Q&A: How some struggle with traditional expectations and pressures within Filipino families
On the podcast, Hard as a Mother three Calgarians discuss life as Asian Canadians
How we're raised can have a profound impact on who we become as adults.
And for many Asian Canadians, the demands, expectations and comparisons put on them by their parents and extended family can be overwhelming. It's a sensitive topic related to culture, family and values.
This issue was recently explored on an episode of the Hard as a Mother podcast — put together by a pair of Filipino Calgarian mothers. In the episode, they talked about what they described as "toxic Asian culture" at length, and how it's affected them.
As part of our ongoing CBC Calgary Filipino Bureau project, we wanted to learn more about what they mean by that, and their personal experiences with cultural challenges.
Paul Karchut sat down with one of the hosts of the Hard as a Mother podcast, Giselle Dino. He was also joined by Julie Alati-it from the Bahaghari LGBTQ group. Julie is also a member of Sikolohiyang, a second generation Filipino organization. Bea Gan also joined in. She's a member of Fiesta Filipino's Youth Empowerment Program and a program facilitator at Bridge Foundation for Youth.
You can listen to their interview or read the question and answer below. Both have been edited for length and clarity.
EDITOR'S NOTE: As we continue to explore a wide variety of cultural and community experiences in our Filipino pop-up bureau, tomorrow, we will have an interview exploring traditional family values from another perspective. On the supports, comforts and challenges of intergenerational bonds.
Paul Karchut: Let's get right into it. Julie, how would you define toxic Asian culture?
Julie Alati-It: That's a very big question and a great question. There's a lot of pressure in families, particularly when they first immigrate to Canada, to uphold the standard, and there's a big expectation put on their kids.
So we need to finish university at a particular time. We need to perform in a particular way. We need to take on specific social roles. So that puts a lot of pressure on being able to make choices.
So, for example, you know, there's a lot of pressure from my parents — some pressure to put my children in Catholic schools. And then there's the choice also about working, and the role that motherhood plays. You know, like there's a lot of pressure to have a job and a career because we live in North America and that you're allowed to do that. But at the same time, there's also a lot of pressure to be a mother, and a mother in a particular way. So, you know, you make all the food, you do all the stuff, you do all the work.
But then that also brings other things right? Like, how many times I've been to Filipino parties where someone is, like, poking my arm and telling me, "Oh, Taba na!" Like, you got fatter the last time I saw you, because that's really what matters here?
Like, OK, so it's a weird sort of shift of space, you know, the shame and how it shows up. So that's some of it.
PK: Bea, how would you define toxic Asian culture?
Bea Gan: Yeah, for me, honestly, if you were to go into the topic of toxic Asian culture, I would definitely take a closer look at the family dynamics of Filipino-Canadians specifically.
So I am one point five generation. So I grew up in the Philippines, but I came to Canada when I was like eight years old. And I found out that the Western values are more individualistic while the Filipino values are more collectivist. When I look into that collectivist idea, I then see that, you know, when we're talking about community and parents, what goes into that is that your community is also kind of like how you like you're kind of like mirroring your parents into a community.
So I represent my parents for the community. And that's what I like when it comes to education, if you don't finish at a certain age or if you don't finish up with a certain degree, then how does that look on your parents? How does it look on me as your parent or whatever? And yeah, that's kind of like the expectations that a lot of the youth I find have to live up to.
PK: Where does this pressure come from, Giselle? Is it mainly from parents? Is it beyond that to aunts and uncles?
Giselle Dino: I think the community as a whole. Like, parents definitely. But their decisions and what they think highly depends on what their friends think, what the Filipino community thinks like they are.
Like, Bea, when I was your age, I 100 per cent understand the need to make your parents proud and make them look good and your life revolves around what they think of you. That's exactly how I used to live my life. And Julie, when you brought up the school thing, I also don't want to put my daughter in a Catholic school. And I also realized through my own experiences and growing up that I don't agree with a lot of the Catholic beliefs and, you know, the stuff that they teach, though I want to be able to make that choice for my kid. I've gotten so much flak for that.
Like people always mutter under their breath, they always look at me like, oh, my God. Like, why did she want this for her child? Why doesn't she want to put her kids in Catholic school? And it's just, you know, it's hard to explain.
PK: You talk there, but in past tense, like this is something that I had experienced or that was the case. When does it become less of a thing, or does it ever?
GD: Well, definitely it does not stop. I've been dealing with this all my life, but as I got older and more self-aware about what I believe and what I want for my child, I think I agree to disagree.
Like, I don't want to send my kid to Catholic school. So that should be OK with you.
PK: People are going to be listening to this — non-Filipino listeners — and they're going to be going, "Oh, yeah, you know, I've had some of these experiences, too." Giselle, why is it important to frame this as toxic Asian culture?
GD: I think it's predominantly talked about more in Asian cultures because it's been so long standing and it's been passed on for so long that you can relate like everybody in this chat can relate to some of the beliefs and the toxic toxicity of it.
PK: Julie, how does this mindset manifest itself differently between men and women who are being targeted?
JA: I would say there are double standards for males and females, for sure.
In my family, there's a lot of expectation that I would finish university, get a job, get married, have kids — all within a particular age range, which is like, if you think about it, absolutely impossible, biologically. Like, how you can do that and also buy a house is impossible.
There's also the sort of old school where boys have a different kind of standard. I've encountered that many times where they're allowed to do whatever they want and there's no consequence for them. So that kind of gets into some interesting expectations around, like, for example, the husband and wife dynamic. So I think those are still present.
I don't know if they're as obvious as they were before. They still are certainly beyond like just below the surface. And I think that plays into our expectation as women to finish university and get married. That's a huge thing about getting married. I had no idea until I actually got married. It totally normalizes the conversation where it's never been normal for me. And then suddenly I got married, and it was like, wow, I'm a person now. Nothing's changed. It's still the same. And I think it changes again when you start to have kids.
GD: I think both men and women suffer from the toxicity of Asian culture, because if you guys listen to our other episodes of our podcast, a lot of it centres around mental health and a lot of it is men's mental health, because in the Filipino culture, we're like not allowed to feel. And that's how I grew up. It's like you're sensitive. You're, you know, if you're a man, man up, like men don't cry.
And, yeah, there's very big gender roles that I grew up with, for sure. And like Julie said, you know, my brother got away with literally everything. And with women, it's just like my grandma used to say this thing to me, and Bea and Julie, I don't know if you understand, she said, "kababae mong tayo" — which is roughly translated "you're too much of a woman to be doing what you're doing," basically.
So sometimes she'd see me get drunk and be like "kababae mong tayo." But then if my brother gets drunk, it's so funny. It's so funny to everybody. But yeah, definitely gender roles are huge.
And what you were talking about before, about the passive aggressiveness — dude, my whole life has been just a timeline of passive aggressiveness because that's, yeah, Filipinos are very, very passive aggressive.
And that is something that I really want to change with my daughter, you know, like change the communication up a little bit so that there is more understanding between my generation and her generation, and then there's more openness so that I can be more willing to adapt to whatever is happening in her world and hopefully avoid this whole toxic Asian culture thing in the future.
PK: You know, Julie, so much of this comes back down to parenting style and how you're raised. And the go-to argument that I've heard here on a couple of accounts is, you know, "we always wanted what's best for you" or "we're just pushing you to be better." How do you respond to that point of view when it comes to this kind of heavy criticism or shrouded passive aggressiveness that Giselle's talking about?
JA: I would say something like, well, I can be my best when I do this this way. And it might not look like for you that it's what you want for me, but I try and separate out. So what exactly is your expectation of what you want? And what can I do? So I can't actually finish my undergrad in four years. Are you kidding me? I would be totally, my brain would be fried.
But that is a very hard thing to talk to to your parents, especially when that is not what they want to hear. They want to hear, "Yes, Mama, I will finish that when you want me to. And I will be there with a shining smile on my face like you expect me to. And I'll smile really pretty for the pictures, right?"
They don't like that, especially if it points out that maybe in their choices they may have done something that may not have been good for them. And it's caused you know, there's a cost for that. They don't want to admit any of those things. That's part of it.
PK: And that has got to be such a big part of this, too, Bea, that you are hearing this criticism from your elders, from your parents, grandparents, whatever. So how can you even say to them, "hey, I'm not, I'm not into this. This is not working for me"?
BG: Yeah. Recently I began to learn about boundaries, which is something that is almost nonexistent within my family. You know, I always remind myself: boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. You know, I may not be the best person to kind of talk to them about certain things. So I actually go with my cousin. I tell my cousin what I'm feeling at the moment and I guess she's kind of my sister that goes to my parents and explains the certain things that I think I'm dealing with and how we can further explore that together as mother and child.
PK: Sometimes when a style of parenting like this comes to be, it can backfire. By getting this kind of negative flow of feedback toward you, did you wind up just being even more of a rebel in your formative years?
GD: One hundred per cent. I am pretty sure if I had that kind of openness with my parents and I didn't have to hide anything, then yeah. But I mean, I wasn't like a bad kid by any means. But there were definitely some things where I was like, "oh, my mom can't know about this, my dad can't know about this."
And even now as an adult, there's some things where I'm just like, "maybe it's best that my parents don't know about this. They don't want to hear."
BG: That's kind of like why I was laughing, because one of the cultures here in Canada when I was growing up in high school was that, you know, after school you would go out, hang with your friends before you get home. That was not allowed in my household. I would need to be home right after school and do my homework or anything like that.
That's kind of how I got into extracurriculars, is that's "Oh, I have basketball today, mom. I can't go home yet." But I will actually be at the mall. And, you know, it's those sneaky little details that, I came up with just so I can do whatever I want to do in peace.
PK: I'm wondering about long-term sort of effects here. Julie, how are you dealing with it now?
JA: I live just over a thousand kilometres from my parents, so they cannot come over to my house.
PK: Was that intentional?
JA: It sure was.
I have only now begun to tell my mom some of the things that I have done because I, too, had other stories of things so that I could go hang out with my friends. And so they're like just realizing that, oh, you had this whole other life, you know? And I was like, yeah. And I didn't play soccer but I was on the team.
I still have the same thing with my parents now. Like, there are some things they just they don't need to know because I don't really want to spend all my time explaining, you know, like I just sort of feel like I pick my battles now.
PK: But how we present ourselves as adults is informed by how we were raised. And I'm wondering how hard it is not to fall into this hypocritical mindset yourself?
GD: I definitely have to stop myself. There's a lot of times where I say something like, "I'm turning into my mom." It is hard, but it's a lot easier knowing that because I'm aware of it. And so I can stop myself if I need to, or I just kind of, I apologize a lot to my family. I'm like, "I had no right to say that to you." But I recognize it. And I grew up in a family where saying sorry wasn't a huge thing. Like, sorry doesn't really mean a lot.
PK: Bea, as the youngest person here on this panel today, I'm wondering what change you're seeing in the next generation.
BG: I'm very hopeful because there is a lot of 1.5 generations and second generation that come to Canada and realize, or I guess they start to kind of be more lenient and more mindful about how the kids feel.
And I'm just really glad Ate Giselle and Ate Julie are here because these are the parents of now. These are the parents of the future generations. And I'm glad that they are very aware of what is really happening and all the childhood traumas and how to fight them and and try not to impose them on their kids.
PK: Yeah, Julie and Giselle, I'm hearing about all the work that you're putting into your parenting — courses, really being mindful about this sort of thing. Because it's not something that you want to fall into in your parenting style. How are parents changing with the times?
GD: I think they're a hundred per cent changing with the times because I think we all kind of went through a similar experience. And I share this a lot with a lot of my Filipino friends who are parents.
I guess it's just we find a sense of community with each other because we can share our experiences of what happened to us when we were kids, that we were never really able to talk about before. But we can now because now we have a chance to make a difference and to kind of change that generational gap and do better by our kids.
PK: I hear about the three of your experiences growing up. But I wonder, despite the warts, what strength you have drawn from the way that you were raised. Bea, do you want to jump in on that?
BG: Yes, I would honestly say that I have become really resilient. So I have definitely learned a lot of things that I wish my parents would have guided me through. But I'm glad that I learned in my own way and I know what to deal with when I'm facing certain things — not because you need to impress someone, but because you want to learn.
PK: How about you, Giselle? What kind of strength have you gotten through the way you were raised?
GD: Well, resilience, as Bea said. And I think it took me a lot longer because Bea is a lot younger than me, but it took me a lot longer to realize and be self-aware of the fact that I do need to make a change in the future generations.
But one thing that I do admire about growing up in the Filipino community is a sense of family and closeness. Filipino love language is food, and I love that we can share that and we can bond over that. So definitely a lot of good things that I've learned from the Filipino culture, for sure.
PK: Julie, what have you garnered from how you were raised?
JA: A confidence that I do know what I can do. Like, I have an understanding there now about what my capacity is to give and also to like what I can take. So there's that.
And then also about making the choice about how I want to be in community. That's been really powerful for me, especially in the last two or three years. And also around repairing relationships. So with my parents and extended family so that, you know, there is still much more of a connection.
It occurred to me maybe four or five years ago that, you know, after I'm done in this world, my kids are going to rely on their cousins and their extended family. So it's important for us to be able to cultivate that relationship with them, so when they are in trouble, they know where to go and they have some support network. So there's that.
And the eating. You know, we express ourselves by food. And I can't say that I won't eat. I love to eat. So that's been also a lot of fun, just being able to find a place and a space to connect with others for a while. I think I really rejected the idea of being part of a collective community. I don't think you can run away from that as part of the Filipinx community — like it will follow, you know, wherever you go. So just really embrace that!
PK: The three of you bring up food. It's a shame that we weren't able to sit around a table in person and share some food and have this conversation.
GD: One day, Paul. One day. We can have a big potluck.
PK: Absolutely. You know, this is not an easy conversation. And I sure appreciate the three of you finding the time and having the willingness to talk about it with me today. Thank you.
ALL: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.