Many Asians are drowning in shame and addictions with no way out. Is this any different from a traditional Westerner? Very much so. Shame and honor are embedded in the Asian way of thinking, behaving, and interacting. If you do not understand the cultural history of honor and shame and its underpinnings, then you will have a hard time understanding the mindset of Asians, let alone the stranglehold of shame that keeps many from breaking the code of silence.
Honor. This concept is paramount to existence for the typical Asian family yet it exacts a spiritual and emotional toll for those who must uphold honor at any cost. The Code of Silence is an unwritten message among the Asian culture to stay silent for fear of losing your honor. But in doing so, many are trapped in shame with no way out.
Is this any different from a traditional Westerner? I would say very much so. Honor and Shame are embedded in the Asian way of thinking, behaving, and interacting. If you do not understand the cultural history of honor, shame and its underpinnings, then you will have a hard time understanding the mindset of typical Asians, let alone the stranglehold of shame in their midst that prevents them from getting help.
When you think of Asian cultures, you must remember that we are collectivist by nature. Unlike the United States which prides itself on the individual or “I” factor, Asian nations are collectivist with “we” being exalted. As a result, Asian societies are often referred to as “shame-based” cultures where social order is maintained through the use of shame. In the Asian culture, the concept of shame and honor are inextricably tied together. It’s like the Yin and the Yang. They co-exist so to fully grasp and appreciate Asian shame, we need to understand this tension with honor. Honor and upholding honor among our culture is paramount. You learn honor early on from your parents that everything we do is predicated on bringing honor to our families: our grades, our achievements, our careers, and our marriages, and our children (repeat cycle with them). “YOU’RE ASIAN, MAKE US PROUD!”
As a first-generation, Chinese-American whose parents sacrificed their own livelihoods to give me the opportunity to get an American education, the mantra was to “honor the family” above all else. Growing up in the tight-knit Seattle, Asian community meant adhering to the unwritten code to make a good name for myself, and thus my family.
My parents were hard-working and low-paid, blue-collar restaurant workers (dad was a cook and mom a waitress) who pinned on their oldest son (me) to succeed in America and reflect this sense of filial honor. I had no choice but to succeed, lest I end up shaming and desecrating my family name.
The "Louie" Name
You learn honor early when your parents tell you about the meaning of your family name and its implications for our lives. As a “Louie”, my honor, loyalty, and allegiance belonged to the family. It is not about my individual self or accomplishments that’s important in life, rather everything I do should be geared towards bringing glory and honor to the family name. How I achieve or fail isn’t so much about me than about the weight of either bringing honor or disgrace to the “Louie” lineage.
Chinese names are written in three characters, with your last name written first. My Chinese name is translated as Louie Fu Yuen. So as a child, when Chinese people asked me what my name was they weren’t asking for my American first name, instead they wanted to know what my family name was. So I’d answered, Louie, Fu Yuen. In China, when you first meet someone this same process occurs where they’ll ask about your family name. If translated to English it would go something like this, “What’s your last name?” There isn’t a desire to ask for your first name until they can understand you within the context of this larger and richer context of your family’s heritage. In answering I’d say, “I’m a Louie”, and they would respond with their own family name so that we can get a sense of who we are as people based on our family lineage and reputation. Consequently as a “Louie”, my reputation and honor today was still in the hands of my deceased ancestors from generations past. If they left a good legacy, then I could find favor within the Chinese community in the present time. The closest American association I could think of that might resemble this linkage to the past is the reverence bestowed upon the Kennedy legacy in U.S. history and politics.
THE OLDEST SON
As the oldest son, the obligation to honor is even stronger. I am the one responsible for carrying this on to future generations. And as a first-generation Asian-American, the expectation to succeed in this new land only made the burden heavier. This is how significant a family name is. Generations of Asian families have built their successes or failures simply from the reputation of previous generations that have gone before them. Consequently, stepping out into the world of education, career, or marriage, the weight of obligation and expectation to bring honor to my family and my ancestral roots was monumental. Anything that would cast a negative light on my name would be seen as dishonorable or a loss of “face” for the family.
Because of the Asian fixation on honor, we learn to do and to achieve as a means to “save face”. Face is the equivalent of how one is seen or judged by another in the Asian culture. When people talk about how Asian cultures are shame-based, they’re referring to the concern one has for what others think about them. If someone has “lost face”, then there’s a deep feeling of humiliation and embarrassment for letting down your family, culture, and self. You can see Asian shame in action when someone commits suicide. Taking your life is seen as an honorable way of atoning for public disgrace and expression of one’s deep sense of shame. It should also be noted the Chinese character or kanji, for “face” is the same character for “mask”. If you follow this line of thinking, where your face is known as your mask, it’s no wonder why traditional Asian people will do whatever it takes to hide their emotions or their true “face” by putting on their “mask”. Since “saving face” is seen as bringing honor to oneself and one’s culture, then hiding one’s true feelings also carries a degree of honor. Hence, the outward display of authentic emotions is shunned since that would be viewed as losing face.
So for many Asians, the toll is tantamount. They will do everything in their willpower to never show any negative emotions or feelings for fear of losing face. Anger, disappointment, sadness, and fear were never expressed or condoned in my family. As a result, we unconsciously learned to associate these emotions as shameful.
“I’m a bad person”
In a strange and twisted way, becoming authentic to our human experience and emotions was internalized as being “bad”. When we go through experiences that are not honorable or proud for our families, what then? When you feel you’ve let down not only yourself, but also your family, your ancestors, and your entire culture, and can’t talk about them, it inevitably leads to toxic shame. This is a shame that seeps into our veins and courses through our very being. This deep sense of rejection, humiliation, failure and embarrassment penetrates our core and robs us of life. We come to view our entire self as flawed, defective, unworthy, and ultimately unlovable.
Sam Louie is a psychotherapist in private practice, specializing in sex addiction and compulsive sexual behaviors. His master’s degree is in clinical psychology with an emphasis in marriage and family therapy from Azusa Pacific University.
Prior to counseling, Sam worked for more than twelve years as an Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist, where he produced and reported on a number of stories related to addictions, recovery, and mental health.
In writing Asian Honor, Sam's goal is to combine his professional background with his own personal struggle of breaking the Asian code of silence so others can experience the healing and restoration available through Christ's redemption on the Cross.