When it comes to dealing with people whom you reasonably suspect of consistent attempts at emotional manipulation, good faith is persistently misused and routinely abused. Thus I have decided not to attempt that anymore with my narrative around my family members.
Family and domestic violence support services:
1800 RESPECT national helpline: 1800 737 732
My family background is Vietnamese. You can see some trends in the audacity of their behaviour and that of the Chinese government, and I would agree that there are some shared worldviews.
The predisposition for conformity is strong within my family and in others that I have observed, amongst those who strongly value a particular flavour of Asian pride — a pride that deeply prizes politeness, no matter how shallow and insincere; that values submissiveness, obedience and dutifulness as character-building; that values the veneer of stability — a veneer that is taken to be enough to pass for collectivism — above true, respectful conflict resolution and above genuine interaction.
This presents itself in the increasingly strained, awkward gatherings that we were obliged to have with a particular set of relatives. And it is the context in which my family carried out their routine emotional violence and coercive control, and the cultural context in which, I believe, a more assertive and, in some cases, aggressive China is brutally cracking down on dissent.
The symptoms I experience (with autism, and with possible OCD that I was not interested in seeking an assessment for) can come to render it difficult to do daily chores, such as washing dishes (because my mother insisted on reusing the same sets of gloves for months), sweeping the house (because the broom used to sweep the house is also used to crush spiders), and other tasks if I had grown to distrust my family (such as refusing to handle their clothes). They can cause me immense distress, particularly ones involving handling things that my family has touched.
But admitting or elaborating on my difficulties and experiences was almost infinitely more distressing, because it would always be met with either
- denial of the symptoms,
- downplaying symptoms,
- insulting me for not being able to do the work, (such as being implied as "lazy", to which I reply this: I Don't Believe in Laziness, by Idzie )
- emotional manipulation (by my mother) by asking if I cared about her or loved her, or her yelling at me about "when I'm dead, then who is going to look after you?" or her bringing up whatever chores she has done for me (which doesn't mean at all that you get to treat someone else without dignity)
- emotional manipulation (by my father) by constantly bringing up how hard he worked during the day
- or straight-up yelling at me and calling me "weird" or "not normal" (this is so, so consistent)
So this option of verbal resolution came to gradually reveal itself, in more certainty, as unviable, because most of their responses triggered a much more significant distress than the one I was trying to mitigate.
I say, "in more certainty", because I had already reasonably suspected that talking to my family would not result in what I needed in terms of support. But I was pushed to do it by a psychologist, after she kept insisting "you can't control other people" with a patronising smile when I had just retold events. And a close friend would be telling me to speak with my sister, even though I did not trust my sister to have the capacity to make sound judgements on justice, evidenced by her repeated period of slamming doors in my and others' presence.
There is a snark and vicious venom with which my sister operates, in these kinds of circumstances when she is angry with someone. I have been with her on rare occasions when she has ranted about our parents, and during those times, she regularly uses, "I am pissed off", and a few times showed me a meme, telling me, "I want to punch them in the face", saying that meme was how she felt. I felt a chilling feeling, but tried, at the time, to respond to the feeling of frustration with parents.
I have been in the hallways at home, just passing by to go to the bathroom, etc, when she is on call with friends (in a significantly loud voice that can be overheard) talking about "I'm so pissed" about other people at school or elsewhere.
My sister was slamming doors in my presence for 7 months, at an average rate of about an incident every two weeks, but there was a significant serious case where she was slamming it for four days in a row.
The first failure, for my situation, was in a failure of my parents to grasp the idea that their children can have the right to their own lives. The second failure belonged to that of Australian, and, more broadly, Western society to try and understand, listen to, and support someone facing severe distress and family violence, and discrimination within a household.
It is a Western worldview that struggles with plurality, struggles to conceive that there are other cultures that have fundamentally different values to its own.
I can only describe it now that — what I was told to do, by others in Western society, was reinforce submissiveness against the context of power and violence.
Talking about my feelings is something that I learnt and practised, particularly with Between Parent and Child by Dr Haim Ginott. It is a way cherished by me.
Unfortunately, I had a psychologist who did not really understand that this kind of talking and conflict resolution does not work with my parents. To admit your feelings to them — I am feeling hurt, I am feeling distressed by this, — would invariable receive a response of
- blaming you for being too weak
- blaming you for imagining a smell or such
- blaming you for feeling stressed ("the stress is in your head", my dad growled and tapped his forehead)
- accusing you of not be easy-going ("why bother being angry? it just makes you all flustered," said my dad. "You are too stiff. Be more easy-going," my mum would say, to this.)
- dismissing your worries ("it's nothing to worry about, don't worry about it", my mum said very often.)
My mother is constantly conditioning for conformity. What this means is she is constantly criticising her children and everyone she encounters. Non-conformity with her worldview is to be shamed and eradicated. I am not prescribing her behaviour; I'm describing the deep trend.
Growing up, and still now, she will criticise you for
- not walking up straight
- for not sitting up straight
- for your farts stinking too much
- for being too fat
- for being too skinny
- for being in the toilet for too long
- for not drinking enough water
- for your breath being too smelly
- for being too lazy
and that is just the tip of the iceberg.
She used to smack us when we were children, even up to the age of 12 in my case.
I think that the stronger a person feels the need for themselves and others to conform to a particular frame, the higher the risk of them using force to force compliance. This is my observation after years of watching my parents.
I would nominate that in general Australian culture, the stem within male domestic violence perpetrators lies in pressuring themselves to a form of "bloke-iness". That you're supposed to be casual, relaxed, easy-going, jokey. You're supposed to have a laid-back style, good family life. When you don't have a good family life, if you are not equipped with the skills to handle conflict, you can end up forcing your family to adhere to what you want, and it becomes a very slippery slope.
There are conversations on broader Australian culture but it is lacking for me, because it doesn't fully address the backdrop against which my parents are pushing their worldview. So I had to examine some of the culture that they project and inpose.
It is a culture that also values saving face, above sincerity.
Let's go through warning signs listed on an ABC Everyday article about coercive control, and I will show you 9 out of 10 being perpetrated by my parents and family.
- Being isolated from friends, family and other support (either physically or online).
Yes my mother regularly made attempts to portray certain traits of mine as inadequate, and though I didn't take it personally as negatives, it did cause me to believe that other people would not want to be friends with me because of how she viewed it. (As in, the implication was, if she viewed it that way then other people might also view it that way. She would sometimes even portray "bad" traits as, who would want to hang out with you. )
- Turning people against you or behaving so poorly around friends and family that they don't want you as guests.
My mother regularly is turning people against a particular person, such as she continously does for my aunty who is gambling, and other relatives in Vietnam who she perceives to be of bad character, or to be not working hard enough, or not witty enough to deal with poverty.
She paints a picture of me being "lazy" to my sister, which decreased my sister's opinion to the extent that my sister came to feel that she was additionally justified and entitled to slam doors in my face.
- Gaslighting (making you think that they are always right) and forcing you to question your ability to make decisions and can result in you feeling confused and doubting your decisions and memory.
This is the NUMBER ONE thing that my parents do, and it makes me the most enraged. It takes so long to recognise it, when you are disempowered and in this position.
My dad, especially in relation to my decision to quit school, was and is still always, without lapse, insisting that he is right. Most often when he just says it directly, and
It is hard to observe the effect when he uses it on you, but one recent case is when he said to me, "I am ten times smarter than you". Another time is when he said,
My mother has been doing this for my whole life to the extent that it becomes hard to question it. To have a different opinion to her is treacherous territory.
She operates this way with other people in the family as well, insisting that they make bad decisions with money so she tells them how to use it.
- Humiliating or bullying you in front of others. This can include fabricating lies about you.
Humiliation was constant, from shaming me about using tissues to being portrayed as being not able to study, learn to drive, etc.
- Making threats of physical harm (against you, them, your family, your pets) or threatening to take things away.
My dad threatened to break my laptop, was one major incident that left fearful of what he might set out to do. That was in 2017. Two years later I asked him to apologise, and he did because I asked, but I could tell that he never really meant it as reform, or remorse.
This year, at one point, he made a passing comment of "I'll bash your head against the ground any minute now", which is disturbing, as a counsellor on 1800RESPECT said as well.
- Constantly monitoring your activities (where you were, who you talked to).
The extent of this is not as much as the others, I believe, but they were persistently asking to know where I was, etc. But there is a part that unfortunately I cannot quantify that well. So inside our house, we have security cameras. My parents insisted, when I was in older years of primary school, that the cameras were necessary in the case of home invasion.
It's been about a decade later, our home has never been invaded. They still use the cameras to peep at people who ring the doorbell before opening the door, or the rare occasion of neighbours doing something on our block, and both my parents have ALWAYS justified it with these reasons too.
I never questioned the presence of the cameras until I told a close friend and he said he would have ripped them off on the first day of them being there in his home.
I never considered that my dad used it to see what we were up to, without us knowing, until I was overseas with him in California, and my mother and sister were at home. He checked footage of home to see what they were up to, before video calling, to "see if they were free". Then I also saw him checking the cameras during the day when he wasn't about to call them.
So I have no idea how often he is checking the cameras.
What I do know that he does check them. When I was home alone once, because my mum and sister were in Bali, he called to see where I was. When I got frustrated, since I was just in my room, he said he was calling because he "couldn't see me in the cameras", and said "what are you making such a big fuss about?"
I felt and still feel incredibly angry, after that. They have no concept of privacy. (Neither does the Chinese government.)
- Controlling finances; only allowing access to a small sum of money for groceries and asking to see all receipts.
10/10 in relation to they only gave me very little amount of money and it was only ever for groceries.
More broadly, my mother and father would disallow buying things that they did not approve of, and this has been present for most of my life.
When it came to school, my dad regularly tried to emotionally manipulate me in reminding me of how much he saved to pay for my school fees, to use that to make me stay in school (without ever really empathising with my point of view on reasons as to why I wanted to leave.
He consistently called me stubborn, hard-headed, "like talking to wood", and said that "your thinking is wrong", none of which is useful or true but it is gaslighting, because I was worried that I might not be as open-minded as I thought, and thus tried to be more open-minded as to their perspective, which actually just led to them taking advantage of that and abusing it, in their case.)
Where a case of financial abuse really manifested explicitly was when my dad threatened not to pay a $500 deposit for an art course that my sister was attending orientation for. He also said to her that "the path you are going is wrong".
I have prompted him about it and he has only ever justified his behaviour. He has said, "well I was angry, can't I do that?" and he has yelled, "yeah, and she did what I said. Now do you listen to me?!"
- Monitoring all communications: phones, social media and emails.
This is the only one on the list that did not apply to my situation.
- Prohibiting or enforcing you to go to religious gatherings.
This really messed with me in the first three years. My mother kept insisting the Lunar calendar was to do with me having a "bad year". It is only apparent now, but it turns out that everything "bad" was to do with me leaving school got portrayed. I got caught up in weird subset of Buddhist practices like fretting about which way my bed was turned (had to be turned south).
I got pushed to go to church to "correct" myself, one Christmas.
- Taking away your choices or making you feel like you don't have a choice.
This is also a very consistent one. There are so many examples that I don't know what to talk about. From
- eating vegetarian (being told I was crazy "what has gotten into her head")
- to decisions around my life and education choices,
- to going to the park (I was regularly told no because I would be kidnapped, before I decided going for myself),
- to not being allowed to go to New York City when just the prospect was offered as discussion as part of an internship
These are a handful of experiences. Yet when I retell these, to some psychologists, and some friends, I can't understand and accept their response right now.
When theft of a small business in Australia is reported on the news, I usually don't see reporters ask what the shop-owner did to make the thief steal from their business. The crime and act of stealing is considered the responsibility of the thief.
But I was constantly asked for what I did, before each incident of family violence that I retold.
What they are really saying is that they think it's on me for provoking my family. I did initially respond to the question to provide more context. But even when I provided all the context that the only thing that stopped my family's aggressive and degrading behaviour was to do exactly what they wanted and nothing else, I was still being pressed to change my behaviour by friends and psychologists, even when nothing worked.
When I told of multiple incidents of my sister slamming doors in my presence, my friend and a psychologist each prompted me on what I did before the event. In one case, I had wanted to change the television channel, because watching certain commercial channels can be distressing for me and I prefer the public broadcaster. My friend spent most advice on how I could offer to watch the channel by going into the other living room. The psychologist spent most of my session going through ways to express my feelings.
Another time, I talked about how my mother was shaming me for using tissues with another psychologist. She spent two sessions working through how I could use less tissues by thinking differently about the towel.
In none of those cases did any of those people consider that the responsibility for the slamming and insults falls on the perpetrator. The slamming continued whenever else my sister was angry. My mother has never stopped insulting other people when she perceives that they have faults, whereas she herself is almost impeccable.
I constantly felt like I had to explain, to be "noble" in future situations, when all it did was reinforce my family perpetrating their behaviours because they see it as passive or weak. I stayed silent because I knew my family were too narrow-minded. I wanted to leave my family, and save my energy for other people who would be more worth it. There was a psychologist who was telling me to be assertive, and she was sometimes mocking me when I expressed wanting to leave — saying, "well you're not going to move out next week, are you?" I call it mocking because I believe that is the arrogance on which the comment is made.
The only thing that actually stopped my mother from doing a particular behaviour was if I rarely tried using an insult like in the form of ones that she did to me, which I hate doing. There was no amount of attempts of peaceful resolution or requests that could stop the behaviour, because my mother has no respect for that kind of process. I would try asking her to stop shaming or insulting with a particular phrase, only for it to be repeated three times on the next day.
I have long been of the view that my parents will not consider changing their behaviour anytime soon. I can't tell you how many people I've talked to who seem to think that my parents and sister will change their behaviour. It reminds me of this:
Mrs Little said her daughter — a talented trapeze artist and animal lover — struggled to leave Evans because she thought she could "fix him". [ABC]
"I found myself trying to reason with him. I thought he would understand. [ABC]
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews defended [McGuire's] position at Collingwood, saying he didn't think "running away from challenges is leadership". Even Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt said he should keep his job, that McGuire just needed educating.
[…] It is not our problem to fix, explain or educate
We don't, actually. It is simple: racism is a crime.
You don't need educating to know that people of colour are human beings, too, and should be treated as such. How hard should it be? [Stan Grant, ABC]
I would like to add that I feel the same with family violence.
How many times do I have to tell you that my parents will continue their harmful behaviour before you believe me?
They shun any reference about mental health because they believe mental illness is not normal. They shun seeking help because, to them, it is yielding and a sign of weakness.
I can't help but put a 100x in front of this:
"But with [most] mental health plans, you have like 10 sessions.
"I would spend five of those really trying to overexplain my culture and its nuances, and then five trying to get to the root of the problem, but I had such complex trauma that it was impossible to have some sort of realisation." [Source: ABC Everyday]
And Stan Grant was also speaking to my lived experience when he said this:
"As necessary and as urgent and as righteous as these claims are, and this movement is, there have been so many women's voices who have not been listened to for a long time," Grant said.
"And ... when it becomes a white middle-class issue, when it is in private schools, when it is in Parliament House, when it is in the press gallery, we take notice.
"But when Aboriginal women who have been suffering domestic violence at rates 40 times higher than the rest of the population, 10 times more likely to die as a result of that violence, when I have seen Aboriginal women marching and protesting and calling for support for generations, I did not see the same women outside Parliament House.
"When poor women, when migrant women, when refugee women have suffered these things, I did not see the same media attention.
"Poor women do not end up on television programs, they are not on Q+A, there are a lot of voices that are not listened to here and while this is a movement and a moment we need to reflect on our own blindness and biases."
"What a shame it is that a nation reveals what it is by what it cares about. And what a shame it is that it has to happen in white middle-class society for people to suddenly say there is a massive problem here." [Source: ABC]
This week has also reminded us that it is people of colour who will have to shoulder the greatest burden to deliver even incremental shifts in racism.
We didn't invent it. It is not our problem to fix, explain or educate. It is as though black people must convince white people of our very humanity.
I am reminded of what the black writer and psychologist, Frantz Fanon, said: "I am not a potentiality of something; I am fully what I am." [Source: ABC]
And nor is gendered violence our invention.
In the meantime, fortunately, I have found an organisation called inTouch through an SBS article, and they help women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.
Edit: they just turn out to be a referral service and they linked me back to the rest of the broken system.