Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Sorrow of Asian "Emotionlessness"

When the author was growing up as a secondary school student in the US, a favorite conversation topic among his Asian-American group of friends was the perceived "weirdness" of their respective Asian families.  The concrete example of "strange" were mostly bouts of what can be termed social aloofness, with awkward gift-giving during holidays, awkward presence and absence of affection, and even more awkward get-together of friends and families.  The comparisons were always with non-Asian families, were social occasions, to the Asian kids, seems always so smoothly conducted.

In the years that passed, the author (and surely many of his Asian friends) have come to realize that the cause of those laughter-worthy social awkwardness pretty much just boils down to one thing: a persistent lack of expressed affection (or for that matter, any emotion aside from negative ones like purposeful anger) within the family unit.  Come to think of it, the author does not remember ever being told "I/we love you" by his parents.  He has never seen his parents/grandparents/uncles + aunts display any sort of physical affection in public (never seen them kiss, or even hug).

And because they themselves show no public affection, these "emotionless" Asian parents obviously are in no position to instruct how their kids how to love someone either.  Never had the author ever received any talks on how to talk to girls, how to make friends, and indeed how to talk to people in a friendly way.  These behaviors are thought to be learned naturally, and ought not to be expressed under permission is granted (from "you can make friend with him, he seems like a studious kid" when young, to "I think you are old enough to be okay to have girlfriend now" as one gets older).

Perhaps it is a cultural trait for Asian parenting to emphasize the "authority" portion of the role so seriously.  There is fear that softness in the form of outward affection will weaken proper responding to commands.  When this strictly hierarchic relationship is taken to the extreme, it becomes impossible for the child to even consider the possibility of their parents being capable of affection, and they themselves being capable of affection toward them.  Hence the laughable "awkwardness" when these authorities-at-home are being nice to others even in the most basic way.

This phenomenon is quite a sad one in this time of the year, when Thanksgiving is celebrated.  That Western concept of verbally communicating gratitude to other family members as a form of expressed affection simply cannot be replicated in the Asian family.  The feasts and the decorations can be replicated, but the atmosphere is just not socially possible.  For some, verbally expressing gratitude toward parents and grandparents do not really occur until much later...when that person has permanently left this world so affection can flow more freely without the "weirdness" of face-to-face.

Certainly, neither is the author the only one to experience such emotionlessness, nor is such emotionlessness limited to a casual social context of the family and close friends.  Learned incapacity to express positive emotions permeate all human relationships in Asian societies, making outward display of camaraderie possible only in drunkenness.  That is not to say that affection does not exist when sober, but that they are not to be expressed verbally or shown physically, for the fear that they are taken more or less as socially inappropriate.

Many Asians, with experience of Western lifestyles, want nothing to do with such emotionlessness.  Many rebels, hates on Asian cultures, and become sources of generational gaps, especially in the context of first-generation immigrants and their Western-raised offspring.  Others become even more defensive of such trait in a foreign land, isolating themselves as a separate people in otherwise culturally diverse locales.  Thanksgiving, for either of these two groups, become a thorn that reaffirms the very awkwardness of their conflicting cultural identities.

Still, these Asians, rebellious or isolationist, has much to thank during the otherwise festive time known as Thanksgiving.  They should be grateful to know that a simple "thanks" has the ability to break the binding chains of social awkwardness.  Whether they choose to play along with their new-found capabilities to be more emotionally open, or they choose to defend their culture of being more subtle about outward expressions, Thanksgiving still represent a different worldview, one that introduce alternate possibilities.  And surely there is nothing sorry about tolerating and accepting the presence of such cultural diversities.  

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