together in the same place when she was little. The conversations she did remember having with her parents were “authoritarian” and not very fun; they were mostly “about telling us what we need to do for the week or the day, or telling us to do well in school.” 

Now 41, Khieu is happy to say that occasional conversations with her family during the holidays are more open. Decades ago, she could never have imagined talking to her parents about dating someone outside their race or even bringing someone home in general. Today, there’s still disagreement and there’s still a subtle hesitation to talk about anything “out of the ordinary,” but she has a newfound sense of courage and self-validation that helps her navigate cultural differences with her parents. 

After living away from home for four years as an undergraduate student, Luo has also returned to find an evolution in the dynamics and conversations of her family dinner table. The current pandemic has brought about an oxymoronic healing — the onslaught of COVID-19-triggered mental health crises and a rise in anti-Asian incidents, but at the same time, a greater urgency to talk about “larger,” deeper and more emotionally charged issues. Luo describes her recent conversations with her parents as a “painful, but rewarding” learning experience. And while the language barrier still stands in the way sometimes, she has made a more concerted effort to express and connect, using familial discussions over the news as a way to reflect and explore the unique challenges confronting Asian American communities from various generational angles. 

It’s never going to be a perfect circle, or even a circle at all.

But for other East Asian youth who are still tangled in an unrelenting antagonism with the other side of the dinner table, psychologists and scholars have some words for both ends. According to Lee, reforming the dinner table conversation comes after reforming our definitions and labels of piety and family obligations.

The older generations can have a hard time accepting that children may want to have a more Westernized relationship with them. They want their children to live closer to them — even alongside them — and offer unconditional support as they wade into the uncertainty of old age. They want the perfect Confucianist beginning and the perfect Confucianist ending even though the philosophy was never perfect in the first place, as Tucker states. And as Lee points out, what they don’t see is that younger generations can continue to take care of them while leading their own separate lives. Moving away or choosing not to have one’s parents raise their grandchildren does not imply cutting off all connections with family, though the shock of the news — and the deviation from tradition — may prompt one to register it as such. Psychologists urge parents and grandparents to let go and trust, to embrace distance as a sign of their children growing up. In that empty seat at the dinner table lies an opportunity to channel sadness into forms more useful than regret and anger. 

“It’s not about loyalty as your son or daughter. It’s not anything about rebelling against you, but more wanting to be known in honest ways,” Dickson says. 

Meanwhile, to the youth grappling with identities and challenges that aren’t recognized by their traditional cultural background, Dickson wants to say two things: first, that judgment, shame, invalidation and fear of disownment in East Asian families are very real issues that happen to very real people who deserve healing in real space and time. And second, that there is an advantage to enlisting allies and involving other people who may be more willing to understand. The dinner table does not have to be restricted to the immediate circle — it can be a celebration of the extended family, or even of the new relationships that one has made along the way. Breaking the status quo begins with starting the conversation, and it takes a “network” to accomplish both, according to Khieu. Other times, psychologists say that it’s about what’s within — about self-validation and self-care, about acknowledging that the family circle won’t always be emotionally available and using that as motivation to then find external support groups. Convincing can only go so far, and there comes a point when the youth must accept that their parents will not be okay with every component of their lifestyle, even though there is frustration in comparing East Asian and Western definitions of “acceptance.”

Because as much as the youth want to believe that it is the responsibility of their parents and grandparents to be their models and safe havens, it isn’t. Understanding is a two-way street. The dinner table is not a rigid configuration of people and food and ideas in the same place, but an amorphous, abstract chameleon that differs from family to family. There is no perfect solution to the difficult conversations — wordless or dialogued — that can take place, reflecting the simultaneous diversity and universality of East Asian families. East Asian culture. East Asian stereotypes. East Asian mental health walls that are being broken down and the new ones that are being put up. The dinner table remains a place of evolution, changing with us as we grow older, leave for new places, remember old memories, meet new people and lose loved ones. It is one that requires both the young and old alike to be curious, conscious and caring of each other’s worlds.  

“We must be able to ask each other about our own histories and experiences and recognize that it’s a collective effort. I don’t think that it should [only] be put on the younger generation or on the older generation to fix the issues — what impacts us impacts them and what impacts them also impacts us,” Luo says.

“We coexist in the same space now.”

***

At 14, you were sitting around the dinner table, patiently waiting for your grandparents to make the first move. Just as Mom shoves a potsticker and some stir-fried tofu onto your plate, Grandma asks your brother if he is ever going to bring home a girlfriend — so he can finally give her the great-grandchildren that she has always wanted. You look at your brother, waiting for him to look back at you so the two of you can laugh it off together just like every other day.

But tonight, your brother isn’t looking back at you. His dumplings are untouched and his left leg is shaking a little — the kind of shaking that Grandpa always warned you kids about because it supposedly brings bad luck. And a few moments later, in between the calls of a bachelor mockingbird and Ba’s comment on how the dumpling filling would have benefited from a tad more soy sauce, you hear a sharp inhale come from the seat beside yours, and you smile. 

You close your eyes, and you smile.

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