Monday, April 27, 2009

Sex and Asian American Families

*This is a long entry but writing it meant a lot to me, so I hope you will stay with it. Thanks.

I've got a million things to do right now but I came across this blog tonight that I can't stop reading: Asian American Health.

One entry highlighted in a very personal and touching way one girl's experience with sexuality and her parents' attitudes toward sexual activity. It's called "White Flowers: A Personal Take On Culture and Sexual Health".

The blogger writes that she became sexually active with her boyfriend at when she was 16. Then for some reason she missed her period twice, which made her panic even though she took six pregnancy tests that all turned out negative. In the time before her next period came, she considered an abortion, if she was indeed pregnant. But she also reflected on her parents' attitudes toward sex.

I recommend you read the whole (short) entry, but I'll just quote a bit from it now:
She writes, "when I told [my mom] I had a boyfriend, the first thing she said was that I was not allowed to kiss him or hold his hand, much less anything about sex.

Her mom's attitude toward dating and sexuality was neatly summed up in her insistence that her daughter shouldn't hold hands with or kiss her boyfriend. This seems almost laughable since that's the minimum what most people expect to do with a boyfriend. Holding hands and kissing are the most innocuous of romantic gestures. But seeing that those are her mother's expectations, it makes a discussion of sexual activity nearly impossible.

Then she writes about her pregnancy scare:
"My parents were pretty obviously absent from this experience. In the end, of course I got my period, but the white flowers always stuck with me because of how messed up it was that I seriously thought about self-inducing an abortion rather than talk to them. Looking back, five years later, I realized my anxiety was not over whether or not I was pregnant—week after week of negative results should have convinced me. Instead, I was terrified of my parents' reaction to me having sex."

While I can't say I have experienced the anxiety of suspecting I might be pregnant, I can relate to her inability to speak with her parents about sex. I wonder if I'm ever going to get a talk from my mom about sex. (Talking about it with my dad is out of the question. He may drop dead of discomfort instantly.) I've gotten very brief snippets throughout the years, but those were more about relationships. (I can have boyfriends as long as I "don't get too serious" and "don't get hurt".) But these talks never directly addressed sexual activity. I've never asked my mom, "Would you be okay if I had sex before I got married?" She never asked what I did with my boyfriend and I wondered what she thought we were doing.

I am relieved that my parents have a somewhat realistic expectations about my relationships. My mom is okay with kissing and holding hands because she saw us doing that and didn't object to it. (Though I'm embarrassed that she saw even that.) I won't generalize to say that Asian American parents all hold conservative values like my parents and the blogger's parents, but that makes at least two.

My parents' attitudes toward sex, and indeed anybodys, are in part due to the cultural norms. My parents grew up in China where the norms at that time were much more conservative. Even contemporary Chinese norms are much more conservative than the ones here in the U.S. but comparatively liberal since my parents were young.

But I think it's also important to add that attitudes about sex are also shaped by smaller circles of influence, our families and our individual experiences. Not all Americans subscribe to liberal attitudes about sex despite America's place as a key generator of these behaviors.

I think her experience and mine show a generational and cultural gap between Asian American parents and children when it comes to issues like sex, though certainly not limited to it. The silence doesn't mean that Asian American teens and young adults don't have to come to terms with their sexuality and their families.

*A version of this is crossposted at

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