My Chinese parents are not tigers. They did not rage when I brought home poor grades; they did not resort to corporal punishment, except on the truly rare occasion. Their influence was more subtle, though just as overreaching; they respected no boundaries, no lines. Curfew continued throughout my 20s. What was mine was theirs. Their “advice” often overrode my own thoughts on my own life.
It began early. A childhood of well-meaning parents entering without permission, cleaning up my room without invitation, and dispensing advice without solicitation had taught me I wasn’t allowed to say no, nor to ask them to please knock first — to truly have a space of my own. I spent a lot of time on my computer — pretending to do homework — in order to escape to fictional worlds where I could freely choose what was okay and what was not. The only way to win was to retreat. I said no by hiding.
I started my professional life, still at home. I contributed to the family funds regularly as a matter of course. When my parents asked to borrow my credit card for my cousin’s sake, I said yes. After every attempt to establish a timeline to pay back my credit card ended in heaping shame upon my head for asking, I learned a loan wasn’t really a loan and that my money wasn’t considered mine. The only way to win was to have nothing to borrow. I said no by spending.
I started looking for apartments, wanting to move out of the house. When my parents heard of my intentions, they cried, “But why would you want to leave? You get delicious meals and laundry done for you and get to be close to us!”
I explained that I wanted to learn how to be an adult, out from their protective shadows.
Their response was chilly. “How did we raise such an American child?!”
“If you didn’t want me to value being independent as a young adult, Mom, you shouldn't have moved to America.”
It took me a year to gather up the courage to bring up the topic again, but I moved out despite the repeated protests. The only way to win was to speak for myself. I said no by saying no.
It has taken years to wake up and speak up – to realize my thoughts and life could be my own. I discovered that I didn’t need to be a chess piece in their extended life story. I don’t need to pop out grandbabies on demand. I don’t need to follow in their business footsteps. I don’t need to justify my actions to them. I can just say no.