Cultivating New Beginnings: A Taiwanese-American Journey

Judy Kao Craig

Cultivating New Beginnings: A Taiwanese-American Journey

Throughout history, humans have been on a perpetual quest for a balance of power, for significance, for independence. My family of origin was not immune from this quest. I am a first generation immigrant from Taiwan (a country whose history is all about the quest for independence). My older sister and I were born in Taiwan while my younger sister was born in the United States. My parents immigrated to California when I was three years old because America held promise for opportunity, wealth (or at least a chance to accumulate it), and freedoms that Taiwan could not offer. My mom was the fifth of seven children. My dad was the youngest of three by almost two decades. They were pretty much on their own to survive. Their quest for power, significance, and independence brought us here to the promised land for a new beginning. 

Parenting is a challenge on its own, but my parents did it in a foreign land with very little English education or knowledge about American culture. Life as they knew it for 30 years, had ended. I could not grapple nor empathize with their responsibilities or uphill battles trying to understand new cultural norms. As a young child, I had a different perspective and experienced my own crushing disappointments. On Christmas Eve, I’d eagerly set out Christmas stockings, only to find them empty on Christmas day because my parents did not know about Santa Claus. The Tooth Fairy never visited my pillow, and our household goods were collected out of necessity, not aesthetics. Dishes or towels rarely matched in our home and I felt embarrassed to invite friends over.

As I grew older, I could better understand why my father always seemed stressed out and in a bad mood, working long hours six days a week. He rarely attended our school or church functions, which made me feel sad and disappointed. It felt like he didn’t care, when, as I know now, he was providing for our basic needs the best he could. We would tiptoe around topics in fear of “stressing him out” and resulting in him raising his voice and storming about. As the middle child and with my people-pleasing personality, I strived to be well-behaved and I never wanted to contribute to any source of my parents’ ill will or displeasure. 

I remember one of the first and few times my mother was extremely angry and yelled at me. She was dropping me off for a week-long camp and I had an epiphany in my adolescent brain that I verbalized, “Too bad we had three girls and not a boy, so someone could keep Daddy’s last name after getting married!” My mother lashed out, “Don’t ever say that again!” I spent that week in shame, mortified that I upset my mother so profoundly. My parents did a really great job protecting my sisters and me from the male dominated, favoritism that is prevalent in Chinese culture. I am thankful that my mother followed up that week with an apology and remorse, explaining to me, “Your father could have divorced me for not bearing him a son.” It was a serious source of shame and fear for her because culturally it was a reflection of her value as a woman, wife, and mother. How could she ever feel safe against such cultural expectations? To not let it define her, for that notion (something utterly out of her control) to end and for her to begin and thrive?

Family means recognizing where you come from and where you are headed. It also means establishing boundaries. Those boundaries started with us. My parents leaned into the pain, discomfort, and toxic cultural judgements and accepted us and our reality: three girls with a hopeful life and future ahead of us, and did the best they could. This perspective and acceptance has allowed me the freedom and forgiveness to let go of the grievances and angst I had as an immigrant child, trying to fit in and feeling very powerless in a society my parents themselves were navigating. I learned to build my confidence and identity based on how my parents lived within our family boundaries. Here are a few of my reflections and strategies for accepting those boundaries: 

  • Be Honest: Asian cultures are well known for internalizing feelings by avoiding emotional and difficult conversations. As much as parents should protect their children from certain information and hardships they are facing, children are intuitive and may internalize their parents’ mood, which in turn could negatively affect a child’s self-esteem and sense of security. Whenever possible, talk to your children honestly and simply about some of the challenges you may be facing and reassure them that it is not a reflection of them nor their behavior (and perhaps perceived misbehavior), and that you recognize and validate their feelings.
  • Tolerate Differences: Asian families have been known to abide by a strict sense of duty and responsibility and filial piety, including cultivating respect by means of success and affluence. Healthy boundaries in family relationships allow for and can tolerate differences across generational lines. My parents wanted us to be successful but were supportive when we opted not to become doctors or lawyers (the traditional successful path according to many of their friends and family). My two sisters are educators and I am a clinical social worker. Success can look differently and my parents understood that and supported our choices and decisions into adulthood. 
  • Self-Validation: Human beings are social creatures and rely on social (and family) validation and acceptance, however, at what point should we accept and honor our own individual experiences, thoughts, and feelings as true and enough? Within Asian families, perpetuating homogeneity, traditions, and collective identity, while expected, has limitations and emotional costs. Immigration, acculturation, and lived experiences, challenge those traditional beliefs and expectations. Reframing beliefs creates freedom and allows for self-validation. We can make choices that are different from our families of origins, while being true to the ethics, morals, and values our families instilled in us. We are creating our own future and legacies, with new beginnings. 

My father tended to interchangeably use the words “experience” and “experiment.” The Cambridge Dictionary explains, “We use experience as a verb when something happens to us, or we feel it.” Meanwhile, experiment as a verb means “to try something in order to discover what it is like or to find out more about it.” In time, I have learned to appreciate his wisdom by experimenting with decisions and experiencing both opportunities and challenges that have all shaped me. Relational boundaries that support experiences and experiments allow for self-exploration. In turn, those boundaries can help us build self-confidence and trust to cultivate new beginnings by incorporating our cultural pasts into our unique and authentic future.