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Young Asian Americans struggle to get immigrant parents to open up about a painful issue: racism

Sam Hyun, with his mother, Donna, at her Newton laundromat business. The two have always been close, but they have recently begun to confide more honestly with one another.
Sam Hyun, with his mother, Donna, at her Newton laundromat business. The two have always been close, but they have recently begun to confide more honestly with one another.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Rachel Wang had always been a bit critical of her Chinese immigrant parents. Their effusive gift-giving felt superficial. She found their inability to verbalize affection frustrating. Dinner was always a silent affair, until the end of the meal, when one of her parents would remind her there was still hot soup on the stove. It was an implicit expression of their love, but one evening, Wang snapped at them: “Why can’t you say something else to me?”

Like so many second-generation Asian Americans straddling two cultures, Wang struggled to communicate with her parents, and they struggled to communicate with her. But in a year marred by a deadly pandemic, social unrest, and surging anti-Asian violence, Wang and her parents have gotten closer by opening up about wounds from their pasts.

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As Asian Americans reexamine their nebulous position in the country’s racial hierarchy, in which they are cast either as “model minorities” or “perpetual foreigners,” second-generation children such as Wang are breaking a long tradition of silence with their parents about subjects they never dared to broach before: race, racism, and identity.

“Asian Americans collectively are coming to a racial reckoning,” said Yoonsun Choi, a social work professor at the University of Chicago studying Asian-American families, “and in a way that the second generation is taking the lead of teaching the parents about the importance of ethnic solidarities and racial solidarities.”

For Wang, 21, these conversations with her parents started last summer, when she was marooned at their home in suburban New Jersey, biding her time until she could return to Brandeis University for her senior year. Following the killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police, Wang had thrown herself into the prison abolition movement and wanted to share what she’d learned with her parents. They were less receptive than she’d hoped.

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“At first, it was a [expletive] show,” she said, as their discussions devolved into heated arguments. “They came here to make money to create a stable household. They didn’t come here to be politically involved. In fact, if anything, they came here to escape political involvement.”

Many of Wang’s Asian-American friends were dealing with similar problems at home, and every night, they’d convene on a group chat to vent about the challenge of talking to their parents. And like her friends, Wang was angry. Surely, she’d figured, her parents, who had survived China’s violent Cultural Revolution, could empathize with systemic racism. So why didn’t they “get it,” she wondered? Why didn’t they understand?

Sam Hyun, chairperson of the Massachusetts Asian American Commission, has navigated his own hard conversations with his mother, a South Korean immigrant, since the pandemic began. He sees miscommunication and misunderstanding arise between Asian-American children and their parents due to cultural and generational differences.

“The way we communicate, the way we want to be loved, the way that we talk about certain things is so different,” Hyun said. “But it’s like, how do you tell your parent that they’re wrong when they sacrificed so much for you?”

Sam Hyun, with his mother, Donna, said cultural differences between generations can lead to misunderstandings.
Sam Hyun, with his mother, Donna, said cultural differences between generations can lead to misunderstandings.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Language can be another hurdle. Joan Dotruong, 20, a college student and community organizer from Dorchester, has struggled to translate social justice terminology, such as “resistance” and “Black Lives Matter,” to her Vietnamese-speaking parents. But she has noticed their budding interest in the issues she cares about, asking questions about what they see and hear on the news.

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“They’re still learning. They don’t have a lot of capacity to speak and understand English, but we’ll have conversations here and there, and those are probably the parts that matter the most to me,” Dotruong said.

Hyun, 29, and his mother have always been close, but they have recently begun to confide more candidly with one another. At the end of May, Hyun recorded a video with his mother on Instagram, where they had an intimate discussion about Asian-American identity and racism over a home-cooked Korean meal.

About halfway through, Hyun’s mother, Donna Hyun, admitted one her biggest regrets as a parent: Growing up in Newton, her son was bullied about his race, culminating in fist fights with other children. Instead of standing up for him when he was disciplined at school, she warned, “Don’t make trouble.” Hyun felt like she wasn’t on his side.

What Hyun didn’t realize at the time was his mother, who still struggles with English, felt powerless to say or do anything to shield him from harm. All she could do was advise Hyun to avoid confrontations with bullies in the future.

“I think that sense of powerlessness was really what drives so many immigrant parents to tell their kids to stay in line, whereas I think white families feel more of a sense of entitlement,” Hyun said. “A lot of immigrant parents don’t feel like they have that sort of power or agency.”

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As Hyun has gotten older, he better understands his mother — who raised Hyun and his sister mostly without support from their father — and appreciates her sacrifices. She worked multiple jobs throughout his childhood and leaned on other community members for help. Although they were poor, she made a point of buying him a new pair of basketball shoes every year.

He also has discovered they agree more often than not, especially on racial issues. They watched “13th,” Ava DuVernay’s documentary on the criminalization of Black Americans, last summer and his mother took notes the whole time so she could share what she learned with her Korean friends at Bible study.

“She was doing the best that she could and she was who she was,” Hyun said. “I’m not approaching my mom from an accusatory standpoint, but from [a standpoint of], ‘Mom, I want to understand you.’”

For her part, Donna Hyun is working on engaging with her son on a more emotional level, which includes telling him she loves him — something Hyun rarely heard from her as a child.

“Now I’m getting used [to saying]: ‘I love you’,” she said. “Inside, I love him so much, but I didn’t [say it]. Maybe my parents [are] like that. They love me a lot, but they didn’t show up their love.”

Wang, too, changed her approach with her parents. Instead of meeting them with anger and resentment, she focused on cultivating a trusting relationship. Eventually, they opened up. Wang realized just how traumatized they were from the political turbulence in China that had upended their lives. They spoke about the horrors of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Her father’s father, she learned for the first time, was imprisoned for his political affiliations.

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The images on the news of the Floyd protests — of broken storefront windows, police lines, and tear gas — shocked and scared them. Their greatest fear, meanwhile, was that their daughter would cut them out of her life if they continued to argue.

“When they saw that kind of imagery, they were reminded of China during the Cultural Revolution — the upheaval there, the violence, the looting, the stealing,” she said. “There was no way that we could have a productive conversation about politics until we had a conversation just about them and their history.”

A year later, Wang still hasn’t totally persuaded her parents to join the prison abolition movement, but they’re eager to learn more — and keep listening.

“Now that they know that I’m not going to abandon them, they’re much more willing to kind of hash these things out,” Wang said, “because there’s no longer the dangling threat that it’s going to break up our family.”


Deanna Pan can be reached at deanna.pan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @DDpan.