How to Talk to Your Parents About Politics: Part 2
- 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
Tip #2: Understand the impact of traumas of the past
Johnny Trinh, a 23-year-old from Westminster, a southern Californian city with the country’s largest population of Vietnamese Americans, started to see how his parents' flight from the Vietnam War shaped who they are and made them cling to certain conservative messages. At first, he felt like they had no common ground, but over time, his criticism of their views softened. He became less quick to judge, and more eager to preserve what he could of their relationship.
His father, Trinh said, arrived in the U.S. at the military base of Camp Pendleton as a child refugee from the Vietnam War. His father eventually graduated from college and became a doctor, and because he found success despite hardship, he continues to believe anyone can make it in America even if they start with nothing. Trinh said his parents seemed to hold onto a halcyon view of America, a paradise where every person has a fair shot at a happy life with a good college degree, a good job, a house and a car.
During college at UC Santa Barbara, Trinh's views became more liberal. Not all economic groups and races start off with the same opportunities, he tried to explain to his parents. The May 2020 killing of George Floyd by a policeman sparked heated arguments between Trinh and his parents about racism. Trinh wished they had gone a little differently.
Many Vietnamese Americans who escaped communism during the war now fear any form of it in politics, which they relate most closely with the Democratic Party. Partly as a result, many older Vietnamese American voters tend to vote Republican. This makes the political contrast with their children particularly sharp. More than three-quarters of the members of the Facebook support group say they are of Vietnamese descent. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post that "many in that community insist that there is only one way to understand the war, history and politics. This not only widens the divide between Vietnamese refugees and Vietnam, but between refugees and their children, many of whom reject the politics of Trump."
“Because of historical reasons, because of my parents’ history, because of honestly like the Vietnamese immigrant community’s fear of any socialism or communism,” Trinh went on to say, “a lot of things are wrapped into traumas of the Vietnam War and coming into a new world and having to start from scratch, occasionally being treated as less, as second-hand citizens or undeserving of the American Dream.”
Indian American comedian Hassan Minaj portrayed that second-hand status in one of his Netflix standups as a “tax” that immigrants like his father simply accepted that they had to pay. Were my parents just as accepting of the imbalance of the social order as long as they had the house and the car and the healthy kids, I wondered? My parents never spoke of personal racist encounters. Maybe they were blind to them, or remained silent in refusal to grant them any light of dignity. For myself, I ran into racist harassment early on, as a teenager taking the bus and then walking home from school, getting cat-called mocking insults in Japanese or Korean by men yelling out of their cars. I had accepted the insults as a kid because I didn’t know any better. But now, as an adult, I want to live in a better world. I’m realizing now that I want to understand my parents and what aspects of their past have shaped their views of politics and race.
“There’s so much trauma wrapped into that, it’s so heavy to untangle,” Trinh said. “Is it worth it to untangle it? Or be kind and loving to my parents and agree to disagree on some nuanced political issues? I care about them, and they care about me.”
I met another person who is working to reconcile with the traumas of the past. Katherine Antarikso, a 42-year-old architect in Philadelphia and an activist for immigrants’ rights, is a fellow for the “Chronicling Resistance” project housed at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Antarikso, who was born in Indonesia and later moved to the U.S. as a child, is documenting the stories of Southeast Asian immigrants in the city. She’s curious about how experiences in their home country may contribute to their support for authoritarian governments and anti-communist rhetoric.
In her daily life, Antarikso grieves over her relationship with her mother. “Her support for Trump is so painful, that it’s better for me to not talk about it with her,” she said. In February, they talked for the first time since the 2020 presidential election, but they continued to argue. She hopes things will get better, but for now she keeps politics out of their talks and sticks to safer topics like food and cooking. “At the moment, everything is just so charged,” she says.
I won’t fully understand the traumas of my mother’s past, having been uprooted several times before settling in the U.S., learning English fluently, and finally making a home of her own. It must have been an exhausting journey to have paid her dues in America, earned the house, and supported her children to go to college. Maybe through her eyes, that was enough? And if she had made it, then surely the system wasn’t as stacked against some groups as others. Those views didn’t sit well with my brother, who had to sit my parents down and talk to them about racism and violence against Black people, and why the Black Lives Matters protests were not instigated by rioters but rather were peaceful calls for justice. I don’t think I can excuse my mother’s views on Trump and social justice because of her earlier adversities, but I do think I can try to understand how her past has shaped her.
Tip #3: Go for a walk, and listen – reconciliation is possible
Ning Jiang, a 34-year-old community engagement worker at the City of Portland’s water and sewer bureau, saw a dramatic shift in her mother’s behavior last year in the months leading up to the presidential elections, a change so devastating it nearly destroyed their relationship.
Jiang grew up in Qingdao, a coastal Chinese city that is home to the beer brand Tsingtao and which hosts a giant annual beer festival. She remembers her mother not as a traditional “tiger mom” but rather as a cheerful and gentle supporter of both her daughter’s grades and her emotional and mental health. That memory made it more painful to face the changes in her mother last year. Her mother was watching hours of YouTube videos a day, each carrying messages loaded with paranoia and conspiracy theories. Some of the videos alleged that Democratic leaders and the American business elite were part of a pedophile ring backed by the Chinese government.
Afraid of an imminent Chinese world takeover, her mother became tense and anxious. When she went on walks with her grandchildren, she would keep in one earbud, so that she could continue listening to her videos. Jiang argued with her mother about the videos. They tried family counseling sessions. But the fights at home continued. They had their worst confrontation soon after January 6, when rioting Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol to protest and force an overturn of the presidential election results. Jiang’s husband restricted access to the Wi-Fi and put parental controls on her mother’s phone. “I was oppressed in China, and now I’m being oppressed here again, by my own daughter,” Jiang remembered her mother saying.
“As much as I think she was wrong, I know her feelings are real,” Jiang said. “I know she felt disrespected, she felt victimized, she felt traumatized again by her own daughter.” In January, she took her mother out for a long walk. She said that still loved and respected her, that she recognized her feelings. Slowly, Jiang is trying to reconnect with her mother. She listens more. Tries not to change her mind. Her mother is more calm and less anxious. Full reconciliation is yet to come, but the relationship is on steadier ground. For now, her mother has turned her attention from toxic YouTube videos to learning English again so she can take her U.S. citizenship test. Jiang welcomes the fresh start. “I just want my family together,” Jiang said. “I just want my mom to be happy.”
Another final story offers hope. Duong, the risk analyst in Los Angeles who goes by Cookie, was the only person I talked to who had found a way to debate civilly with her father about politics. She says it wasn’t—and still isn’t—easy. It came down to mutual respect. “It was him who taught me to be outspoken,” Duong said. “It felt very wrong to me when our viewpoints diverged.”
Politics and religion were taboo topics in Duong’s family until last year, when Black Lives Matter protests broke out across the U.S. Duong told her father about the history behind the protests, how racist laws and segregation had oppressed Black people for centuries. Her father thought the protesters were violent rioters. In response, Duong made TikTok videos poking fun at the differences between Vietnamese American kids and their parents.
Later Duong remembered watching her father bubbling in Biden on his voter ballot, probably just to humor her. For other candidates and issues, he voted Republican, she said. But the real win, she believes, was their ability to have tough talks and disagree without escalating into fights. “We were able to debate, which is a very foreign concept in Vietnamese American households,” Duong said. “There’s such a big authority gap between parents. Mostly we came out of it civil, argumentative of course, but never disrespectful.”
I don’t think talking to your parents about politics will always end neatly simply by getting curious, understanding their traumas of the past, and proactively creating opportunities to listen, but I do think these are a good start. Avoiding the topic altogether also feels like a natural human response to preserve family relationships, as does gravitating toward food or shopping or other controversy-free topics, and we should feel okay to sit in that space if that is what’s best to respect our parents.
I’ve given up the urge to want to change my parents’ minds about Trump or other viewpoints outright, because I don’t think that’s effective. I do think sharing my views openly and honestly without condescension, and being willing to listen, creates a space where both parties can feel respected and valued, and even find common ground amid disagreement. Learning to hone those skills is important not only to nurturing relationships in the home, but also to making our Asian American voices heard and valued in boardrooms and legislative assemblies and Congress and the highest positions of power.
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.