Ask the Yangxifu: My Boyfriend Doesn’t Understand My Past Child Abuse

A black-and-white photo of an abused white girl
(photo by Peter Bulthuis)

Anonymous asks:

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?

Do you have a question about life, dating, marriage and family in China/Chinese culture (or Western culture)? Send me yours today.

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41 Replies to “Ask the Yangxifu: My Boyfriend Doesn’t Understand My Past Child Abuse”

  1. I can definitely relate. My mom was emotionally abusive to me while I was growing up (I’m fairly certain she has Borderline Personality Disorder). When I was 17 we had a falling-out. We haven’t really had contact since–I’ll be turning 30 this year.

    I have never been ashamed of our estrangement, even when speaking to Chinese (and other Asians) who ask me about my family. My (Chinese) husband and his mother have been surprisingly supportive of me, though perhaps they admire the close relationship I have with my step-mother and that somehow evens things out. I have occasionally had (Asian) people say to me, “You should talk to your mom. She is YOUR MOM.” I tell them I understand their opinion, but I’m at peace with the situation. No one has ever pushed me to comment further.

    I guess my advice for anonymous is to not be afraid of judgement. People, including your bf, will judge you for many things and this may very well be one of them. Try not to be too hurt by it. You know what’s best for you. While there may be a difference in beliefs due mostly to cultural difference, this may be just one of many. If you are confident in your choice and feel it is the best one, the many you love should respect that, even if he doesn’t fully agree with or understand it.

  2. I grew up in an abusive family as well. And even in America, where there is much more information and awareness, many people still don’t really understand and tend to push me to “fix” the situation or tell me to “just apologize.” Often, people who have come from a loving and supportive family just can’t “get it”–regardless of the country they’re from.

    However, it doesn’t help that in Chinese culture, parents are revered as demi-gods, and almost any action they take will be defended unquestioningly by the child. One of my adult friends told me that he “deserved it” when his dad repeatedly plunged his head in a toilet for sleeping late on a Saturday morning as a teen. In fact, he told me that his father was a good father, and he was glad his father had “taught him this lesson.” A byproduct of Confucianism, perhaps?

  3. Movies on such subjects (can’t think of one on top of my head) might be able to help him to relate. He needs to understand this is not his business essentially. He would need to accept your non-Chinese values.

  4. I think you should let your bf know the nature of the abuse. If it was a physical one that had gone beyond some light caning, I am sure he will understand. If it was a sexual one, I don’t think he will be supportive of your parents’ abuse. If it was more in the nature of a psychological one, I think he might not quite get it. Anyway, I do think it is better to let him know so that he may come to appreciate or understand why you are not so inclined to call your parents. Though the Chinese people do tend to show much respect for their parents, I don’t think they would just blindly support any parental abuse. Certainly not quite so nowadays. But they do always believe that if it is possible to forgive, even if it won’t be possible to forget, then it would be filial to do so. It should be alright with your bf, once you have explained to him, if he cares for you anyway.

  5. This is really tough cultural difference. Indeed, many Chinese families hold those beliefs even though I personally hate it. Physical abuse is so humiliating to your dignity. Most Chinese need to have better self-respect.

  6. It is against someone’s natural tendency to cut ties with parents. Your boyfriend has hard time to understand does not mean it is easy decision. Maybe he can come around by siding with you. Not all relationship can be restored. Chinese values group harmony. That should not excuse parents when they were wrong, at least not for a on-Chinese person. Eventually your boyfriend needs to recognize the fact you are not Chinese and will not need to follow certain culture norms.

  7. I know one Chinese woman and she was hit by her dad when she was young. When her dad died, she didn’t come to the funeral. Kids need spanking when they misbehave but when you hit so hard that leave a wound then that’s too much. Yes, I understand the Chinese culture very well. My parents used to tell me no matter how your siblings treat you , they will always be your brothers and sisters. ” If you need help your brothers/sisters will help you , outsiders won’t help you”. These kinds of thinkings have been implanted in us since we were young .Going beyond spanking a kid is WRONG! Do you know by hitting a kid with full force will make him /her tougher? That kid won’t be scared of you in the future if you have a stubborn kid.


  8. My understanding is that corporal punishment was also widely used in the West prior to WW2. The more contemporary view on children rearing and education was in part based on the post-War cultural revolution in the West, where discipline, work ethic and having “objective standards of success” had been replaced by diversity, expressiveness and personal liberty as over-arching language of discourse/ideals in education.

    Such a cultural transformation, being (in my view) a function of the vast material wealth accumulated in the West, has not been experienced elsewhere in the world.

    Consequently, it’s relatively easy for someone brought up in China to dismiss Western educational ideals as soft-gutted, limp-wristed or lily-livered if not downright decadent/degenerate.

    Another related viewpoint has to do with filial devotion. Why are people devoted to their parents? One explanation (proferred by the Neo-Confucian philosopher Tang Chun-I) is that in honoring thy father and mother, thou really art self-affirming. Thus, lack of filial devotion can be philosophically construed as a form of nihilism. Which gets us back to the earlier Chinese dismissal of Western degeneracy, etc.

    I guess in writing these paragraphs, I also reject some earlier commentators’ notion that Chinese people somehow blindly devote to their parents or treat them as infallible “gods.” Confucius greatly approved of Shun’s (a legendary emperor) refusal to submit to the latter’s father (who was a tyrant at home). Confucius’s logic runs as follows. Had Shun submitted to his father, he would’ve aided his father’s wrongdoings, which is ultimately more unfilial as he would’ve made his father a criminal.

    I guess my concluding remarks is that Chinese thinking is deeply rooted in pragmatism (“what will keep a family together?”), rationality (“does it make sense to let a kid do whatever s/he fancies?”) and self-affirmation (contra Christianity).

    1. Your remarks are interesting. But from my experience, many Chinese still submit to their parents, don’t want to question whether they are right, and end up having their lives controlled. My father, for instance, worships his parents and always talk about them in a way as though they are perfect demo-gods. Its disgusting and dysfunctional. Not to say he was emotionally abusive, controlling, and that affected my life for many years even till now.

  9. Confucius said you could run away if being abused (somewhere in “The Analects of Confucius”). How many people do you know having done it? True-the success of capitalism fueled growth of individualism in western society.
    The western ideals are no less rational (if not more) based on different set of logic. In a cross-cultural/racial relationship, better not to force your own value judgement.
    The fact people are capable of breaking away from bad parents show progress made in society.

  10. My family is a “normal” Chinese family that has the same believe of disciplining children. I did not get beat up much through, my dad mostly talked to me when I did something wrong, and yelled at me when he was angry. In fact, I don’t even remember he ever hit me. On the other hand, my mom beat me up really hard once in a while. I can vividly remember she used a belt (man’s leather belt) to hit me and it landed hard on my right arm leaving a bulging shape of a belt end. The worst part of the incident was that I was innocent that time. That may be part of the reason my Mom and I are not close. She always brushed a side my mentioning of the incident as “you had too little beating up so you remember one of the few times”. No Mom, you did not have to beat me!

    Physical punishment has its place when children are very young and reasoning can not be used. (How do you tell a toddler not to touch electrical socket ?) I guess it would be the same principle of “invisible fence” for dogs, right ? However, as children grew up, they can understand the meaning of what parents say. Physical punishment should be phase out and replaced with conversation, discussion, and time out. Otherwise, it leaves emotional scars.

  11. dear Anonymous:
    My advice is that at least u should try to explain… yet as everyone else have said, Chinese values are different from western ones… so when I have mention to my bf that my parents used to have really nasty fights when I was little , he answered that what i was describing was “normal” … also he was in shock when I mention that they never hit me or punished me in a physical way… he seemed confused and said “we believe that if u dont hit ur child he/she will be a bad person… also u should not give them what they want”

  12. The best thing to do is be forthright with the boyfriend and telll him that it was a case of abuse, not normal falling out or a disagreement that refused to be reconciled.

    I find it offensive that people suggest this is a product of either Chinese culture or specifically Confucianism. I suggest they actually learn something about Chinese culture and history before making such ignorant statements. People who don’t understand the history of abuse are prevalent in all cultures. One needs only to look at Confucian philosophers and what they had to say about the parent child relationship to see that no where did they advocate blind obedience to parents (in fact, many advocated the need to be critical of the parents in their treatment of their children). Then one needs to compare that with the basis of western culture, i.e., the Bible which says that (explicitly in several places) that parents ought to stone their children to death if they disobey and view children as property of their parents (actually the father). Traditional Chinese culture is actually far more critical of the relationship than Judeo-Christian culture and more demanding of righteous conduct from parents.

  13. I am sure Confucius has never endorsed women bounding their feet. I found a lot of things Chinese practice are not unique. But it seems that Chinese have a way to perfect certain aspects of it (remember Tiger mother?).
    Chinese or not. It is simply easier if you are not the one living the bad luck.

  14. I’m pretty sure that no Confucian philosopher has ever advocated women bounding their feet. That’s another major misconception. As for the tiger mother, we must remember that Chua was born in the US to parents from the Philippines. How culturally Chinese is she? I think the answer is hardly at all. She spoke for herself. Not Chinese culture.

  15. My friend, we are not trying to deny the culture. But how this boyfriend reacts shows culture differences. It can be labeled as “Chinese” way of thinking. Sorry, Confucius. You are worshipped longer, so take more than your share of the blames.

  16. @melektaus .. so sorry if our posts offended u… but then the ignorant are the chinese telling us all these things… everything I wrote was exactly what chinese ppl have told me… and so far all the chinese I know follow blindly their parents orders… and as I mention in previous post in this website, my friends think that Im ungrateful because I dont follow my parents wishes… and yes a lot of chinese have told me “I have to do what my parents want,even if i dont want to” …. because I openly express my disagreement with that way of thinking I always get the ” u dont understand because u are not Chinese, different culture” …

  17. @melektaus Sometimes we need to make some generalizations. Of course not all Chinese people think this way, but I think that Chinese people (and Asians in general) have beliefs that are different from many westerners about abuse as well as a child’s duty to his/her parents. There is proof of this in the way laws are set up, as Yangxifu describes in the incident her husband dealt with (with the abused child).

    A note on your comment about Chua. Did you read her book? I recently read it. Her parents are, in fact, Fujianese (though I think both of them lived in the Philippines for some time). She definitely regarded herself as being ethnically Chinese as well as having “Chinese values.” It’s an interesting book because it really shows the differences between parenting styles in “typical” American households and “typical” immigrant (not even just Asian) households in the US. Chua held the belief that she gave her kids a chance at life and they in some way “owed her,” while her (Jewish American) husband felt that their kids never asked to be born so they should be cut some slack and given freedom.

    I think this relates to issues with abuse, in a way. I’ve found that many Asians hold an attitude that your parents gave you life so you do, in a way, owe the–no matter how well or poorly they raised you. I feel there are a lot fewer westerners that hold this same belief.

  18. We need to thank Chua for creating such interesting debates. If you look the quintessential value in tiger mother, the idea to improve from sheer will and repetition, that is very Chinese (Asian). It manifests in Chinese parenting, education and governance.
    I wonder this boyfriend wants to change the reality by keep trying to get together. As tiger mother story goes, there is really more than one way to look at things. A little humility can really make things better.

  19. I’m not saying that there’s no place for some generalizations. I saying that 1. it’s ignorant to blame Confucius and Confucianism because no where does it advocate anything like what this person has experienced. 2. That Chinese culture is special in this regard to this kind of criticism.

    Just because you have some experiences with Chinese people or culture doesn’t mean that there are no similar experiences from people in other cultures so it is unfair to single out Chinese culture. It would be like if I had said that American culture is prone to child abuse because all of the instances of child abuse I see everyday occur in this country and thus US culture must be the culprit for inducing people to abuse their children. Child abuse and people neglecting or not understanding it is true of all cultures, not just Chinese or American.

  20. @melektaus , Confucius does not advocate question and reason. He wants people to be virtuous and play their own roles. It is fundamental difference from some western philosophy (Socrates – question everything). I would point out Chinese parents would be far easily offended when you are critical of them.

  21. When I went through school, I often use self-inflicted pain to enhance my learning. I discovered this method from some ancient Chinese methods. It make evolutional sense since animals remembering pain/suffer associated event survivie better. But when teacher/parents apply this method to students/children, it became questionable.

    BTW, any one understands Russian here. I really like to know following AM/WF story in the video.
    They are beautiful.

  22. Don’t be silly, Dan. Confucius DOES advocate questioning and reason. Especially towards those with power and of oneself. Read the Analects. And besides, I don’t see what that has to do with anything.

  23. The man does not “advocate” reasoning, not his forte. Otherwise, many things won’t turn out the same. My own amateur opinion.
    I brought it up to illustrate we won’t be able to discuss different culture (thinking) without dragging out the sources.
    What is the man (Confucius) afraid of anyway? He is still here after two thousand years.
    Most people don’t hate tiger mother either. She has plenty of love in the story. The debate comes out of western parents’ fear of being wrong or inferior too. She claimed transformation at the end. I do wonder what happens when her younger daughter stands up against her now. She comes to terms it is not ideal to shame your children to succeed and push them to almost break, which could all account for child abuse in America. Plenty of same practices still exist last time I was in China.

  24. Sorry, you have no clue what you are talking about. Confucius, in several places in the Analects, talks about the importance of reasoning. You amateur opinion is not informed. I have a MA in Chinese philosophy.


    Learning without thought is labour lost; thought without learning is perilous.[Analects 2:15]

    Questioning, especially established traditions and powers that be have a huge role in Confucius. Consider

    “When he entered the ancestral temple of the state, he asked about everything. ”


    The philosopher Tsang said, “Gifted with ability, and yet putting questions to those who were not so; possessed of much, and yet putting questions to those possessed of little; having, as though he had not; full, and yet counting himself as empty; offended against, and yet entering into no altercation; formerly I had a friend who pursued this style of conduct.” [Analects 8:5]


    “In regard to what he doubts about, he is anxious to question others.” [Analects 16:10]

    Confucian ideas of virtue embody all three aspects of learning: study, critical thinking (reason), and doing or practice.

    And what do you mean “What is the man (Confucius) afraid of anyway?”?

    How is this question relevant and what does it mean to ask? Afraid of what?

    Dan said,
    “Most people don’t hate tiger mother either. She has plenty of love in the story. ”

    Who said that she didn’t? Where are you going with this? You are not thinking very clearly. You mentioned tiger mothers as an example of the Chinese “perfecting” things. But then I mentioned the fact that tiger mother concept is from Amy Chua, an American born to parents from the Philippines and question how this is an example of “Chinese” culture.

  25. I know my ass would be kicked when I dared to talk down the “man”.
    Anyone wonder why Chinese kids won’t stand up to the parents more?

  26. @melektaus – you have a point about Amy Chua not raising up her daughters in Chinese culture. In fact, I can’t claim Chinese culture myself. We are all mixed up and living Chimerican (for lack of better word) culture more or less. I say “thank you” and “Sorry” often nowadays which I did not do when I was in China.
    My feeling about culture is the collective behaviors the a group of people have in common, no matter good or bad. The common practice in China is not the same as Confucius advacates. I think the “culture revolution” twisted traditional Chinese culture big way.
    I am just hoping I would live up my life in the best of both Chinese and American culture, which does not include abusive behavior.

  27. Hmm… I did read Chua’s book. He has every intention to raise his daughter with similar traditional values how she was brought up. His family lived outside of mainland China and escaped all those recent destruction. I think she is even more “Chinese” in my book. She is actually a big defender for those traditions, more than lots of people in modern China.
    Chinese attitude to parents are very different from most westerners. That is just simple fact. We are shaped by very different traditions. If this boyfriend wants to get along with his girl, he is better off looking things with a fresher set of eyes.

  28. I think most beliefs/philosophies/religions will get changed with time and repetition so that eventually what is presented as “Christianity” or “Confucianism” or “Buddhism,” etc. can actually be quite different from the original sources. Hence, the difference between what the Analects say and what people THINK they say.

    After talking with–literally–thousands of Chinese college students (I taught in several universities in BJ over a period of 7 years), the vast majority of the college students I talked to believe that according to Confucianism they should never question their parents and should do whatever their parents say no matter what. Granted, they have never studied Confucianism, but that’s the point. What is being propounded as Confucianism is a twisted and self-serving version of the original, but most people don’t realize that.

    Thanks for sharing the Analects quotes with us, Melektaus. It was very helpful to see the original sources, and now I can share them with my Chinese friends when this topic comes up in discussion. As an MA in Chinese philosophy, you have your work cut out for you educating both Easterners and Westerners alike!

  29. You didn’t get your ass kicked because you “dared” to talk to “the man”. You got it kicked because you had no fuckin clue what you were talking about [please excuse the French].

  30. @Dan – Now you feel the pain 🙂
    Amy’s daughters are Jewish. You can be more mix up than that. Right?
    Nothing wrong being mixed up, I actually like it that way, haha.

  31. Who says I am in pain? I like to help people to break out their shells. See what I am saying? 🙂 All right, I will stop. I know…be virtuous.
    I am curious how the boyfriend will understand this whole child abuse thing.

  32. Why is it that on blogs of this nature – you may call it a niche subject – there is always the passive-aggressive white man user, always there to chime in with his pearls of wisdom, worded so that they are the right amount of offensive to rile up any chinese man reading, yet never enough so as to back down so he could say “you’re so easily offended” “grow a thicker skin” “no wonder you can’t get a white gf” etc… I don’t see such comments on the numerous blogs and forums re: white male-asian women.

  33. @ Jeff
    I do not know where you are going with this. I was offended when being cursed. But I also understood I touched sensitive nerves for some. So I had a little of fun with it. My view on Confucius and its general impact is not all positive. That is my own opinion. Some intellectuals would agree with me while many would not. I am not going to bluntly insult a guy if he has his Chinese pride. I shake my head a few times. That is called maturity.

    Besides, I am not white (Chinese). I worked internationally including China, traveled more than average and also had interracial relationships. Forgive me if my world views are different than yours.

  34. What I had previously wanted to mention was addressed through this wonderful conversation strand following an important entry by the original author.

    Over-arching theme: cultural understanding and transformation of culture is a difficult process.

    Through conversation we are, in fact, advancing, though it might seem too slow. I particularly enjoyed when melektaus mentioned at once point a “best of both worlds” scenario. I’d like to explore what that might look like.

  35. Amy Chua’s book is a good read. It shows acute self-awareness and private struggle to bridge gaps. Child rearing is one of the most important aspect in passing on culture genes. It is also situational.
    I am not sure how much we can learn from just taking about concepts.
    One thing I learned through work and life experience is that different cultures have various approaches to achieve goals. To be able to open your mind for collective knowledge has real benefits. If something can be done in a positive and joyful way, I’d prefer that direction. Unfortunately, I don’t see much of it in Chinese culture. I know other cultures also have to evolve to get here, and culture is not the only element. But that is the reality you witness across Asia.
    I know people also tend to justify base on values- they are all shared between east and west. But this is the after fact. How we take the journey makes a big difference.
    I also call many traditional culture scholars hypocrites. From later Qing dynasty, traditional culture started to be challenged until today. Now people want to use Confucius as culture tool again. Whatever you do, having comparative insights can serve better purposes.

  36. @Dan – Agree about the child-rearing as being one that passes along culture. ‘Culture genes’: the term fits, and I’ll use it! Though, the way culture is spread and maintained is changing rapidly. In our world today, not only do we have many ‘mash-ups’ of cultures mixing together in unprecedented ways, but also advancement of technology and globalization contribute to churn things up. In effect, the younger generation’s lifestyle differs so significantly from the older generation, that there feels no solid foundation. Out of desperation to cleave to any sort of standard system, many are turning to what you have pointed out as ‘traditional’ things.

    What is forgotten, though, is that the old ways are analog for a reason. They might have truths in them, but they are out-of-date and can’t really apply fully to the changed situation in the world.

  37. @ Alisa
    Falling back to old habits, probably not; stay relevant, yes. For China it is certainly not all nostalgia. Any culture who did not explore the past won’t find the future. But Chinese has a more circular view on history. I would like to see that changes a little to be more forward looking and take future as not so certain. Like you said, the rapid changes might have repercussions.
    A few random thoughts about best-of-worlds:
    (1) Extroversion vs. Introversion.
    If you are an introvert, Asia is a good place to be. The culture does not value extroversion as much, and business can go on just fine. That is something certain western cultures (US?) can think about. Too much pressure is placed on being popular and likable. We do need nerds (solitary and reflective) in this world.
    (2) Love vs. Duty
    You need both. Asian culture often puts duty ahead love. Duty is a drag, but it helps when time is tough. Perseverance is quite an Asian thing.
    (3) Critical Thinking vs. Conformism
    Critical thinking would be the most important piece missing in Asian culture. Something is well developed elsewhere.

    This whole list can go on and on. Asian way of thinking is quite different from the west to make it complementary. A good start would be to admit the other way is better when the occasion arises. It helps if you can be more empathetic and open to adapt.

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