How to Talk to Your Parents About Politics: Part 1
- By Dominique Fong
Photo Credit: Marcela McGreal, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Young Asian Americans describe how they’re coming to terms with political differences at the dinner table and in society
When Jamie Gee joined a Black Lives Matter protest last year, the crowd marched peacefully through downtown Oakland until it got to the city’s Chinatown district, where Gee saw some people smashing windows and spraying graffiti on the walls of Chinese businesses.
“That was upsetting,” Gee said. “I could see they were actively hurting my community.” Soon after the protest, Gee, a 34-year-old middle school teacher who is Chinese American, rounded up friends and a few strangers and spent several hours scraping graffiti off the walls with razor blades. The damage was so extensive, “there was only so much we could do, anyways,” she said.
The protest marked a turning point for Gee. Organizing the community, even in a small way, was one of her boldest political actions. She had voted since she was 18, and had grown gradually more involved in politics during Donald Trump’s presidential term, mostly by donating to organizations that supported causes she believed in. But up until the 2020 presidential elections, she didn’t talk openly about her political actions or views—especially not with close family.
I used to be much like Gee. Growing up in a Chinese American family in the Bay Area, my siblings and I didn’t speak about politics. We were taught that it wasn’t a polite dinner table subject, so we never learned the skills of how to debate civics or share differing opinions. Instead, we were taught to respect authority in the household.
But last year, when my two brothers and I found ourselves sitting on opposite sides of the political aisle from our parents, we couldn’t avoid debate any more. Our views were split by generation.
In December 2020, I received an email from my mother with links to a pro-Trump site that propagated misleading information about the coronavirus. My brothers and I were confused. Why were our views so polar? How were we supposed to respond to our parents? What kind of space could be made for politics in our relationship? One brother pointed me to a Facebook group with more than 8,000 members called “Asian Americans with Republican Parents Support Group.” He sent it initially as a joke.
We siblings, in our twenties and thirties, knew we were more liberal than our parents, who had supported Donald Trump. And we knew we were part of a growing trend. About two-thirds of younger voters aged 18-34 said their views were closer to the Democratic Party, compared with less than a third of voters aged 50 and up, according to the . Among younger voters surveyed, about two-thirds said they’d vote for Joe Biden, and a fifth said they’d vote for Trump.
But I wanted to dig deeper. I wanted to understand the roots of the political differences between generations of Asian Americans, who will likely shape the future of our society. Asian Americans are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the U.S. electorate. Their voter turnout was at an all-time high in the 2020 presidential election, according to an April release from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.
To be sure, Asian Americans don’t vote as a monolithic bloc. For instance, those of Vietnamese descent are more likely to identify with Republicans, while those of Indian descent lean Democratic. And while conservative Chinese Americans such as my parents are in the minority, with only 16% identifying as Republicans in the Asian American voter survey, many of us next-generation voters are diverging from our parents and trying to understand why. We don’t have the tools to navigate political discussions. We don’t know how to balance our more progressive stances and growing desire to express them more publicly, with the desire to respect our parents as many of us have been raised to do. It feels important to find some answers so that we can do the work necessary to preserve our family relationships. A few members of the above-mentioned Facebook group agreed to talk with me about their own conflicts with their parents, and through their stories, I have begun to piece together a picture of how to talk to our parents.
Tip #1: Be curious about why people believe what they believe
Gee, the Oakland teacher, joined the Facebook group because something strange had been happening to her mother for more than a year. Her mother, who had grown up listening to the Chinese state media’s version of world events, started watching videos on YouTube to educate herself more about Chinese history. The issue, Gee discovered, was that after each video, YouTube algorithms would queue up a pipeline of videos that featured pro-Trump, anti-Chinese Communist Party conspiracy theories and extremist rhetoric. Pretty soon her mother was watching up to eight hours a day of these videos. Her mother was hooked. But why, Gee wondered?
Her mother opposed the authoritarian Chinese government and believed that Trump was the strongman America needed to fight growing Chinese influence. That was easy to understand. It was a popular line of thought for many Chinese who had immigrated to the U.S. to escape communism, which meshed with the beliefs of hawkish American elected officials bent on controlling China’s rising global power.
In heated arguments with her mom, Gee began to tease out a few other underlying reasons. First, the videos were in her mother’s native Chinese tongue. Gee can speak Cantonese conversationally but not fluently enough to debate the complexities of politics. The language barrier made it difficult to correct the proliferation of fake information in the videos. “The problem with Asian American parents is they only want to consume media in their native language,” Gee said.
Second, Gee realized her mother was missing context. Her mother accepted Trump’s racist comments because she hadn’t been taught the history of racism and violence against Black people and minorities in the U.S. Even for native-born Americans, those topics aren’t taught in school with any depth. Add the language barrier to the mix, and how do you explain the concept of “red-lining” to your Chinese mother? Or the trauma of the word “lynched”? “It’s really hard to have these conversations,” Gee said. “It’s not like our elders talk to us about these issues.”
Gee needed help. Every time she and her mother argued about their political opinions, they would both become upset, and the conversations would go nowhere. So Gee started looking for reliable sources of information in Chinese to send to her mother. Gee created a spreadsheet she called “Battling Asian American Misinformation.” She posted it to the Facebook group and invited its members to list links to YouTube and Facebook websites of “problematic” online personalities and websites, as well as to sites that have been deemed by group members as reliable and “safe” news sources. Suggestions popped up for sites in Vietnamese, Mandarin, and Cantonese.
Gee sent links from sources in the spreadsheet along with Chinese translations of English news to her mother. She also reported to YouTube videos she thought were problematic, hoping that the tech firm would one day take them down. Gee wasn’t alone. A “Foreign Policy” article also documented how some Chinese Americans are fighting disinformation on the Chinese language social media app WeChat by opening their own accounts and publishing more credible information. Fake news appeared to be prevalent in Vietnamese, too. Another woman I interviewed, Ca Dao Duong, a 23-year-old risk analyst in Los Angeles who goes by Cookie, helped launch The Interpreter, a website that translates news from credible sources in English to Vietnamese.
I reflected on Gee’s story. There were a few lessons. Gee’s curiosity about her mother’s values helped her see that she was being influenced by forces beyond her control, such as the spread of misinformation. It also highlighted the gap in her mother’s knowledge about racism and violence in America, so maybe being susceptible to right-wing messages wasn’t necessarily her mother’s fault, but a matter of education.
My brother has similar ideas for how we could talk to our mother. He questions the credibility of links that she sends us, and he redirects her to read stories from reputable news sources. I think another step we could take would be to get a little more inquisitive without reproach. Many family counseling experts recommend trying to more fully understand why someone holds their point of view, without trying to convince them they’re wrong or change them. Curiosity feels like a reasonable first step toward empathy. My brothers and I understand that our parents are evangelical Christians, and that their religious values influenced their political belief that Trump had the blessing of God to take the presidency. But it feels more complicated than that.
My own American history goes back to the early 1950s. When my grandpa immigrated to the U.S., it had not even been a decade since the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, a xenophobic federal policy that banned immigrants from China. He appeared to have lived the typical American Dream, learning English from waitering in restaurants in New York, then having four kids and eventually owning a property in Sacramento. He was content to have gotten that far, his only regret being not having been able to go to college. At the tail end of the Baby Boomers came my father, who was second-generation American, and my mother, who was originally from Hong Kong and had been educated in France. My parents appeared to fit the so-called model minority stereotype: They graduated college, became computer engineers in Silicon Valley, and bought a house near a good school. They voted, but they seemed more interested in fitting in and getting by in the sunny California suburbs than changing any sort of status quo.
My siblings and I don’t share that outlook. My brothers have been vocal about joining the fight to end racial discrimination. One of them was a participant in Black Lives Matter protests last year, and has recently married a Black woman. He would like to break into C-suite management levels in the tech industry, where there are few Asian American male executives, so that he can be an example for others. My other brother sent me a long series of texts about his frustration with our parents’ silence about the rise in violent attacks and hate crimes against Asian Americans, including the Atlanta shootings in March that killed several Asian American women. We see ourselves as fully American, and are tired of hearing the refrain, "Where are you really from?" We feel entitled to equal rights and are motivated to do our part to fight for them. Why wouldn't our parents, who are also American citizens, take up the same mantle?
Stay tuned for more tips and stories on “How to talk to your parents about politics”
coming in Part Two!
DOMINIQUE FONG lives in the SF Bay Area, working as a content strategist on the product design team of a tech company. She enjoys writing essays and short stories about modern life and is dabbling in writing scripts and creating animations. Previously, she spent more than four years reporting for The Wall Street Journal, writing about financial markets in Hong Kong and later about the impact of China's housing market on the global economy.