Teaching My Asian Kids The Power of “No”

IMG_0949I come from a culture where the word no is a bit of a taboo.

It’s not that we don’t have the word no in Japanese. It is iie (pronounced ee-ee-yeh).  The trouble is, we don’t often come right out and say it.  Our culture is really big on saving face, both our own and that of the other party, so to just say no without much padding around it is not very cool.

So, we Japanese have perfected the art of beating around the bush.

Thank you so much for inviting me.  I really don’t deserve such kindness. (i.e., I really don’t care to go to your party)

That certainly is a colorful dress! (It’s actually quite dreadful)

I have never tasted such an interesting dish. (Ewwww)

I’ve seen some beautiful ladies with that same haircut. (Bad style on you)

Both parties are adept at reading between the lines, so they dance in unison around the truth until they both get the clue.  Yeah, it’s like speaking code half the time.  For the people within the Japanese society, however, this is normal and everyone totally gets each other. Often, one caves and ends up saying yes out of obligation, but at least no one loses face.

Imagine our shock, then, when my family emigrated here when I was a child.  Americans are so direct!  From our perspective, our new neighbors seemed completely rude and cruel for being so straightforward.  It took quite a while to stop feeling personally wounded by every direct answer.

In time, though, I began to appreciate the honesty of this culture.  It was rather freeing not having to read between the lines and guessing what people were truly saying.  We actually saw the value in coming right out and saying yes or no, thereby extinguishing false hopes and expectations.

I realize I am generalizing here, as I have since met indirect speakers in the US as well as blunt people in Japan.  But in any culture, I see a keen need to balance honesty with kindness — “Speaking the truth in love,” as it says in Ephesians 4:15.

Having grown up in both cultures, I now prefer hearing straight answers over indirect ones, and I certainly prefer it over lies.  More often than not, though, I still have trouble speaking directly, which drives my husband up the wall. “You’re being cryptic again.  Just tell me what you want,” he tells me in frustration. I also still end up doing something out of obligation occasionally because I just could not say no, but I’m making progress.  It’s still important to be considerate of others, but not at the expense of my own sanity.

For my own kids, therefore, I am trying to raise them up in the best of both cultures.  I want them to be honest with their feelings while being gentle. The word tactfulness comes to mind here.  More importantly, however, I want them to be able to say “no” when they need to, especially to bad people:

“No, I don’t want to try drugs.”

“No, I don’t want to go out with you.”

“No, that is not a nice way to speak to me.  Please stop.”

The best way for them to learn to do this is at home.  In order to accomplish this, therefore, I have to resist busting through their no‘s.   I can allow them to not like my new recipe, return outfits I bought for them on my own if they don’t like it, and, someday when they’re grown adults, to let them choose to go on a trip with their friends instead or coming home for the Holidays.  Of course, we wouldn’t allow “No, I don’t want to go to bed!” when they’re 5 years old, but you get the idea — incremental no‘s at age appropriate steps.

I have learned a great deal on this topic through an insightful book called Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.  I highly recommend it for everyone but especially for parents.  After all, we have to be healthy to raise healthy kids.

I don’t know about you, but becoming a parent has forced me to grow up.  Hasn’t it, for you?

Yes or no?

My All American Multiethnic Family


“So, how does it feel to be half Chinese and half Japanese?” I asked my kids one day.  My husband David is from Hong Kong, and I’m from Osaka.  Though our kids look generically Asian, they are of mixed heritage.  Chinese and Japanese cultures are quite distinct and different from one another.  I wondered what it’s like for our kids to grow up in such a multiethnic home.

“I feel more half Japanese,” answered one child.

“I am AMERICAN,” chimed the other.

I can’t remember which child gave me which answer, but the fact is that while both of them feel slightly more familiar with the Japanese culture with me as their mom, they mostly identify themselves as simply American.  David and I celebrate that concept wholeheartedly.

Thanks to our many trips to Japan and their growing interests in anime and J-pop, the kids feel like they know my culture somewhat better than David’s.  Nonetheless, Japanese is a foreign language to them.  I tried to teach them my mother tongue by taking them to a Japanese school once a week for many years, but they got bored with the language lessons.  “When can we quit?” became their mantra. Finally, at the end of school last year, I let them “graduate.”  I couldn’t very well force a high schooler to continue with something he despised, and Meg certainly wasn’t going to keep attending if her big brother wasn’t.  Besides, they really weren’t learning a whole lot, and David got tired of spending money on classes they neither enjoyed nor benefited from.

They did learn a lot about many Japanese traditions at the school, however, as the teacher worked her lessons around every conceivable holiday on the Japanese calendar.  They also got a good peek into the culture just by learning about the language itself.  The way we phrase sentences and use honorific words explain much about the Japanese society:  We defer to those above us in societal hierarchy, we do everything in our power to save face, and we never directly say “no.”

While I worked hard to lose my Japanese accent, I worked even harder to think and to behave more American — to try to speak my mind, to be honest with my no’s, and to be assertive when I needed to be.  My husband David might argue that I’ve gone too far in my efforts, but I think I now operate at a pretty healthy level in this country.

I’m sure David wishes that our kids would learn Cantonese, a language also steeped in its own cultural traditions.  To me, two people calmly having a Cantonese conversation sounds like they are bickering.  In fact, there is no mincing of words in Chinese, and they tell it like it is.  It took this Japanese girl some time to get used to the straightforwardness of most Chinese folks.  But then I began to actually appreciate that they are so real, because I know exactly where they’re coming from.  There’s no guesswork involved, like when I deal with Japanese folks.  It’s actually much more refreshing!

When David and I announced our engagement many years ago, both of our parents had to overcome major obstacles to accept the other culture.  We tried to explain that the war ended half a century ago, but memories linger, and it is nearly impossible to turn around the big ship of cultural preconceptions.  Kudos to both sets of families for eventually accepting us and delighting in our mixed-blood children.

I’m glad for our kids that they don’t have to overcome these difficult cultural barriers.  They are a product of my Japanese and David’s Chinese heritages, but they’re operating just fine in this modern society as distinctly American children.  My hope is that they each take away the best of both my and David’s backgrounds and make something even better out of their lives.

That, after all, would be the ultimate American dream.