How to Talk to [Mamí & Papí] about Anything

They Want More Family Time but You Don't

Episode Notes

Diane's Korean mother and grandmother live in New Jersey, and would like her to visit more often. But Diane has a full life in NYC, and feels guilty and torn. Hatty Lee, a marriage and family therapist who works with Asian-Americans, shares tips on how to speak with loved ones about honoring our individual and family needs.

Featured Expert: 

Hatty Lee is a licensed, marriage and family therapist in private practice based in Los Angeles, California. Hatty co-authored a book called The Indwell Guide, an eight-step mental health guide to help people  begin to recover from the past, reclaim their true self, and learn to live with purpose. Hatty completed her M.S. in Marital and Family Therapy from Fuller Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, California.  Find out more about her work on her website

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Episode Transcription

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams:

Hi, everybody. Today, I’m speaking with Diane. Diane is Korean American and was raised in New Jersey by her mom and grandma. Today, she lives in New York City, but her mom and grandma expect her to visit way more frequently than she’s able to. Let’s get into it. 

Diane: I’m Diane. I grew up in Northern New Jersey. I called my mom eomma and my grandma halmeoni. I grew up with my mom and my grandmother. My parents are divorced, and so when my dad left the country after the divorce, my grandma came to America to take care of us, and I have a sister, and so my whole family was just a very kind of female-centric community almost, which as an adult I’m realizing was a very, very unique experience. 

Being the oldest daughter in a matriarchal household, the roles were constantly shifting, so even though my grandmother is my second parent, sometimes I had to be her parent. She’s not fluent in English. She immigrated here with just knowing her family and nobody else, and so I think oftentimes I’ve had to be the translator. I’ve had to be an emotional support for her. Now that I’m living as an adult and independently, it’s been harder to put up boundaries in terms of how much time I can spend with my grandmother and my mom. My grandmother, who doesn’t see that many people, especially during COVID, she thought that when I came back from college, like back to the Tri-state area, that I would be spending time with her all the time, and I’ll visit home maybe like once or twice a month, but she doesn’t think it’s sufficient. 

I will tell her, “You know, I love you, but I also want to cultivate my other relationships, as well.” Oftentimes, she tells me that she understands, and she’ll say it, and then afterwards, she’ll make passive aggressive comments about how she hasn’t seen me in a month or something like that. 

The role that I play in my grandmother’s life is definitely… There is a big component of doing errands and tasks for her. I think growing up, that was definitely a big part of our dynamic. Even just the other day, I was on the phone with a landscaper who had come over, and he couldn’t cut a tree, but my grandma wanted him to, so I was just on the phone with him telling him what she wanted, and then calling her and telling her what he couldn’t do, and she eventually hugged him because he did end up cutting the tree down and she was very happy with that. A lot of stuff around the house lately. 

I want the dynamic to shift so that my grandmother especially, but I think to a certain extent my mom, too, doesn’t take it personally when I don’t want to see them every weekend. I can totally understand why she feels that way when I’ve been at the center of her life, especially after she’s immigrated to America and quite frankly, she’s not the center of my life, although she’s such an important part of that. It’s taken a while to really actually avoid feeling guilty and I still feel guilty. There have been times where I’ve gone home because I knew that my grandmother would be expecting me. I’ve just realized that it creates a dysfunctional emotional environment where I was feeling resentful for being there. I wanted her to make my time worthwhile, and that wasn’t a fruitful experience for either one of us, I think. 

When I go home, I want to have delicious Korean food. I want to feel connected to Korean culture. I want to feel like I’m having “quality interactions” with my family members, so catching up with them, feeling like they’re listening to me, and for my grandmother, that sometimes looks different from what I’m expecting. She just likes the fact that I’m home, so she might be outside gardening and then come inside and check in with me, and then go outside and do her thing again, and so I think my presence alone makes her pretty happy, whereas when I’m at home, I might be like, “Oh, I could be spending this time seeing a friend, or I could have spent this time doing XY and Z, but I’m just sitting at home watching my grandma garden.” 

I don’t know. It just… It doesn’t feel as… I think I have some sort of fantasy about returning to something genuine or authentic from my childhood experience, or wanting to kind of replicate that experience of feeling very connected to my grandmother, and when I don’t feel that, I think that’s when I get a little bit resentful. 


Diane’s story and her struggle to balance all the different parts of her life, including her family’s expectations, really touched me. Like many first gens, I also often feel torn between being responsive to what my extended family wants and acknowledging what I want and need for myself. To help us figure out how to communicate all of this to our families, I called in an expert. 

Hatty Lee: My name is Hatty Lee, and I am a licensed marriage and family therapist based here in Los Angeles, California, and I work primarily with individuals, and couples, and some families from time to time, as well, particularly in the BIPOC community, and a lot of them are Asian Americans, as well. I also just recently co-authored a book that is currently on Kickstarter, and it is called The Indwell Guide, and it’s an eight-step mental health guide to help people to begin to recover from the past, reclaim their true self, and learn to live with purpose. 


So, Hatty, you heard Diane’s story. What did you hear as you listened? 

Lee: I heard a little bit… Well, a lot of just some of my own personal experiences as a Korean American child of immigrants. And a lot of similar stories that I think a lot of my clients come into therapy for. It felt very familiar, and I think just that struggle of wanting to love and respect our family, and especially our parents, but also feel like you have the sense of independence. I mean, that’s a real struggle, I think, especially in our community, especially as a collectivist culture. Yeah, just that tension is so real. 


Let’s try to unpack a little bit what you mean by collectivist culture, like what are the elements of that and how do they show up intergenerationally? 

Lee: You know, I’m just thinking just at least in the Korean family, right? The priority is a lot more about what is best for the family, you know, for other people. I think in the Western world here in America, the priority is what is beneficial to me, right? I think that’s just kind of a really big difference culturally. In the American culture, we’re getting like,  “Take care of yourself. Who cares what your family thinks? Who cares about other people? You should really prioritize yourself before anyone else.” And I think to an average child of immigrants, Asian American, we’re like, “What? That’s so selfish!” It’s like a completely different world view.


So, there’s a little bit of that culture translation that has to happen, right? So, someone like Diane has to translate her Americanized sensibilities and behaviors to her grandmother, but then on the other side, she also has to translate her cultural expectations and the cultural role that she plays in that family to her American friends, or to her friends that come from different backgrounds. So, how does someone like that reach a balance that can work for them without feeling like they’re being torn from one side to the other?

Lee: Right. There isn’t this perfect, clean answer, right, that’s easy. I hear this a lot with a lot of my child of immigrant clients, where they feel like they go to maybe white therapists, or they’re getting all this information from just the white wellness world, that you just need to set these tough boundaries and just cut your parents off, or just these kinds of very extreme messaging, which I think at times is definitely necessary, especially in very abusive, toxic, and crisis situations. But I think to the average child of immigrants, they’re just like, “What? That’s like ripping a part of my soul out of the situation.” 

It feels like you’re ripping just a part of your identity to cut your family off, and so I think just before any of that boundary stuff, I’m always… I think it’s really important to get people to explore their own history. Because I find that a lot of people don’t really know their family’s story. I know like my grandparents, they were colonized. Colonized by the Japanese. And so, I grew up listening to these horrifying stories of the women… They were scared of being raped. I mean, there’s just so much intergenerational trauma there, right? 

I really love to always ask how can we understand just the family better, right? I’m always wanting to know what happened to your family. What happened to your parents? What happened to grandma? What’s their story? I’m always interested in that story first, before we’re like, “All right, let’s start setting some boundaries here and doing whatever we need to do.” 


Okay, so I have a little bit of a two-part question. 

Lee: Sure. 


Which is, so, learning about the background, especially where there is generational trauma present, what do you hope that that spurs in the Dianes of the world, in the first gens who are straddling these two worlds? And then the second part of that is what specific behaviors are helpful to exhibit toward the older generation so that they get from you what they need, and you still feel like you have your space? 

Lee: I mean, one of the big things that I’m hoping in that process of learning about the story of our parents and our grandparents is compassion, right? I feel like that’s often… And you know, I think that that piece is really difficult to access if we haven’t even explored our own experience and our own pain around what’s going on with our family, right? And so, obviously before exploring our family history, it’s helpful to be able to name the pain of what we’re experiencing, which I think Diane did a wonderful job in doing. 

But really kind of getting in there and giving it words. You know, we don’t spend time giving a name to this, or expressing this experience with words. We just experience it, and we just feel it, and we feel it in our bodies, and we just kind of go through life, but I think just when you’re able to explore your own story, it increases capacity to be able to explore the story of our families, story of our parents or grandparents, to be able to also have compassion. They’re not just crazy, right? Or they’re not just problematic. You know, they’re not trying to ruin my life, although sometimes they do. But really getting to the story. What brought them here? Why? Why are they the way they are? What is it that they’re needing that they’re seeking out from me? 

You know, I think that piece is really big, because especially in this family that Diane described, I think in the wellness world we would call it enmeshed, right? Like part of it is that a lot of the roles, the family roles are often mixed, constantly shifting and changing, and I think a lot of times we have to acknowledge that sometimes the things that our parents, or our grandparents, are seeking and longing from us, it’s not something that we will be able to give adequately ever, no matter how hard we try. 


Okay, so one of the things that stood out to me was that Diane said that when she does go over, her grandma’s out gardening in the yard, or doing stuff, and she’s in the house, on her phone, keeping herself busy. So, how can someone like Diane change that? How can she find things in common or things to share with her grandma so that the time together is more meaningful? 

Lee: You know, I always say like in little doses, like 15, 20 minutes. Go out there. Garden with her. You know?



Lee: Little things. Not this big, like you have to sit there for a couple hours and be like, “Grandma, tell me your story,” right? 



Lee: You know, but literally, grandma’s gardening, that’s what she’s into. You want to connect with her? Go out there. Ask her, “Grandma, I don’t know anything about gardening. Can you teach me?” You know, I feel like conversations naturally spark up, right? It’s like, “Hey, grandma, where did you learn? When did you get into this? Why?” Just intentional conversations. And just getting to know her as a human being, like I’m just thinking when you’re getting to know someone, what do we do? We usually do things with them and then we ask questions. And there’s still so much that we don’t know about each other, even within our family. 


My last question is about guilt, because Diane, and many people that I’ve spoken to, while they recognize that there’s some tension in achieving this balance, they still carry a lot of guilt. So, how can they start to deal with that and lessen it? 

Lee: Yeah. You know, there’s guilt, and then there’s shame, and shame means that I’m bad, right? There’s something wrong with me, that I’m a bad daughter, or I’m a bad granddaughter, right? It’s more like identity focused, whereas guilt is more behavior and action. I feel like a lot of times, especially as a child of immigrants, we tend to carry a lot of shame, and I know that especially in the Asian community, that’s prominent. I think it’s important to separate what we’re not able to do and even our own needs, because I think a lot of times this is part of the collectivist culture, is we have a tendency to neglect our own needs when it comes to relationships, and especially in the family, and I often hear people say, “Gosh, I feel so selfish for wanting this or needing this for myself.” 

And I think it’s really important to be able to acknowledge that need and that it’s really important for us to honor those needs to make this relationship sustainable and to make the relationship enjoyable. We have to understand what our responsibility is in the relationship, especially as a child and as a grandchild. You know, sometimes we’re taking on guilt for something that’s not our responsibility. And our human desire, we want to be able to give them something that they need, but we often don’t have what it takes to be able to give our parents or grandparents what they actually need, right? And a lot of times they’re seeking out what they need from us because they don’t have community around them, or for Diane, her mother didn’t have a partner. And so, it’s like they’re doing things out of their own survival. It’s important to acknowledge that piece, as well, and to be able to free ourselves from that false sense of responsibility, because this is hard situation. You know, it’s not about pointing out what’s right or wrong. Everyone’s in a hard situation. 


Hatty, thank you so much for being on the show today. You’re wonderful. 

Lee: Thank you. It was super fun. 


All right, let’s recap what we learned from Hatty. Explore your family’s history. This will help you understand where they’re coming from, what your parents and grandparents went through. It will also help you to access your compassion and that’s really useful when you’re butting heads or not seeing eye to eye. Do something small. Small gestures can be built into everyday moments, like asking questions about their interests, sharing an activity. It can go a long way to creating connection and deepening your relationships. And remember, release yourself from responsibility. Sometimes our loved ones ask for things that we simply cannot give, and there is nothing wrong with saying, “No.” There’s nothing to be ashamed of and there is no guilt that you should feel about that. 

Thank you for listening and thank you for sharing us. How to Talk to [Mamí and Papí] About Anything is an original production of Lantigua Williams & Co. Virginia Lora is the show’s producer. Kojin Tashiro is our mixer. Manuela Bedoya is our social media editor. Cedric Wilson is our lead producer. Jen Chien is our executive editor. I’m the creator, Juleyka Lantigua-Williams. On Twitter and Instagram, we’re @TalktoMamiPapi. Please follow us and rate us on Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, Pandora, Spotify, Goodpods, or anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts. Bye, everybody. Same place next week.


Lantigua-Williams, Juleyka, host. “They Want More Family Time but You Don't.” 

How to Talk to [Mamí & Papí] About Anything, 

Lantigua Williams & Co., June 7, 2021.