Welcome to the fourth issue of Lychee, an advice column for South Asian Americans. We answer questions that range from the salacious to the serious, gathered from conversation with friends, academics, and industry experts. Got a question you want to see answered? Ask below.
Trigger warning: this week’s question is about child abuse, an issue endemic to South Asian culture. Unlike depression and anxiety, this reader posits, child abuse still isn’t openly spoken about. And they ask how we can start to fix that.
I love my parents but I can see all the ways in which they were traumatized, and now I have to deal with those things too. Even if some of my fellow ABCD friends are cool with talking about anxiety and depression, things like trauma, CPTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder), and the idea that their parents might be flawed is a huge taboo.
A big stigma is abuse, and I've noticed that people who write about their parents are extremely reluctant to use that word... Myself included, probably out of a fear that white people will misunderstand my parents and community, and some misguided sense of not wanting to be a stereotype.
I know my parents are complex and nuanced people, but denying and invalidating my own trauma and experiences is suffocating, and I want the conversation to be more openly spoken about. Do you think we’ll ever get there?
Ready to talk
Dear ready to talk,
When I answer these advice columns, I usually talk to other people and read things on the internet and spend some time thinking of an answer. But your question, ready to talk, didn’t ask how to solve our childhood trauma, but rather when we will solve it. That is an immensely hopeful and positive question. And the answer has to start with those of us who have been lucky enough to heal. We have to tell our stories and talk about what it felt like to be scared, vulnerable children, because there are so many scared, vulnerable people out there that need to hear our stories.
When I was very young, my mother decided to go back to school. She’d dropped out of school in India after she was arranged to marry my father, but we lived in a single income household in New York and it was difficult to make ends meet. So after she had my brother, she tried part-time school and night school, sometimes balancing a job or two on the side. Whenever she was home, she was angry, stressed, tired, and physically abusive.
My childhood brain only associates her with terror. I’d have physical reactions when I’d hear her arrive home. I was terrified of her anger, afraid to talk to her about feeling disconnected from school, afraid to speak about the things about myself that were changing. The smallest things would set her off. A cup of orange juice I’d forgotten to put into the sink, a notebook I’d left out with bad handwriting. I began to feel like I deserved the abuse because I was inherently bad.
At school, I’d hide the fact that I was being abused because I thought everyone around me would also hate me when they found out how bad I was. I’d wear long-sleeved shirts that hid my bruises and would lie if anyone asked me about them — though they rarely did, my abuse was never that obvious. I lost myself in books. I managed to find and check out a book from the adult section of my library — A Child Called It. The book was a pop hit in those years and detailed the depraved story of a child who’d been starved, neglected, met with extreme circumstances. I remember being obsessed with it even though my abuse was nothing near that level.
I started to construct an entire narrative around my childhood. Abuse overshadowed everything else that I’d experienced at home — the love that my parents had given me, the friends I had in my community. I remember stewing in my bed after bad episodes, entertaining the thought of calling child protection servics. But I never would, because even at that age, I knew that my mother deserved empathy, that this phenomenon was part of my culture, that the repercussions of calling the government were far worse than anything I had faced, and that I loved my mother in a big, strong, furious way that would allow me to weather the storm.
So I kept the story of my abuse to myself. I thought that if I admitted it to others, I’d out myself for being a bad kid. I was certain that the other Indian kids in my community were better behaved and didn’t face this type of treatment at home, and that the non-Indian kids would judge me and my culture.
Over the years, my mother changed and grew up — quite dynamically, actually. Going to work made her a new person. She went from being someone’s wife, too shy to talk to cashiers at the grocery store, to earning more money than my father, winning awards at work, making new friends of all ages. And she took on the mountainous challenge of apologizing to me and working on repairing the trust between us. Her apology released me from a lot of my pain and it pushed me to understand the circumstances that must have encouraged that behavior.
Like you, I’m able to be forgiving. After years of therapy and drugs and travel and self-reflection, I understand that the problem is larger than me and her. Did she have any option but to get an arranged marriage and move to America? What was it like to go back to school as an older student in a country that she didn’t recognize at all? Most importantly, how much of the abuse that she shed on me was something that she had experienced herself?
Unfortunately, receiving an apology is a unique experience. I’d talk to other South Asian friends and find that they shared similar experiences, but had never spoken about them with their parents. They were expected to bury it, as if this were another unspoken aspect of being a South Asian kid. Others had their problems dismissed when they brought it up.
And some would speak about their abuses with gravity with me, but others — shockingly — would shrug it off and make me feel as if I were making a big deal out of something that everyone goes through. What’s that Russell Peters joke —his dad saying, '“somebody going to get hurt real bad?” “You need to start beating your kids.” I know that he’s the South Asian Carlos Mencia and not to be taken seriously, but that attitude is deeply damaging. It’s hardened our hearts and taught us that being cynical and silly about our trauma is better than surviving the pain of healing.
Ready to talk, you are brave for keeping your heart soft and open, and for braving the waters to ask how we can start talking about child abuse. It’s easier to let things continue as they are than it is to rock the boat. But as people who are on their way to healing — as someone who, like me, can admit that your parents are nuanced, and that your situation is full of complexities — we hold a special power. If we talk about our trauma, maybe children will have to stop hiding parts of themselves. Maybe adults will be able to be whole again. Maybe the cycle can be ended.
You’re already pretty far along for asking this question. I don’t have much more advice for you. But this is a thanks from myself: the fact that you’re asking that we talk more about child abuse is the first step, to addressing those beautiful, healing parts, and the parts that we haven’t been able to forgive, too.
There are many stories that won’t be like ours — of parents and grandparents who still believe that they did the right thing, of children who think so too. The hope is that enough examples like ours can turn the tide.
And reading (and writing) helps too. I’ve listed some of my favorite writing that has helped me through. Sending lots of love.
Most of my internet reads come from the same person, who is the only South Asian writer I have ever read to write about the topic with such empathy and kindness. If I’m missing anything, please send by.
From Fariha Róisín, on having to first understand her mother’s trauma in order to understand their troubled relationship: “I mourn the life my mother never had to truly heal her wounds. I understand with a grave responsibility, I must do that work for both of us. Alone.”
More Fariha Róisín, on living with her mother’s mental illness: “She is my abuser. And I love her anyway. It's complicated, and it's constantly evolving, but these days I hate her less and less because I see her for all that she is, not just as my mother. I see her as a failed adult, one that shouldn't have had children, but also as a victim of her time, of her own abuse, the abuse she never talks about.”
If you like Fariha’s writing, I’d highly recommend her debut novel, Like a Bird.