My Chinese boyfriend who I started dating several months ago sometimes asks me when the last time I contacted my parents was. I usually tell him I called them a month or two ago and he scolds me for not contacting them more often.
The reason for my sporadic contact is that my parents were physically and emotionally abusive to me and to each other when I was growing up. I keep infrequent contact with them to protect my mental health and my experiences still haunt me to this day.
Although I’ve mentioned that my relationship with my parents is difficult, I have never fully explained what happened to him. When I’ve said our relationship is rough, he has said that he’s sure it’s just a misunderstanding. I am concerned he will think what my parents did was just standard parental punishment, since his own parents beat him heavily with belts when he was growing up. I worry he will think I am over-sensitive, ungrateful and unfilial for no reason.
How can I explain what happened and how severely it impacted my life to him in a way that he will understand? What can I say to help him to see why I would think parents do not deserve unwavering fealty regardless of their actions?
Anonymous, I kind of know what you’re up against.
Last summer, my husband worked with families in Shanghai whose small children had behavior problems. In one case, he saw the unmistakable mark of child abuse right on the thigh of one family’s little girl — a hand-shaped bruise. In the US, he would have been forced to report this to the authorities, as all psychologists must in their work. But in China, he couldn’t report it to anyone; even though some child abuse laws exist in China, there is no such mandatory reporting law or even the complementary social services that provide children with temporary care while their parents go through, say, court-ordered parent training. He ultimately decided he’d be better off not even confronting them about it — that the worst thing he could do was make them upset and leave the clinical trial, which was in and of itself a parent training program, and could even help them indirectly. But even so, it pained him to think that this was the best he could do.
In China, they say bùdǎ bùchéngqì (不打不成器, if you don’t hit, you won’t mold a child properly), and gùnbàng chū xiàozǐ (棍棒出孝子, from the club comes a filial child), linguistic reminders that many Chinese families still turn to physical — and even strict — punishment for disciplining children. For those parents that cross the line into abusive behavior, they usually don’t realize they’re doing anything wrong to their child — there’s little authoritative information out there on good parenting practices, pretty much no law enforcement, and essentially no infrastructure/services there (mental health services or social services, for example) to support or foster any real change.
And, as you might have discovered, the children on the receiving end — perhaps your boyfriend, even? — don’t realize that their “normal” could in fact be abnormal. I’m reminded of a Chinese friend of ours who gradually revealed a childhood riddled with some of the most egregious, seemingly ripped-from-a-movie stories of abuse I’ve ever heard. Yet through it all, this individual defended the parents who instigated it, and claimed the parents did everything out of love.
All this is to say, as much as I’d love to tell you I have some great, culturally appropriate way to bust through your impasse, I don’t really know of one.
Now, you could just try to approach this as a kind of “agree to disagree” sort of thing, that this is simply a cultural difference for the both of you. You might even just try to help him understand the culture surrounding this in your country — how people view such parental actions, differences in parenting, etc.. But that might be a little too painful for you to bear, that the man you love doesn’t understand what you suffered as a child. And it leads to an even more challenging question — can you live with a guy who doesn’t 100 percent understand your past?
No easy answers here, but I hope you’ll find a way to work things out. Good luck.
What do you think? What would you tell Anonymous?
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