Parenting: Preserving culture from generation to generation
By Annie Guo, Asian Avenue magazine
Perhaps the success of some Asian Americans can be attributed to the strictness of the Tiger Mom. The Tiger Mom described by Chinese author Amy Chua is a very particular, very strict, ethnically defined approach to parenting most often used by immigrant parents. Tiger Moms, and Dads for that matter, may have adamantly enforced this discipline on their children, who are now becoming parents of their own.
It appears that second, third, and so forth generations of Asian Americans have a style of parenting that places less pressure on overachieving and becoming the stereotypical “successful” careers such as lawyers and doctors. Instead, parents emphasize the ideal for their children to be well-rounded.
More so than the challenge of disciplining their children, the new generation of Asian-American parents are faced with the task of maintaining and cultivating their children’s cultural heritage and traditions.
While becoming more Americanized parents, often engaging in intercultural or interracial marriages, how do parents achieve continued cultural education? Have the teachings they learned from immigrant parents made an impact? We interviewed Colorado parents to find out.
Learn the Language
For Loc and Van Luong, a key component to cultural preservation is to speak mostly Vietnamese to their daughter at home. Both parents are Vietnamese and therefore can speak the language to Sophie Tuyet Luong, who is now 16 months old. Sophie has grown up in a home full of Vietnamese traditions.
“It is very important to pass my Vietnamese traditions to my child,” said Van Luong. “Some of those traditions include loving, respecting, and obeying your parents. It’s important to listen to your parents and not talk back to them or do things against their wish.”
Teaching language to their two children is not as easy for Timothy and Joanna Han, an intercultural couple. Timothy is Korean and Joanna is Chinese. “I wish my kids spoke with either Chinese or Korean,” said Joanna Han. “It is hard in our household when Tim and I speak English to each other since neither one us speaks each other’s language.”
“My parents try to teach our kids. They speak to them when they can. I hope to send my kids one day to learn either Chinese or Korean. I will let them choose which language they wish to learn,” she said.
Jimmy and Lisa La, parents to Nathaniel (four years old) and Natalie (11 months old) are both Vietnamese and a quarter Chinese. Jimmy works for operations in a bank, while Lisa works in administration for health care services.
“It is important to pass on traditions to our children,” she said. Some traditions are speaking Vietnamese when we can and eating Vietnamese food. It is very important for them to learn Vietnamese but we feel it will eventually be forgotten as all the outside factors such as school, media and everyone online is in English.”
“We catch ourselves disciplining our children for the same thing we got in trouble for by our parents, such as respect, not talking back, excelling in school,” said Lisa La.
For Donna and Mark Hansen, teaching Japanese to their two-and-a-half year old daughter Portia Saki Hansen is also a great way for them to learn the language themselves. While Donna was born in Okinawa and is considered to be first generation Japanese American, she said she was raised in rural Florida in the 1970’s before multiculturalism was celebrated in America, so her mother decided it was far more important to speak English well.
“My baby already speaks more Japanese than me. But that is easy to do since I don’t speak very much. She sings and dances to Japanese songs every day,” she said.
And with each generation becoming more Americanized, eventually parents no longer speak native languages at all. It becomes up to the child as to what languages he or she is interested in learning, if any, other than English. While Jeremy and Melissa Eng, the parents of two-year-old Liam Eng, are Chinese, Jeremy is third generation and Melissa is fifth generation. Therefore, English is spoken in the home.
“What is Liam’s Chinese language, and is it even relevant anymore?” said Jeremy Eng. “Melissa’s parents never spoke Chinese at home because they both spoke different dialects. My family speaks Taishanese which, by all accounts, is a dying language. I’m sure I couldn’t find a school within 500 miles of here to teach it to him.”
“I suppose he could learn Mandarin, but really, at that point why not have him learn German or Spanish since he has more family that speak those languages fluently than can speak Mandarin,” said Eng.
The Involvement of Parents
While language can be a challenge to preserve, children can also learn about cultural traditions by spending time with their grandparents. Souli and Giao Saignaphone are the parents of two twin girls, Allisandra Quynh Saignaphone and Adrianna Quynh Saignaphone. The twins are two years old and Laotian-Vietnamese.
“Our parents and siblings have been involved with our parenting experience more in a sense of guidance and encouragement, but not so much in dictating how we raise our children,” the couple said. “They have been a great resource in supporting and encouraging us through the whole parenting experience.”
Souli’s brother Chai Saignaphone and Jeanette Martinez are parents of 2-year-old Jaidison Reeve Saignaphone. Chai is Laos and Jeanette is Mexican. Altogether eight people live in their household. “It gets crazy sometimes but at the end of the day there is a lot of love there for our son,” said Chai Saignaphone.
“It’s nice to have siblings that also have kids because our kids can grow and experience life together,” said Chai Saignaphone. “Also it’s nice to have someone who’s going through what you’re going through and there for advice and support.”
Chai said his parents are the typical grandparents. “They spoil and play with the grandkids, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
For Liam Eng, his grandfather takes care of him on weekdays when his parents are working. His father Jeremy Eng said, “Sometimes I swear Liam is picking up some of his grandfather’s Texan drawl.”
The time spent with grandparents can be both educational and fun. Joanna Han’s parents are very involved in the lives of her children, six-year-old Matthew and five-year-old Brooklyn. They take the kids to school every day and the kids really love their grandparents. She said, “They listen to my mom more than me sometimes. And I can’t say much because I have to listen to my mom still. Even though I am married and have kids, I still listen to my mom.”
“I respect my mom more now that I am parent,” Han said. “I’m very happy that they are in my kids’ lives.”
She said she always makes sure the kids greet the elders. She also makes sure they are being clean, especially when it comes to eating. Lastly, it is important that they always say thank you and please and are respectful to others.
Similarly, Donna Hansen believes good manners are important to every parent and the same respect to elders is a must. “Elders are always given the upmost respect and served food first,” she said. Van Luong also agreed that the most important traditions are to respect your parents and elders and to treat others the way you want to be treated.
The Saignaphone family was taught lessons of generosity, honesty, working hard, and sticking together as a family. Ciao Saignaphone shared that growing up their parents taught and trusted the children to do and make the right choices on their own. “That’s what I would like to do for my son. I don’t want to tell him what’s right or wrong. I want to show him and I want him to be able to make the right decision himself,” he said.
While interviewing Jeremy Eng, he shared how he felt it was strange how reluctant the older generation is to talk about the past. “Chinese Americans have experienced some really dark days in our history here, and we would do well to remember them as we consider how to treat people today, especially as it relates to immigration, social welfare, and human rights,” he said.
“Liam is the proud descendent of ship stowaways, paper children, and immigrants quarantined at Ellis and Angel Islands. We were deported when it was decided we were a threat to American workers. Our families were in America when there were laws preventing Chinese from marrying who we wanted.”
He continued, “And if they ultimately succeeded in keeping us down and out, then America would have been poorer because we, as a family, have served this country as soldiers, federal agents, teachers, executives, scientists, artists and medical professionals.”
What are These Cultural Traditions?
For Souli and Giao Saignaphone, they believe it is very important to pass on Asian traditions to their children. These include eating Asian food and meals which is a big part of their cultures.
“We use meal times and food sharing as a way to expose the children to their multicultural backgrounds,” the couple said. “By sharing meals and enjoy the food together, our children get to learn our family history, traditions and values such as the importance of family.”
They also teach their daughters about tradition through fun ways such as listening to music, engaging in traditional dances and games, reading Vietnamese and Lao books, and having them participate in community activities. These include Vietnamese New Year, Laos New Year, going to temples and shopping at Asian markets.
To Chai Saignaphone, it is important to pass both Asian and Mexican traditions to his son. However, his parenting strategy is to allow his son to make his own decisions. “We let our son make his own choices on what tradition he wants to follow—all we can do is lead by example,” he said.
Donna Hansen agrees with the importance of learning and maintaining Japanese traditions for her daughter. “I wasn’t raised with many Japanese traditions so I am learning as well and having fun teaching them to my daughter,” she said. “Of course one of the main things I was taught growing up was to always take off your shoes when you come into the house. I was also instilled with a healthy reverence for food.”
The Engs again provide a unique perspective on the meaning of culture. Jeremy said, “I’m third generation Chinese American, and Melissa’s family came to America to build the railroads. I couldn’t tell you if what I think of as tradition is traditional Chinese or traditional Chinese American.”
“I think that traditions, once they leave the shores of the home country, evolve rapidly, blending and changing with the other peoples they encounter.”
“Some of my family traditions involve eating roti and black pudding because they detoured through Trinidad and Tobago before reaching America. My mother in-law serves black eyed peas and cabbage for New Year because she was born in Tennessee. So I don’t worry about whether we are accurately reenacting the traditions of old or if bits and pieces mutate or are shed along the way.”
“The traditions we follow as a family aren’t just the relics of a far off land that we left a century ago, but the tale of the journey we took to get here today,” he said.
What Have You Learned About Parenting
Jeremy Eng is now a Principal Business Analyst at Dish Network and his wife Melissa is a Walgreens pharmacist. When they met, Jeremy was living in New York City and Melissa in Denver. “We met at my sister’s wedding in Hawaii. We actually had a long distance relationship for over three years. In fact, we didn’t even live in the same time zone until after we were married.”
When it comes to parenting Jeremy shares, “Sometimes I think back at all the things we said we would do and wouldn’t do as parents and laugh at our sheer naiveté. The most important thing is to be flexible and don’t get hung up on arbitrary rules you put in place for yourself. That, and sleep is awesome.”
Joanna Han has learned that parenting isn’t easy. “You don’t realize how much you love someone and you would do anything for them. You want to protect them as much as possible. You want the best for your kids. I don’t think I realized what my parents went through until I became a parent. I want to be involved in their lives as much as possible whether it is in school or sports. I want to support them any way I can.”
Souli and Giao have also learned how to love someone selflessly and unconditionally. The two met in college, during their sophomore year. Souli (intentionally) threw a pencil at Giao and that’s how they started talking and since then they haven’t stopped talking. What their brother Chai has learned is that “we are not going to know everything about raising a kid but all we can do is be a family and take it one day at a time.”
The La’s met at a church camp in Carthage, Missouri when they were 15. After writing each other letters, they then begin e-mailing when e-mails were created. They lost touch but one day Jimmy “googled” Lisa and found her Asian Avenue web page.
“We stayed in touch and when I was going through rough times he told me to come visit him in Nebraska and after that we were engaged within three months and married within a year.” Lisa said.
“The most important thing we have learned about being parents is setting the example and working hard to lead the path that we want our kids to live. Be the people who we want our kids to learn from.”
Lastly, Donna shares that she has learned “we can’t give our children enough love, patience and space to discover themselves and the world around them.”
“Protecting the preciousness of childhood is challenge in our media saturated world. I try to keep her away from TV screens and dance with her every minute I can,” she said.
“Having the opportunity to learn through her has brought new found joy into my life. Every day I am astounded by the amazing rate she is learning and the profound things she says. When she sees a child crying she’ll watch them intently for a moment then touch my arm and nod to assure me and say, “they are going to be okay.”’
What Makes You Most Proud as Parents
Van Luong said, “When I see her smile, it makes me a proud mom. The most important thing that I’ve learned about parenting is that raising a child requires a great deal of patience.”
Chai and Jeanette Saignaphone met at their work. Chai said he finally had enough courage to ask her to the movies and the rest is history. What makes them proud parents is seeing and knowing that their son is always smiling and brightening up everything around him. “He overcame a lot his first few months of birth and he’s become stronger and made us stronger,” said Chai.
Jimmy and Lisa La our proud of their kids for being unique. Nathaniel marches to the beat of his own drum and isn’t like any other kids.
“We are also proud parents because despite how hard it gets, we keep moving and don’t let anything stop us from our dreams,” Lisa said.
Donna Hansen shared about her daughter Portia, “I’m so proud to experience the wonder and love for life my little girl is full of every day. She loves to make people laugh and tell jokes.”
The twin girls make Souli and Giao Saignaphone proud as they watch them grow up healthy and happily everyday.
“They can understand and respond in three different languages (Vietnamese, Laos and English). They bring happiness to our lives and warm up the place everywhere they go by their personality.”
“Even at an early age, their behavior shows that they understand the values we teach them such as loving and caring for each other
They always stick to each other and look out for each other,” said Giao Saignaphone.
One thing is for sure, our families greatly influence who we become, what our values are and how we celebrate holidays and festivals. We all may have our own definition of culture, but undoubtedly our families play a large part in this definition.