On Experiencing ‘Tough Love’ as an Asian-American Immigrant

By Saru Bhaksar 

Parental love in South /East Asian cultures is often portrayed as cold and distant. The parent-figures are typically emotionless authoritarian types that reply “But why didn’t you get a 100%?” when their child tells them they got a 95% on an exam. It is a cliché and stereotype but one I experienced first-hand.  My experience is one based on a fundamentally different set of cultural beliefs than the majority of people around me. For the intents and purposes of this piece, I will refer to this style of parenting as the tough-love mindset. As millennials, we are mocked and referred to as the coddled generation.  I don’t want to be coddled; I want to be respected.

Webster’s dictionary definition of tough love is “a disciplinary technique, as for a young person or loved one, in which a seemingly harsh or unfeeling course of action is chosen deliberately over one demonstrating tenderness or forbearance instinctively felt.”  Bill Milliken, a Christian minister who worked with at-risk youth in NYC, coined the phrase “tough love” in the ‘60s with his book of the same title.  Since then, he has acknowledged that the term is often used to justify harsh and abusive disciplinary programs. Tough love is a symptom of hyper-individualism and bootstraps mentality, which are strong Western ideals. Tough love enforces the idea that people can be whipped into shape, which may be true — but that doesn’t mean that it is healthy or the most effective.

Supposedly, tough love is difficult to do for parents (hence the name). The underlying philosophy behind tough love is that pain produces growth. However, there are many other ways to foster growth and success, and tough love should be used as a last-resort only in extreme situations — not as an everyday way of parenting. Beating people down so they will rise to the occasion may produce results, but it will also cause long-lasting resentment and anger. In this sense, the tough love myth is similar to the tortured-artist myth. It sounds poetic and effective but only leaves us feeling empty and alone.

I remember having to formally ask my dad not to call me “stupid.” I was nineteen and at my parents’ home, visiting from college. He had called me that name many times before that day—sometimes joking, sometimes serious. On that day he didn’t say it in a joking manner. It was full of anger and stung me harder than the other times he had said it. I waited until we were alone outside later in the day and confronted him —“Dad, it makes me feel really bad when you call me stupid –- or any other insulting word, even if you mean it as a joke. It rings in my head days after you say it so please choose your words more carefully.” He laughed it off and agreed to cool it. It wasn’t even the worst thing he has called me. It didn’t really stop for good, and I continue asking for tenderness because it’s all I can do.

Of course, I still try and rationalize how and why my parents used the tough love approach in raising me. Western society places heavy emphasis on the individual while the Eastern mindset is more concerned with the family unit. So perhaps the tough love approach comes from wanting to control and better the family unit as a whole. Maybe my parents see me as direct extensions of themselves, meaning they can speak and treat me however they choose (which to an extent may be true, but like autonomy). Maybe tough love is the only way they knew because it is how they (and everyone around them) were raised. Additionally, the dense population in India and China makes for a hyper-competitive atmosphere. Striving for perfection is directly related to this. The stakes are high when there are a billion other people who could do whatever job you’re doing so it is important to be the best. A 95% on an exam won’t do when there are many others getting 100%.

I am still learning to love and forgive my parents for their imperfections — just as I am learning to love and forgive my own imperfections. I know they are not hateful people at their core. They want me to flourish and live the life that they dreamt of when we immigrated here. They don’t use the tough love approach all the time, either. Sometimes they are genuine and soft — especially now that I’m an adult and ask consciously for what I need. As I navigate post-grad life and the anxiety of finding full time (and meaningful) work, I need my parents to be cheerleaders more than ever. I quite literally tell my parents in words that I need them to be nicer or gentler with whatever message they are trying to convey. I directly ask them for empathy.  I don’t need tough love — the world is tough enough.