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Monday, January 31st, 2011

So what’s the big deal about sleepovers, anyhow?

Graça Victoria -

On my 16th birthday, a blond classmate was shocked to discover that I would not also, automatically, be allowed to date.


“But it’s a Constitutional right that you are allowed to date when you turn 16.”


The other three Asian American girls in my class and I all looked at each other. None of us were allowed to date until college. It was a distraction from our studies, a waste of time, danger. “You are not going to marry anyone you date in high school, so what is the point?” my mother asked.


The thing is, although my non-Asian friends thought my parents were soooo traditional, conservative, and unfair, actually, my parents thought they were being incredibly liberal.


My mother and her sisters were not allowed to date until their final year of college (so in case anything went “wrong,” they would still be able to graduate). My parents also grew up in Taiwan at a time when people did not even hold hands (let alone kiss) until after they had started “going steady,” after which they soon became engaged and got married. They were letting me date at a much younger age than they had.


I understood this, even if my 16-year-old self did not agree.


As angry as I have been with Yale law professor Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, for her incendiary article in the Wall Street Journal, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” even as she backpedals from her hard-line stance, I am concerned that many cultural nuances are being misunderstood as everyone writes back — from Asian Americans to the happiness school to Bad Mommy — furious about even the less crazy things that she does, the details that really are cultural (as opposed to crazy). I feel like all Asians and Asian Americans are being castigated along with her, especially when people in cafés now glare at me when I scold my boy in Chinese.


We can try to understand each other, even if we do not agree.


Imagine that you move to Europe where it is no big deal to allow children and teenagers to drink a glass of wine with dinner. Would you do it right away? Or would it take some time to get your mind about it? How young could you allow it? Okay, now how about a topless beach? Could you? Would you? With your teenage daughters? And Grandpa, too? I can hear the Europeans in town laughing at our American prudishness. We have a hard enough time dealing with Speedos at the YMCA.


In Maureen Downey’s article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, “Chinese mothers: Perfect grades or else. And you’re fat,” she responds to Chua’s claim that “Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, ‘Hey fatty — lose some weight.’” However, what she does not understand and Chua does not explain is that saying someone is “fat” (or “old” for that matter) is not as loaded in some Asian cultures/languages as it is in America. It comes out of a past when it was good to be fat, chubby, plump or stout because it meant you had enough to eat. (Although this is changing.) Interestingly, my children and I use the Chinese word in the diminutive, “pang pang,” quite casually, but we would never ascribe the English word, “fat.”


For comparison, the Asian equivalent stigma-loaded word would be “tan” or “dark.” I once physically winced when a friend complimented me, “You’re getting some color!” It does not sound bad in English, but it cuts to the quick. Someone like Snookie is completely incomprehensible.


Rather than pontificate about the wrongness of the particulars from our experience, (Ahhh! Children drinking! Ahhh! Breasts! Ahhh! She said “fatty”! And what is the big deal about sleepovers anyhow?), it is more important to see how they fit into the larger cultural context or parental plan. Every family is different and manifests its values and circumstances in different ways. The feel of it is in the nuances. Explain.


Still, to be safe, I brainwash, er, tell my daughters how important education is, how distracting boys can be, and how they are not to date until they are 32 and have finished graduate school.

© 2011 – 2012, Frances Kai-Hwa Wang. All rights reserved.

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Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Michigan and Hawaii. She is editor of Asian American Village, a contributor for New America Media's Ethnoblog, Chicago is the World, JACL's Pacific Citizen, InCultureParent and Multicultural Familia. She is on the Advisory Board of American Citizens for Justice. She team-teaches "Asian Pacific American History and the Law" at University of Michigan and University of Michigan Dearborn. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at She can be reached at

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1 Comment
  1. CommentsJan Petersen   |  Tuesday, 01 February 2011 at 6:29 am

    Imagine the added complication of parents coming from different cultural backgrounds… my wife is from a fairly traditional and(moderate) muslim country while I am from Germany.

    We are having fun so far navigating the differences while we’re raising our daughters.

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