Just a few weeks I had Christmas dinner with my best friend of over 15 years. The first thing she did when I walked through her front door was she gave me an amazing hug. She gives the type of hugs that make you feel warm inside, and make you feel like you are truly loved. They are sincere and heartfelt, and they rarely last under ten seconds. She gets this outward display of affection from her family, who all hugged me and greeted me with open arms when I first met them years ago as a teenager.
I have to admit that I was pretty shocked to get bombarded with hugs from people that I had never met before. The very first time I visited her house we swam and played in their aboveground pool, and I watched them as they laughed and hugged each other like it was a part of their daily routine. They shared stories of their day during dinner and happily helped to clean up after dessert. Pretty soon, her mom was telling me “I love you” whenever I left, and I found myself saying it back.
This may seem normal to you, but for a girl who was raised by a single Korean mother, it was as strange to me as a rice cooker was to my American friends. My mother was never one to be very affectionate. When I was young she rarely held my hand or let me sit in her lap. In middle school, whenever I came home, super excited from getting an A on a test, she would simply nod her head and go about her business. In high school, when I got picked to be co-captain of the softball team, she smiled and continued to eat her rice. She never wrote letters or sent care packages to me in college, and even today, whenever we talk on the phone, I am always the one to say “I love you” before the end of the conversation.
I grew up this way, so I never questioned anything different, but when I saw how my best friend’s family was so affectionate, I started to wonder if something was wrong. Then I realized that my mother didn’t have the easiest life. Both of her parents died when she was young, and when she came to America she was often left alone by my father to raise two children on her own. Then when my parents divorced, she was working all of the time, so she didn’t have time to be affectionate. There were many nights when my mom came home, exhausted from a long day at work, and all I wanted was a hug, but all she had left to give us were instructions for helping with dinner. So I accepted this, and it became the norm.
I also realized that my mother’s lack of affection wasn’t just because she was too busy being a single mom. It was part of her culture. Most Asian parents simply do not show affection, at least not outwardly like most American parents do. Jui Bhagwat, an author who writes from the perspective of a desi parent (part South Asian, part American) said it best in her Thinking Mom blog post: “American mothers are also more direct when it comes to expressing their love for their kids. They actually tell their kids that they love them. Asian parents (and this is definitely true for Desi parents) are not quite so forthcoming with their emotions.” She goes on to share that even though her father rarely told her “I love you,” she was quite close to him, and one way that her mother showed her love was through food. That is one thing that I have to agree with. Whenever my mother made large Korean meals, she made them with so much heart and soul that even though we wouldn’t talk much while eating mouthfuls of kimchi and bulgogi, I knew that she was showing me that she cared.
Jonathan Le in his article in New American Media makes another good point about Asians and affection. He says, “Asians, and especially the Vietnamese, like to maintain appearances. They feel that their every action is being monitored by friends and relatives. These families are so self-conscious about their actions, and how they might affect the family image, they try their hardest not to do anything potentially embarrassing.” I can certainly relate to this because my mother constantly brings up what her Korean friends think, and she always tells me to tone down my sense of humor because her friends may not think it’s funny. In fact, I remember her trying her best to not turn red two years ago when, during my wedding celebration at a Korean restaurant, I did a stellar karaoke performance of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel,” complete with the moonwalk. When I went to hug her after the performance, she stayed seated in her chair. I didn’t think it was that bad! Well, it was Michael Jackson “Bad.” Okay, maybe I understand a little why she chooses not to always acknowledge my jokes.
Toward the end of Le’s article, he makes what I think is the most important statement about Asian parents: “Asian parents do all they can to take care of their kids, to feed them, clothe them, and give them the opportunities that they, themselves, may not have had. And that’s all that anyone can ask for. These parents assume that because they have taken care of their children since birth, it should be obvious that they care about them, that they love them. And there isn’t really any need for them to smother each other with hugs every day.” I particularly can relate to this because my mother constantly tells me that all she ever wanted was for her children to have a better life than she did. She sacrificed her dreams as a theater performer in Korea, came to a foreign country with little education, stayed in an unhappy marriage for over 25 years and worked multiple jobs as a single mother, all to give us an opportunity to succeed. All those years that she never cried in front of me as a child, or never complained about her struggles, she was teaching me the value of strength. I didn’t understand it when I was younger, but now I do.
I think that I’m extremely lucky to have my best friend and her family in my life because they give me outward affection, and sometimes you just need a hug after a long day. But I’m also lucky to have been raised by a strong, independent woman. My mother may not be the most affectionate person in the world, but she has always been there for me when I needed her. We may only talk to each other on the phone once a week, and I may only see her a few times a year, but those moments that we do share together are filled with a love and respect for one another that can never be measured.