One of the things that Asian people like to do when they get together is trade Asian parent war stories (but not me, Mom and Dad, you’re perfect!!!). The stories I hear might not be at the Tiger Mom level, but they are still pretty intense. Sometimes my friends will tell me things like “When I was little, my mother called me ugly in front of all her friends. Then she said it wouldn’t matter if I weren’t also so stupid,” or “My parents say that I am condemned to be alone for the rest of my life because I have no social skills, so I should study harder since I will never have a husband to provide for me. But I don’t have any social skills because I study so hard to please them.”
It always makes me sad to hear these stories because I know my friends are still hurt by their parents’ words. Since I majored in psychology and am only one PhD and a few years of fieldwork away from becoming a qualified therapist, I feel compelled to offer words of comfort.
“I’m sure they are proud of you,” I say. “Maybe they were just humblebragging?”
Humility is, of course, a very important virtue in many Asian cultures. This is often at odds with the belief held by most parents that their kid, for all his or her faults, is the center of the universe. I know that can be hard to believe when you overhear your father telling his friends for the umpteenth time that your A- on that one AP Physics practice quiz made him so ashamed he wanted to abandon your family and go live in the woods like an animal… but maybe that’s just an excuse for him to remind everyone that you are enrolled in AP Physics.
There are many types of humblebragging. Some are obvious:
“I have to take a week off from work because my spoiled daughter wants to visit all the universities she got accepted into, but at least I hear New Haven and Cambridge are both lovely this time of year.”
“My daughter’s so fat. She’s been eating through her anxiety since she got selected to compete in the semi-finalist round of the Intel Science Talent Search. I told her, it’s only semi-, take that cookie out of your mouth.”
“We told our son to take a break in between studying for his AP exams but he refused to listen to us. He got perfect scores on all six of them, so that just gives him yet another excuse to be a brat.”
Some humblebrags are a little bit more subtle, but an objective observer can usually see where they are going:
“My daughter’s skin is so tanned and coarse and her shoulders are brawny like a man’s.”
Translation: “Did I tell you that my daughter broke a statewide record in the 200-meter butterfly? I didn’t? Well, did I tell you about the scholarship? DID I TELL YOU ABOUT THE SCHOLARSHIP?”
“I asked my daughter to come home for Christmas but she’d rather fly to Taiwan to meet her boyfriend’s grandparents. I broke my back to raise her and this is the thanks I get in return.”
Translation: “My daughter’s not marrying a white guy!”
“My kid doesn’t really work that hard. She just kind of coasts along…”
Translation: “… on her natural talent, which she inherited from me.”
Humblebrags can be any length. Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” was one very long humblebrag. The memoir’s subtitle should have a few words appended: “This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old… but my kids still turned out better than yours anyway.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic because I’ve always had a hard time taking compliments gracefully and I wonder how much my background plays into it. From my Asian background, I learned that being humble is a virtue and straightforward bragging (as opposed to humblebragging) means you just have something to hide; but in the US, not showing self-confidence makes you look weak and unable to advocate for yourself. These conflicting messages have caused a few awkward situations, like the one time I literally winced when my professor said that my essay was the best piece of student work he had ever read on that particular topic.
Ha ha, see what I did there? [Rim shot].