How Asian Americans Misunderstand Shame
Fred Mok | MARCH 18, 2019 | 5 MIN READ
Mom: Why aren’t you married yet?
You: Don’t worry about it. It’s not your problem.
I often hear second-generation Asian Americans complain about interactions like the above. They are examples of how Asian immigrant parents shame young adults, from their childhood to beyond. The way forward often appears to resent one’s parents and avoid these shaming conversations in the future.
I believe there’s a better way.
Shame as the Enemy
Before shame became public emotional enemy #1, there were Asians. Eastern cultures have been centered around honor and shame for thousands of years.
Misunderstanding shame is particularly painful to Asian Americans because it results in cognitive dissonance. Because honor and shame are the bedrock of Eastern cultures, when we demonize shame, we demonize our heritage. The result is internal conflict and self-hatred.
Breaking out of that self -hatred means having a fuller picture of what shame is. The most popular definition of shame comes from Brene Brown, who writes that shame is the "intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” But I believe her definition is incomplete.
Here are three ways Asian Americans misunderstand shame, how we can experience freedom from lies about our cultural heritage and identity, and even experience shame as a gift.
Misunderstanding #1: We evaluate shame from a Western moral framework
In Jonathan Haidt’s book, “The Righteous Mind,” he proposes that there are five pillars of morality. Since Western culture prizes autonomy and personal fulfillment, many educated Asian Americans are trained to also found their moral reasoning around care and fairness. Care means doing no harm, showing compassion, and alleviating suffering. Fairness is about justice according to shared rules, equity, and trustworthiness.
In contrast, non-Western cultures value loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Loyalty means faithfulness to a group. Authority means respect and submission to hierarchy. Sanctity concerns value for what is sacred. Loyalty, authority, and sanctity do not have immediate benefits to individuals, but they do benefit a group’s morality and cohesion, which dovetails with communal Asian cultures.
Shame defines the boundaries of acceptable behavior for inclusion and belonging, and “shaming the family” is feared (see Mulan with the matchmaker). The experience of shame promotes harmony, conformity, and social cohesion. Thus, shame’s benefits accrue to the group and are not focused on an individual’s emotional life.
Misunderstanding #2: We believe shame is inherently individualistic (and miss out on the gift of shame)
In Genesis 2, Adam and Eve are naked in the garden but experience no shame. But after they sin by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, their eyes are opened and they feel ashamed.
When they put on fig leaves to cover their nakedness, they are reacting to the exposure of something lacking before another person. Then when God appears, even though they are no longer naked, Adam and Eve choose to hide among the trees because fig leaves are not enough to cover the relational rift caused by their action.
The gift of shame’s pain is that it's rooted in connectedness. Adam and Eve hide not because they want to exit Eden but because they recognize a rift in their relationship with God. It is the recognition they have done something to violate a relationship. The misalignment between God’s values and their behavior has been exposed, and the experience is painful.
If shame is relational, then feeling shame is not only about the individual but also about the family and tribe. In Eastern cultures, the smallest unit of organization (upon which boundaries are drawn) is the family, not the individual. Disgrace is often not designed to reflect not on the individual but on the group. This can actually make the burden more bearable. It is, rather, the Western fixation on the private experience of shame that becomes unbearable.
Think about your favorite sports team. If it loses a game, you feel a collective shame that affects the entire fanbase. But you don’t feel like you have the entire shame of the team solely upon your shoulders.
Finally, since shame can be a gift to the community. Since it is communal, there are instances where shame should be sought out in order to benefit a group. Again, this is not about the emotional experience of shame but the exposure of a value misalignment. Just because one is subject to shame doesn’t mean the disgraced person acted wrongly.
Jesus’ teaching and miracles consistently subverted religious convention and as a result, he suffered disgrace from the Jewish religious leadership. He chose shame as a means to expose the Pharisees’ corrupt value system. His crucifixion was the pinnacle of shame - to be condemned, beaten, and humiliated as a charlatan, criminal, and heretic. Jesus undoubtedly suffered shame and the ultimate end of his suffering was to heal and cover the relational rift caused by humanity’s tragic misalignment with God’s values.
Misunderstanding #3: We prioritize personal emotional fulfillment as the highest value
Michelle Yeoh’s character in Crazy Rich Asians says it well, “You Americans only care about happiness.” In a recent talk to a group of pastors, Pastor Tim Keller said our culture catechizes children into several maxims, one of them being,: “Do whatever makes you happy.” We’re surrounded by these messages emphasizing our personal emotional fulfillment.
Brene Brown’s definition is no exception. Fixation on feeling flawed or worthless makes anyone a potential “shamer” and any situation potentially “shaming,” purely based on one’s emotional experience. Therefore, if I experience discomfort and connect the pain with thoughts of worthlessness, then I’m experiencing shame or have been shamed. It’s irrelevant whether I’ve actually done something evil or how closely my pain is calibrated to the circumstances and values gap. Its existence is predicated on my own experience of being shamed rather than a violation of a person’s or community’s values.
But that’s exactly what we Asian Americans do with our heritage. We choose to resent our inherently shame-based culture for shaming us. We blame our childhood discomfort on our parents’ coercion of values. We hate how unworthy others “make” us feel. This results in an ironic downward spiral of worthlessness: As we fixate on our personal emotional satisfaction, we are increasingly ashamed of our shame-based culture. But if we can surrender the idol of autonomy and emotional satisfaction, it can go a long way in appreciating shame’s benefits to belonging and community.
So what should you do then when your parents “shame” you for not being married? Take a step back and recognize your mom’s concern for your marital status is an expression of your mom’s selfhood. The family unit bounds your mom’s identity; not just her as an individual. Her concern for you is how she loves the family. She would see herself as a negligent mother if she didn’t get involved. Therefore, you can receive her demonstration of love without agreeing with its underlying principles (that your marital status is a problem) and say something like, “Thanks for your concern, Mom. I love you too.”
Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted on Rant of the Exiles. It has been updated for publication at The SOLA Network, and has been republished with the author’s permission.
Fred Mok is the Associate Pastor at Garden City Church in San Jose, CA. Fred is a second generation Chinese American who has been married to his marvelous wife, Judy, for 20 years. They have four children: Caleb, Micah, Abby, and Elliot. Fred was spiritually formed at Chinese Church in Christ – South Valley in south San Jose and spent the past ten years there as English Pastor. Prior to vocational ministry, he spent nine years as a project manager and business analyst at IBM and Hitachi. You can find Fred reading the latest pop science book, reflecting on the gospel on his blog, and forcing his kids to do jumping jacks with him. Fred has a B.S. in Business Administration from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley and a M.Div. from Western Seminary.