After hitting ‘rock bottom,’ a 26 y/o is supporting his family and improving parent-child relationships through a card game

  • After years of misplaced anger and miscommunication, Joseph Lam rebuilt his relationship with his parents by genuinely talking with them.
  • Lam co-founded a card game called Parents are Human to encourage conversation between bilingual children and their parents.
  • Decks are 70 cards each divided into 50 questions and 20 actions and are currently available in Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish, Korean, Filipino/Tagalog and English-only, with blank backs for players to fill in.

The power of community drives the success of a card game called Parents Are Human, which aims at improving communication and connection between immigrant families.

Joseph Lam, 26, was in his early 20s when he hit “rock bottom.” In 2018, he ended his health tech company and an almost two-year relationship and was forced to move back into his family home where he faced a turbulent relationship with his parents.

Building a Family

The Lams’ family dynamic reached a point at which no one was talking, and if they were, they were exploding at each other or miscommunicating. As a kid who grew up being alienated and bullied, Lam said he bottled up his emotions and didn’t cry for 10 years until he reached a point he felt he would go “downright ballistic” at his parents and began to neglect his relationships. With his mental health in shambles, it was only when he reached the age of 23 that he realized he needed to stop running before it was too late and he was left with regrets.

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Lam enrolled himself in an intense personal development program that required him to confront his own demons and admit he had been avoiding repairing broken relationships with his family since his adolescence. He wrote a heartfelt letter to his parents and committed to taking small steps towards reconciliation like hugging them every day and actually talking to them. In doing so, his mind opened up to the realization that “Parents are human too.”

Lam journaled about his growth and revelations and compiled them into an online blog on the Parents are Human website, called “30 Reflections From Healing a Broken Relationship With My Parents.”

Building a Card Game

In 2019, Lam’s friend Candace Wu floated the idea that they should start what would become the “Parents Are Human” card game. The duo co-founded the business and developed a prototype deck after surveying almost 100 people on what topics they would be most interested in talking about with their parents. The requested topics ended up being Life Events, Wisdom, Identity, Relationships and Actions. 

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After a year and a half working nights and weekends, Lam began running Parents Are Human full-time in March 2020 and employed his own parents, Mary Lam and Francis Lam, to hand-pack and fulfill each order. Lam’s parents had been forced to retire early because of the pandemic and other health issues. The three of them currently depend on the card game as their sole source of income.

We just became a six-figure business, but I haven’t paid myself anything yet,” Lam told NextShark. “We’ve reinvested every bit of profit into either helping Parents Are Human reach more families around the world or helping my parents improve their health.”

After creating multiple iterations, refining and playtesting with various families, Lam and Wu successfully launched the first two decks in English and Simplified Chinese as well as English and Traditional Chinese. Lam and his team then created a Kickstarter to fund more decks in Vietnamese, Spanish, Korean, Filipino/Tagalog and English-only, with blank backs for players to write their own questions in any language. The crowdfunding campaign overshot its $5,000 goal by nearly triple with almost 500 eager contributors.

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In one deck, there are 70 cards divided into 50 questions and 20 actions. The bilingual packs are two-sided, with English on one side and another language on the other. The game is designed to encourage conversations that gradually increase in depth, from lighthearted or more surface-level questions to topics that ask players to connect more personally.

“We deliberately chose our prompts, so the vast majority of them will apply universally to every culture and language,” Lam said. “We discover a new language, culture and geographic nuances with every edition that comes out.”

Building a Team

After the Kickstarter’s success and over 1,600 language requests, the team behind Parents Are Human also grew to meet the demand. Each prompt and translation included in a new pack is the culmination of volunteer efforts and a dedicated community coming together.

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It’s taken over 50+ volunteer translators and their families to create the language editions available today,” Lam said. “They’ve spent countless hours refining the translations until each prompt fully honors the nuances of that language and culture.”

“People have not been shy to point out opportunities for improvement,” he added. “I wholeheartedly welcome everyone’s feedback, and it makes every print that much more exciting, knowing that a better version is going out into the world. I’m committed to continuously improving this game, because the memories, conversations and mutual understanding that a good question or action can create are priceless.”

Priceless indeed, because Lam also understands that those who cannot afford the packs shouldn’t be exempt from playing with their families. On the Parents Are Human website is a section devoted to a free, or “pay-what-you-want” digital version, of the existing decks.

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“Running a company as a solo entrepreneur can be a pretty lonely and stressful experience. When every hour of the day is up to me to plan, and I’m left to my own devices, it’s way too easy to get lost in distractions and thought spirals that don’t serve me,” Lam said. 

To combat this, he relied on the power of good company. The game developer admitted he wouldn’t have been able to do this on his own.

“A few of my close friends, mentors and I came up with what we’ve called the ‘Solo Founders’ Survival Club,’ where we get on Zoom for 1.5-2 hours at a time to virtually co-work together. These sessions make up most of my days right now, and the social accountability has honestly been life-changing.”

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Building a Mission

You’re not alone,” the co-founder said. “It’s normal for relationships to be tough, for there to be misunderstandings, conflicts and tensions, especially at home with loved ones.” And despite the pushback players might receive from resistant or wary parents, Lam reassures them that the cards can be used in other creative ways.

“In that case, I recommend using our cards and translations as inspiration for questions you can weave into everyday conversations,” he said.

While the Parents Are Human games are not meant to be the key to mending a broken relationship or to coerce one’s family into caring, it is an available tool to bridge the language, culture and generational gaps Lam is all too familiar with when it comes to conversing with immigrant parents. When the developer began making an effort to get to know his parents, he felt the language barriers drove him towards improving his Chinese and releasing his “childhood stubbornness” that originally led him to reject his mother tongue in favor of English-language assimilation throughout his adolescence.

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Lam also understands the long road ahead and offers one bit of advice to those who want to keep trying: “I know how much these struggles can weigh on your heart. Please don’t keep it a secret, as I did for over a decade. Let’s go on this journey together.”

The current seven “Parents Are Human” packs are available for purchase online and will be hand-packed by Mr. and Mrs. Lam. Anyone can also request a language for future development.

All Images via Joseph Lam/Parents Are Human

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