Sunday, May 9, 2010

In Rejection of Denials

In our family, direct communication is not our forte.

This is what happened when I asked my parents if they wanted to vacation with us in Hawaii this summer.

When I called, my dad answered the phone. When I asked him if he wanted to go to Hawaii with us, he told me to ask my mother.

So I asked my mom.

"Mom, how about going to Hawaii with us this summer?"

"Oh, this summer may be difficult."

"Difficult? Is there a better time for you and Dad? This fall?"

"Maybe the fall is better. But it's too soon to know. You and Jeff should just go by yourselves with the baby. Don't wait for us."

"But Mom, we want to go with you and Dad. We were planning to visit New York, but then thought it would be more fun for all of us to go to Hawaii instead. Is it because you're still having back pains?"

"I'm not completely healed yet, but you guys should just go by yourselves. Don't worry about us."

"Mom, it would be fun to go together. Maybe we can plan something for fall."

"Well, let's see. It's too early to plan now. Anyway, you should go by yourselves. Because you and Jeff got married so late, you have to squeeze in more fun than other couples."


A few days after the call, I talked to Jeff about the best possible times for us to travel, given his work schedule. I looked through our calendar again and scanned for blocks of time that didn't interfere with our baby's swim class, baby sign class, and music class. With those date options, I scoured the flights on Orbitz, compared prices for various airports in the Bay Area, checked prices for flights from New York for my parents, and jotted down the few flights that seemed reasonably priced.

I then called my mom back.

"Mom, how is your back? Is it better?"

"It's better now. I'm almost completely well."

"Oh, good. What a relief. Does that mean we can plan our trip to Hawaii now?"

"Well, it's hard to plan now because your dad is getting the driveway repaved."

"Oh, is something wrong with the driveway?"

"It's messy. Not as good as the neighbor's."

"Oh, I never noticed. So how long does it take to repave the driveway?"

"I don't know. We have to ask the contractor. But he has to get the permit first."

"Does the permit process take long out there?"

"I'm not sure. They submitted it a couple of weeks ago."

"Oh, ok. Well, can you repave it after the trip?"

"After the trip?"

"Yeah. Maybe get the permit first and then hold off on the repaving until after the trip? We'll only be going to Hawaii for about a week or so."

"You and Jeff should just go by yourselves. Don't worry about us."

The conversation proceeded along this vein for a few more minutes, with me probing as if I were taking a deposition, and my mom either evading the question or answering only the literal question asked, like a well-trained witness. After a few more probes, my mom hesitated and then blurted out,

"Your dad and I are thinking about going to Canada this summer. Or maybe Yellowstone."

"Oh, really? Mom, that's a great idea. You've already been to Hawaii so you should go somewhere you've never been. Are you going with one of these Korean tour groups?"

"We're looking at it. We haven't booked it yet."

"That sound really fun, Mom. We can go to Hawaii another time."

"You think it's ok?"

"Of course it's ok. It sounds great, Mom."

When I got off the phone, I thought about this funny exchange. Why couldn't my mom have told me up front that she wanted to take a different trip this summer? It was perfectly understandable since she had often spoken of her desire to travel but had not had many opportunities before she and my dad retired. Since she had already been to Hawaii, it made sense that she would want to travel somewhere else. Instead of a simple declaration of her preference, however, we bounced back and forth, back and forth, with me assuming she was just hesitating because she didn't want to impose on us, the way Koreans always go back and forth about who's paying after a restaurant meal.

As a family, we've never been good at expressing our desires. Instead, we are experts at denials. Pretending that we don't really want anything while secretly hoping that someone picks up our subtle cues. The way the last piece of kalbi always remains on the plate and we each take turns encouraging the other to eat it, denying that we want it for ourselves. Implicit in each of these denials is an assumption that fulfilling one's desire would be a deprivation for the other. If I eat it, you can't. The problem is that it ignores the enormous plate of kalbi that had just been consumed, sitting in our overextended bellies. If this assumption relates only to material needs, it may not be such a big deal. After all, pretending that you don't want that last piece of kalbi doesn't really matter when you can turn around and eat a tub of KFC. But in our family, this inability to say "I want" extends into other realms.

For example, in our family, we don't know how to say, I need a hug today - or to make any other expressions of emotional need. Growing up, I don't recall hugging or kissing my parents or holding their hands, even though we have photos of them holding us as babies or toddlers. I almost never saw my parents hug or hold each other's hands. And god forbid that they should ever kiss. After I moved away from home, my mom started giving me hugs when she and my dad picked me up or dropped me off at the airport. They would be standing by the cordon behind the gate, and when I walked out, she would greet me with a big hug as if she were making up for all the hugs missed over our lifetime. My dad often stood to the side with his arms behind his back, and after hugging my mom, I would give him a quick pseudo-bow as he smiled sheepishly. I have given my dad a few hugs in my life, but they were awkward occasions. I would approach hesitantly and clumsily but a little too hurriedly put my arms around his torso as I avoided his eyes, and he would give me a quick pat on my back as he stiffened. But those were special occasion hugs. Casual hugs didn't exist in my family. Expressions of physical connection were not a part of our everyday language. But it was apparent that we longed for such connection because every once in a while, our needs would seep out in a disguise. Like the times my mom pretended to hug my dad while posing for photos. Or the time my dad furtively kissed my baby right before running out the door and down the steps as they were leaving for the airport. That was the only time I ever saw my dad kiss anyone.

We also don't know how to say, I need you to listen to me. As a family, we don't quite know how to talk to each other. Sometimes we chit chat about current events or other random happenings. Or my dad will make announcements about our extended family in Korea. Most of the time, my mom talks elaborately about dishes she'll cook for us or she'll dispense advice about how we should conduct ourselves when we're out in the world. I have of course talked to my mom about things going on in my life, and it turns into a funny game of telephone when she fills my dad in what I told her. But it's always just one of us talking to our mom with a filtered version of events. As a group, we don't really know how to talk about things that matter. Like our ambitions, our anxieties and fears, what we really think. When we timidly venture into such terrain, we're often misunderstood, whether it's due to the language barrier or an assumption that the world we inhabit in America is the same as the one in which they grew up. We interpret the other's message only in our own context because we don't always know how to make our minds large enough for differing realities. When we feel misunderstood, we initially hold our silence. On occasion, the silence accumulates like a dark cloud until the resentment boils over and we explode with a rant. Sometimes, the inability to open a clear communication path causes us to mutter and bicker about the pettiest of all petty grievances, until we wonder what the hell we're arguing about. At other times, silence is used as a weapon, as in I am not going to respond to anything you say and I won't talk to you until you figure out what the hell you did wrong and don't look to me to help you!

Along the same vein, we never learned how to say I need you to see me as I really am. Growing up, we spent a lot of time doing things behind our parents' back. That may not be so unusual. After all, isn't that what teenagers do? But when you're in your late 30s and still doing the same thing, something is wrong. We're still stuck in the role of trying to live up to our parents' expectations and seeking their approval. It is almost as if we have a deficit in the things we were supposed to have accumulated in our childhood, whether it's parental approval or assurance. We children still spend too much energy judging ourselves through my parents' eyes, ultimately a dissatisfying process since we live according to different values and cultural norms than they hold. To this day, the echo of whether we failed or succeeded in their estimation reverberates in our lives more vigorously than it should.

Another thing we never learned to say is I love you. After all, what is a greater expression of our need than to love, to be loved, and to know that we are cared for in this world. Jeff and I say it to each other and to our baby almost every day. We want the other person to hear it regularly, to never doubt that we love each other. But growing up, those words didn't settle on our tongues very well. We always assumed -- hoped -- they didn't need to be said. That our other evolved ways of showing affection, like my mom's over-dedication to feeding us, were enough. But it isn't always easy to reciprocate with another mound of food, not as easy as simply saying, "I love you too."

I'm not sure why we never developed the skills to express our needs with each other. Maybe saying "I want" flew in the face of a family shaped by self-sacrifice. Expressing one's need in such a family requires heightened sensitivity to the others lest we add more burden to one who had already sacrificed too much. So before blurting out desires for ourselves, we engage in a little do-si-do, maneuvering backwards around the others to first feel them out, anticipate their sensitivities and their needs, and signal that we mean no threat to them. After a while, it becomes a habit, just a way of being.

Stuck in this mode, we seem to hope that others would somehow detect our needs, without having to spell it out for each other, or that with enough denials, we would somehow be able to arrive at getting our needs met, like three right turns becoming a left. So at times, our denials are screamed out loud, as in I don't need you, I'm better off without you. Or don't worry about me, just go on with your lives. It is those indirect cries that often ring the loudest in our ears.

Looking back over the past 39 years, I wonder where our denials have gotten us. It feels like nowhere, a never ending loop of right turns when all of us really want to turn left. There is always a pervading sense of deprivation and resentment -- and a sense of resignation that not all needs can be met. Not this way, not when we have to expend so much time reading between the lines to try to decipher each other's messages. And I'm always left with a sense of guilt that I didn't know how to read the messages properly or do more to address them.

These days, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to be a family. How do we take care of each other and still find a way to take care of ourselves? Someone recently asked me what I would do differently in raising my own children. One answer is that I decided to leave behind the model that leaves no room for individual needs in the name of family. We don't have to step all over each other, but we also don't need to travel a mile out of the way to avoid the possibility of imposing on the other. We can speak directly and clearly when we ask for what we want and allow the other to respond in kind. Maybe somewhere in that process of talking, we'll find a way to meet our needs -- all of our needs.

My first mother's day seems like as good a day as any to start down this path.


  1. When I first started reading this, I thought your mom was hesitant because it wasn't clear if you were inviting your parents or not (in terms of paying).

    Paving the driveway in NY is a few-hour job, btw.

    In my family it was always an important distinction between wanting and needing. You need a new pair of shoes, but want the fancy leather Keds with rhinestones. My parents never had any problem saying no, and they never felt bad about it. In fact, I always assumed they were saying no to things I wanted because my behavior wasn't good enough to deserve them, not because they couldn't afford to buy it for me.

    Happy Mother's Day! I WANT you to have a great weekend. :)

  2. I loved reading the dialogue you had with your parents. I recently had a similar one and guess where they're off to in a few weeks? A tour of Europe. We also had been planning a trip to Hawaii with them since they had never been and thought how great it would be to spend some time with them and our 6-month old. Oh well. I feel the pull of making the trip out to the East Coast but then again, I've ALWAYS been the one to make the trip because it was easier on the family.

  3. you nailed the Korean parent thing. The restaurant bill tug-of-war. The awkward dad hug. The asking of parents to join you and the answer is always no no no. Feeling the words I love you but never saying them. I enjoy your posts because I feel like I am reading about my childhood, or my experiences as a mom.