by Jerri

“Yeah, I don’t think it exists for Chinese parents,” my friend said when I mentioned how I was struggling to establish boundaries with my mom and dad during our hike together last month.

It’s been one full year since I came back in a harried haphazard state, and adjusting to living with my parents again is both one cup regression and two parts coping lesson with a dash of ambiguity. I can’t say that the concept of boundaries is totally non-existent from my observation; it exists when your Chinese parents decide that it’s “time.”

Unfortunately, “Time” is not some agreed-on age. It’s nebulous, and even then you wonder whether it actually happens. For some, separation between you and your parent is inevitable. It occurs regardless of whether we want to or not. But in between that inevitable permanence that sadly happens, the Asian parent is a diligent creature.

On my part though, the roles reversed when I had first returned home. The occupational therapist who visited my father once he got out of the nursing home pointed out to me that I needed to step back, which I hadn’t realized because being the oldest, I was expected to do everything and take care of everything. After all, this is what my parents do with my grandparents. We never had a caretaker for them as the women in the family were the ones who cared for them once they got older. I was doing something that I had seen, and I spent a month being the parent without questioning until it became clear that my father needed to do those things himself if he wanted to regain the freedom of mobility he once had.

So I stepped back, only to realize that inevitably, I’ll be in that position again since the expectation of being the oldest will always come back as my parents age and get older. Boundaries, in this case, is no match for the cultural principle of filial piety that’s seeped so far into my pores I don’t even think about it when I react the way I do. Boundaries are a luxury in my parents’ world, because the lack of an ability to progress career-wise means that you take on a great deal of sacrifice and disrespect that comes with being a non-English speaker. In other words, you do back-breaking crap-work to get to where you want to get to, which in their case was to pay the bills. I’ve inherited that attitude in many ways, and while to endure is good, I’ve fallen short on recognizing when I’ve needed to step off.

I suspect that they’re establishing it, or trying to (or struggling to) with certain things in particular in our lives right now, but boundaries on my end occurs as a response to their preferences on curfew and matters pertaining to me going out at night.

I’m not the product of circumstances, just someone who’s learning to fall properly.