Merk's parents have always been her biggest cheerleaders. They've always encouraged her to take the life they've given her and transform it into something of her own. But since moving out on her own, she worries that she won't develop her own identity beyond the "dutiful daughter" she feels pressure to be.
Sara Stanizai (she/her) is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the owner of Prospect Therapy, an LGBTQ+ affirming therapy practice based in Long Beach, CA. As a queer, first-gen American, one of Sara's clinical specialties is working with other first-generation, bicultural, and immigrant Americans around issues of identity, and reconciling their place within two or more cultures. Sara earned an MA in Clinical Psychology from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology (Los Angeles Campus) and a BA, in Art History and Latin from Mount Holyoke College. learn more about her work through her private practice here.
If you loved this episode, be sure to check out He's the First to Go to College and How to Get Help When You're the Designated Translator.
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Hi, everybody. Thank you for coming back to How to Talk to [Mamí and Papí] About Anything, and welcome to those joining us for the first time. I’m the host and creator, Juleyka Lantigua-Williams. Every week, I’ve been talking to adult children of immigrant parents and select experts about what can seem like taboo topics. We’ve talked about setting boundaries, putting down foundations to make our relationships stronger, and the value of having those tough conversations. Today, let’s get a little deeper. I want to talk about ourselves, who we are at our core, and how our families shape who we become. In this episode, our guest, Merk, opens up about that often-blurry question. Where does my family end and where do I begin? Let’s get into it.
Merk Nguyen: I’m Merk Nguyen. I’m Vietnamese American and I call my parents mẹ and và. So, my story starts off with my leaving my parents’ house at the beginning of this pandemic. Fun fact, I come from Lynnwood, Washington, which is in the same county of the first reported COVID case in the US, and I had made this decision to move in the previous year, in 2019. I was living in Brooklyn, but I decided I want to go back to my home base, I feel like I want to be on the West Coast again. Washington’s my home. But when I got back, things didn’t feel right, and I just felt like I needed to not be home again, and I felt like LA was the place to be, and so I told my parents, “Hey, I’m gonna move.” And so, I did.
The conversation of the move was actually pretty smooth, because I’ve always been a career-driven person. My parents know that. I work in podcasting now, but I have ambitions to be in voiceover, and Hollywood, that’s a great place to go. And so, they were actually really supportive of that, but I think what they don’t know is although I say my career is a big reason why I moved, it has a lot to do with my parents, actually. Growing up the youngest of three, in a very tightknit family, I’ve had strong associations with my identity following into the same identity as my family’s, and a lot of the time when I feel like I’m struggling with my mental health and everything, it’s because I’m asking myself, “Who am I?” Because without my family, I feel like I’m nothing, like I don’t have… My parents, they left Vietnam, they got here, were able to build a life for my siblings and I, but it makes me wonder when I’m home, am I acting in a certain way because I think that’s how they want me to be? Or am I doing this because I am truly this way?
I think for me, my parents don’t impose who they want me to be. They’ve been very clear of, “Hey, we came here to live our dreams. You’re here, so you go live yours.” But for so long, because I’ve been in a household where it’s expected that I, as not just their kid, but a daughter, like a daughter’s duty to obey my parents and to please them, I just… I can’t separate. I don’t feel like I can separate what they want versus what I want. And again, it’s weird, because I tell everyone, and anyone who knows me knows how close I am with my family, how open I am with them. They’re like my best friends. But at the same time, why is it that these people I love so much, who are my main rocks, why are they the ones who make me so anxious sometimes? And that makes me sad.
I don’t know. I look to my siblings as role models, because my sister, she is the oldest of us. She’s turning 30 this year and her husband’s in the military. She actually recently moved back in with my parents while he’s on deployment, and like I’ve seen her be able to just say no to their BS, or just like, “I’m not going to do it.” And she doesn’t feel as much shame as she used to. I want to get to that point.
I don’t want to feel shame from anything I did or didn’t do with my parents, but at the same time, I don’t want them to feel like everything they’ve come here for was for nothing. I do fear that I don’t have an identity without my family. And that’s… For me, it’s like a blessing and a curse, because these are beautiful people, and I’m so proud to come from them, and to have them, but I think I have a hard time distinguishing the difference between gratitude and feeling like I owe them something. And I think that’s common with a lot of kids of color, is that we’re so close to our families, a lot of us are, and who are we without them?
I bet so many of you can relate to Merk right now. I definitely can. Learning to balance our culture and our parents’ way of life with the opportunities that they’ve given us, it can feel impossible sometimes. And maybe like me, you felt isolated and confused. Maybe you felt like you haven’t honored their sacrifices. Well, we’re gonna get into that today. I called in an expert. Her name is Sara Stanizai, and she’s a licensed marriage and family therapist in Long Beach, California. Her practice focuses on queer and trans folks and first gens, and because her parents came to the US from Afghanistan, she’s also a first gen hyphenated American.
You heard Merk’s story. What did you hear in it as you listened?
Sara Stanizai: I heard something very familiar for myself as a first gen, and also many of my clients, where there is an inner conflict, where we feel like we have to choose. When we’re bicultural, we feel like we have to choose between our family and our home culture versus mainstream American, you know, white culture, and sometimes that conflict, people put that on us. Sometimes our family puts it. Sometimes our peers, and coworkers, and society as a whole puts it on us. And then I could hear in Merk’s story that she had internalized that conflict and didn’t know kind of which way to go.
So, where does that originate? Where’s the seed for that conflict that grows within us?
Stanizai: I think a lot of times, people don’t even realize that that conflict is happening. For those of us like myself, who were born here, we start to acculturate to mainstream American culture, and we have a background just like everyone else, but we don’t realize that we go home to a different culture than many of our peers. And so, the seed for that even just starts from a very early age. It’s this, what we call the incongruence between how we see ourselves and how we define ourselves versus what is reflected back to us and how other people see us and define us, and this includes a lot of factors, even things like socioeconomic class and complexion. I pass for white in a lot of situations, and so I kind of go between those two worlds, and sometimes it’s a privilege to be able to pass, and sometimes it actually isn’t, because then part of your identity is erased and no one word really accounts for all of the experiences that we have.
So, the seed for that really is that incongruence, or it doesn’t match up, how I see myself and how other people see me.
In this family, Merk’s family, she’s the youngest daughter, and she talks about it really openly. How do you think that the sibling order in a family plays into how our self-identity evolves, and especially how we deal with the incongruence, as you mentioned?
Stanizai: I love this question. As a therapist, I definitely geek out on this kind of stuff, but it just… It’s another layer of the expectations that are put on us, and the roles that we play, and the layers of our identity. Your role within your family is just one more layer, just like your family’s role in your neighborhood or at school, just like… And then if we just keep expanding it, there are all these layers put on us by society, and so, the person’s role within their family is just one more layer of that.
So, it sounds a little bit like there is very low self-determination when it comes to what your role is in someone else’s eyes.
Stanizai: Yeah, and I think that’s where some of the feelings of anxiety and depression can arise, because it’s tricky. It does feel like there’s not a lot of self-determination. However, how we respond to that and how we develop our own identity, and what we decide we want to claim, and take pride in, and our culture and ethnicity is only part of that, but we do have a lot of… I feel funny about the word empowerment. It’s so loaded with so many things. But we can be empowered about really creating our own identity and claiming the things that feel like home and the things that feel good for us.
So, us, first gen, second gen, we have free will?
Stanizai: Believe it or not. Yes. You might have to look a little bit harder for it, but it’s always there. Yes.
All right, so I want to pick up on a phrase that Merk uses, and it’s a phrase that I hear a lot from my friends whose parents came from other places all over the world, which is that I’m expected to be the dutiful daughter.
Do you hear that a lot?
Stanizai: I do, and what’s really beautiful is that duty or that obligation is different among different cultures, and even within different families, and even in her case, what I wasn’t expecting was her duty as a daughter was actually to be happy and to be herself. You know, there’s often these narratives about very oppressive families, or even abusive, and they want to limit. They don’t want you to become like your white friends. They really want you to embrace your culture. And that is a true part of the story for a lot of people, but what we don’t hear as much about are the very loving and supportive parents who are really doing the best that they can, and don’t realize that they might be limiting their kids, when all they want, just like Merk’s parents, all they wanted was for her to be fully herself and to be happy.
She’s in her early twenties, and so I said maybe this conflict has to do with you adulting, and she said, “Yeah, I think that’s part of it, but I still want to feel like I belong to my family, but I also want to feel like I know who I am.” I was surprised to hear her say that, because like you picked up on, her parents basically said, “We came and we lived our dream so that you could live your dream, so go out and live your dream.” So, is it just that she might have some fear about being disappointed by who she is outside of that family unit, because she’s still very young and still figuring it out?
Stanizai: Yeah. I think the life stage, and you’re right, that emerging adulthood period is very confusing, and many people of all kinds of backgrounds, just like we don’t know what we’re doing at that age. And what I would say to her is there’s this conflict between, “Well, I know who I am at home. I don’t know who I am out in the world. I don’t know which one of these to pursue. I don’t know which one to cultivate.” And I would say what if you didn’t have to choose? Your family has given you a really beautiful, strong part of your identity, and it’s lovely to stay in touch with your culture, and you don’t have to reject any of that, and you can also amplify all these other sides of you. You can be Vietnamese American. You can be a woman. You can be your hobbies, your values. She wants to get into voiceover. That is also a big part of your identity.
Ask anybody who’s trying to make it. Your work does become part of your identity.
So, Merk definitely sounds like someone who is very self-aware. I really enjoyed my conversation with her, because she was able to be open about certainties, and also be really open about things that she was uncertain about, and she makes a really good point about her older sister, who’s married, who’s 30, and is now living with her parents because her husband is deployed, and Merk really admires how her sister is able to set boundaries, and so, what lessons might someone like Merk take from older siblings or other cousins who are also first gens, who can establish those boundaries with their parents? And how can she go about practicing those and reinforcing those for herself?
Yeah. I think there is something to be learned from that, because the people who do it successfully do it because they have options. It’s a very different feeling to say, “Well, I’m stuck here at home. My family expects me to be here. I have no other choice.” That’s a different experience from saying, “Yes, I could go out and be independent. I actually did do that for a time and I’m choosing to come back here.” Because at the end of the day, there is nothing inherently wrong or devalued about choosing to live with your family.
Stanizai: For some people, that’s very important, and for others, it’s not, and whatever it means to you is what’s important.
Let’s go through three or four concrete actions or pointers that you can give folks in Merk’s situation, who are thinking about where does my family end and where do I begin.
Stanizai: So, the first thing I would say is to make a practice of sharing other sides of yourself and other parts of your identity. We get a lot of positive reinforcement, especially from parents. Usually, there’s one thing that you are known for, that your parents expect from you, and that might be academic performance. It might be very polite manners. Whatever part of your identity that is, that is the thing that they’re going to keep reinforcing, and you know how to feel good about yourself is to perform that. But I want people to make a practice of also sharing other sides of themselves with their family, and even in their other relationships. You don’t have to only talk about your good grades or your career goals. You can also share about your friend drama, or a hobby, or a creative interest that you have.
The other thing I would mention, number two would be to set ground rules and limits about what feels safe and comfortable to talk about with your family. With Merk, she had a really beautiful, close, loving, affectionate relationship with her family, and not everybody has that. We hear that narrative so much about families who don’t accept certain parts of you, or you’re not my child if this is who you’re gonna be, so you can set limits around certain topics that are off the table. You can set limits around how much time you spend together, or what locations or events you’re going to go to if there are family members you don’t feel comfortable around. You could say, “I’m going to skip that wedding,” which is like a huge deal-
Stanizai: You do have the right to do that.
Okay, and what else?
Stanizai: I would say another one is to define your identity for yourself, and your ethnicity and your culture absolutely can and should be part of that, but there are other layers of you identity that you can amplify, and that you can take pride in based on your values, and beliefs, and just your interests, and your hobbies, and what kind of friend you are, and what is important to you, and what do you like doing?
Merk is really lucky that her parents are incredibly supportive, and that they manifest that verbally and in other ways, but there are people who fear that no matter what they do, no matter who they become, they’re still going to disappoint their parents. How does someone deal with that pressure?
The answer is a little bit different for everyone, but I can tell you how many people come to our offices with that inner critic and that internal voice telling them that they’re not good enough, or that they’re inadequate, and when you dig deep enough, they realize, “Oh, that’s my mom’s voice,” or, “That’s my grandma’s voice.” or, “That’s my father’s voice.” We can’t deny or erase those parts of our experience, but we can call them out for what they are, and the things that we try to ignore and pretend don’t exist are just going to get louder, and that’s often what people do. By the time they’ve come to us for therapy, it’s because they have tried to kind of white knuckle it and insist that those voices aren’t there, and so we actually have a conversation with those voices, and we understand our parents’ limitations, and that they can do for us while also doing bad for us, and that they were trying their best, and if we can find a way to acknowledge that and hear what that has to say and what it’s teaching us, and then continue on maturing and adding supportive things to our lives, and if that voice is in there, there are also countless other voices of friends, and family, and loved ones who are supportive, and hopefully we can internalize those ones the same way we internalized the other.
That takes a lot of work, but the first step is realizing that that’s what’s happening, because oftentimes people don’t even realize… You know, when that light bulb goes off and they’re like, “Why do I say this to myself?” And I’ll say, “Well, who said this to you growing up?” And then people are like, “Oh my gosh. Okay.” Once I recognize who that is, that it’s not me, I can separate it out, and that’s how the work begins.
All right, let’s recap what we learned from Sara. Share other sides of yourself with your family. Let them see you in multiple ways. Set limits about topics, or events, or anything else you’re not comfortable with. Define your identity for yourself. Include everything that’s important to you. Not just the one thing your family approves of. Ask yourself, “Whose voice is that?” Some of our deepest criticisms come from elsewhere and from other people. And remember, internalize the supportive voices in your life as much as if not more than the critical ones.
Thank you so much for listening again this week. My offer for those free stickers still stands, so DM us with your address or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will personally drop those in the mail for you. How to Talk to [Mamí and Papí] About Anything is an original production of Lantigua Williams & Co. Micaela Rodríguez produced this episode. Kojin Tashiro mixed it. Cedric Wilson is our lead producer. You can always connect with us on Twitter and Instagram @talktomamipapi, and please remember to subscribe or follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts. Bye, everybody! Same place next week.
Lantigua-Williams, Juleyka, host. “Struggling to Become More Than a Dutiful Daughter.” How to Talk to [Mamí & Papí] About Anything, Lantigua Williams & Co., June 1, 2020. TalkToMamiPapi.com.