The First Time I Said No to My Parents

Illustration by Stephanie Yim

Illustration by Stephanie Yim

I grew up constantly saying “yes” to who my parents thought I should be.

To be fair, I didn’t find much wrong with it. I said “yes” to doing well in school, “yes” to remaining fluent in our native language, “yes” to being a good example for my younger siblings. Despite all that, the word I heard the most from my parents was “no.” I was rarely ever allowed to spend time with friends outside of school. It could be as innocuous as going to a movie theater for a matinee show or hanging out at someone’s house after school; the answer was almost always “no.”

As frustrated as I was, I couldn’t find it in myself to openly rebel against my parents. Part of it was fear of the repercussions, but most of it was guilt. As unfair and misguided I felt (and still feel) their rules were, I was painfully aware of the generational and cultural gap between us. Even at a young age, it felt unfair to fight them because of their fears, especially when their fears stemmed from love and a need to protect me. Despite my understanding, I’d be lying if I said I could look back on childhood without still feeling bitter at times.

I coped by telling myself that college would be different, and it was, but only because I was living two hours away from them in Los Angeles. As I was finishing my bachelors, my younger siblings were gearing up for college themselves. Wanting to alleviate my parents’ financial burden, I began supporting myself. I was still on my family’s cell phone plan, as well as their car and health insurance. But I took on rent, my daily expenses, and college tuition. Working full-time and going to school full-time was a challenge, but with help of financial aid grants, I was able to make ends meet.

Around this time, my boyfriend finished his bachelor’s degree in our hometown and was considering moving out to LA. We had been dating just under a year at this point, and even though we had become quite serious, moving in together felt like a huge step. I felt that moving too quickly in our relationship would ruin it. I also knew how my parents felt about living together as an unmarried couple. I knew that doing this would be an act of open rebellion against their beliefs.

For months, I was torn, constantly turning to my sister for solace. As the eldest, I had lived my life according to the expectations of my parents, never wanting to disappoint anyone in my family. As the youngest, she lived her life doing what she wanted. This isn’t to say that she was in any way the rebellious one in our family. None of us had ever truly acted out. My youngest sister just had the least reservations about deciding things for herself. Ultimately, she encouraged me to just live my life, promising that she didn’t think this decision reflected poorly on me in any way. It was with this push that my boyfriend and I decided to take the leap and move in together.

The conversation with my parents went exactly as I thought it would. While they understood that they could no longer prohibit me since I was living on my own and essentially supporting myself, they made it clear that they disagreed with my decision. At the height of our argument, I asked them if they would feel better if I married my boyfriend right before I moved in with him. To my absolute surprise, they actually said “yes.”

To this day, I still can’t comprehend how rushing into marriage could worry my parents less than living with a boyfriend. My guilt surged, along with my anger. To them, living with someone who wasn’t my husband equated to not taking the institution of marriage seriously. I saw it as the complete opposite. I’m a strong believer in living with someone before marrying them, because it gives you the opportunity to truly test your compatibility.

At the core of it all, I knew the true issue was that moving in with my boyfriend made my parents face the reality that I would not be a virgin if and when I decided to get married. To them, if this relationship failed and I went on to marry someone else, I would be seen as impure in the eyes of my future husband. This fact was the most upsetting of all. My entire life, my parents had raised me to be self-sufficient. They impressed upon me the importance of getting an education as the key to independence — regardless of what happened in any relationship I was in. My dad spent hours teaching me how to do change the oil in my car, how to change my tires, and how to fix a leak. He constantly reminded me that being a girl didn’t excuse me from knowing these skills, and that I should never assume that my future partner would know any of this. But then, in the face of this decision, my entire worth as a person was reduced to my virtue. And why would they even be comfortable with me marrying someone who judged me solely on the status my virginity?

The topic of my premarital cohabitation became the elephant in the room, but for the most part, my relationship with my parents didn’t change much; my mom even helped us with the move and visited with my siblings occasionally. My dad, on the other hand, refused to step foot into our home. He believed that in doing so he would be condoning my behavior and wanted to make it clear that he still disagreed. The strange thing is we still spoke regularly. He would even occasionally buy things for our home, like a new pot, or inadvertently ask how my boyfriend was doing at work.

This, in a nutshell, is why I can never hate my parents. They are the products of generations of traditional (Asian) thought who tried their best to meet us in the middle. Though their version of halfway felt much less than, as I was growing up, their struggle was still tangible. As immigrants to this country, it makes absolute sense that watching their children assimilate into American ways of thinking concerned them. To them, it must’ve felt like we were disconnecting from our culture — a culture they took pride in. I saw how they wrestled with reconciling their beliefs with new beliefs that didn’t seem completely nonsensical.

Even though my boyfriend and I recently got married, I’m not sure my parents will ever look back on my decision and be comfortable with it. I don’t know if they’ll ever understand how small they made feel when they reacted the way they did. I’ve tried discussing it with them, and in true Asian parent form, the blame was placed on me and my interpretation of the situation. They told me that if I felt judged, it was because of assumptions I made and words I was putting in their mouths. I don’t know if they’ll ever understand that their need to protect me from outside judgement often caused more harm than good, because, in the end, it felt like they were judging me. They didn’t understand that their perception of me was the only thing that mattered. I couldn’t care less what anyone else thought of me, as long as my parents stood by me.

Thought their reaction felt, and sometimes still feels, like they failed me, I constantly remind myself that my parents are humans, doing their best with the tools they’ve been given. In the end, that’s all we can do. My only hope is that when my husband and I decide to start our own family, we will find it in ourselves to raise our children with open minds.

A note from the author: I have chosen to submit my piece anonymously to protect the privacy of my parents. I did my best to portray them in an honest but kind way. However, I think I know them well enough to know that if they ever came across this piece they might feel hurt or judged, though that was not my intention. Writing about my experience was a way to release and discuss my frustrations, and I am extremely thankful to Asian American Feminist Collective for providing a platform for my thoughts. It is comforting to know that my story resonated with someone on their staff, and I hope it resonates with others as well to remind them that they are not alone.