I had resting bitch face before resting bitch face was popular. As early as 3rd grade, I remember kids at school would ask “What’s wrong?” and I would annoyedly answer, “I’m fine” while the feeling of emptiness and numbness stung inside of me.
Things at home were chaotic, and I didn’t like being the only Asian American in an entire school of white students and being unable to talk to anybody about my true feelings. But I knew that maintaining my perfect little Chinese student facade was what was expected of me, and to air any of my family’s “dirty laundry” would equate to treason; even little kids knew we must always “save face.”
My family always pretended that we were the perfect little family, never sharing with our aunts and uncles, our neighbors, our friends what was REALLY going on. Facebook in the Flesh, when Mark Zuckerberg was still in diapers. Before we attended parties, my parents and I would be parked in a friend’s driveway arguing and complaining to each other. I remember watching the adult attendees all putting on their smiles before walking into the party, laughing at the right times and bragging humbly about their children’s latest straight-A report cards or acceptance to some elite private school.
My birthday fell on the yearly Taiwanese-American potluck in Naperville, Illinois on the day after Christmas–it was THE event of the year–the potluck, not my birthday. The celebration of my birth was never spoken of, because heck, my parents didn’t even celebrate their birthdays growing up.
At home, my mom would constantly sigh when I was sick and needed care. She would tell me that the most obedient thing I could do is “not trouble her.” At a young age, I learned not to bother my mom unless my crisis had reached the point as my having an open wound with risk of fainting from excessive blood loss.
The only time I got attention was when I brought my report card home. A good report (straight A’s) meant that I was given the privilege of attention from both my father and my mother independently. I craved this time, as it made me feel alive and that I mattered. A bad report (all A’s and one B) also meant attention from both of my parents, though not the kind of attention I needed or desired.
Early on, I came to live for the words “good girl.” In the moments that those words fell from my mom or dad’s mouth, my beaten up self-image would take a momentary vacation from the continuous stream of self-criticism and self-loathing. I had learned that my value was to bring my family glory (to never, ever shame them).
The reason we moved to the United States in 1972 was so that I could have a better life and become a doctor. Of course, my parents also made it very clear that they weren’t ready to have kids when I was conceived and that I was almost aborted. Oh, and they had wanted a boy. His name was to be I-Chong. Since they couldn’t have any more children, I was to be the token boy-substitute-future doctor-child.
This may very well have been the explanation for my growing up mowing the lawn, playing with toy guns, spending hours weeding, baiting my own fish-hooks, excelling in math (which, contrary to popular belief, was not second nature to me.) After all, the least I could do to make up for being an inconvenient baby, and a girl, was to do everything my parents wanted, right? I would become a doctor, because that was their dream and their plan for me.
Now you probably see how I really couldn’t help but walk around with resting bitch face. All this was normal day-to-day living for me. My Asian face was but a reflection of great unhappiness stemming from crushing expectations, emotional restraint, and shame-based child rearing principles dating back to dear old esteemed Confucius.
All those times that schoolmates has asked me, “What’s wrong?” I wanted to be honest and say, “I’m unhappy. I don’t feel loved or wanted. I feel like I have to keep performing and achieving to make up for the guilt of being born a daughter. I feel like a big inconvenience to my parents every time I ask for something, like help with a school project, going trick-or-treating, seeing the fireworks on July 4th, or worse, asking for a birthday present. And I’m resentful that I was forced to quit cross-country, volleyball, and cheerleading, (to make time for homework), because that destroyed my efforts to break out of the Asian math-nerd stereotype, and perpetuated my resting bitch face.
What is your face saying?
None of us should ever have to live restraining, shaming and aiming for constant unobtainable expectations of perfection. Yet without exception, every Asian American/Canadian I speak with confirms this cultural norm. We don’t even realize we’ve been Asian-culture-normed. AND, even worse, we don’t realize there’s the possibility of choosing to transform such suppressing cultural norms, and so by default, I mean by clinging to the status quo, these soul-crushing expectations follow us into (scratch that, haunt) every aspect of our adult lives.
As my elementary resting bitch face grew into angry teenager face, and matured into depressed adult face, I still told myself everything was “fine.” I didn’t become a doctor after all. I was disowned. But I tried not to think about that. I just had to be a better mom, a better wife, and a better career woman…and then everything would be fine.
It wasn’t fine. Not even close…yet I kept pushing through (yes, you know exactly what I’m talking about, don’t you) until the day I couldn’t lie to myself anymore.
In the midst of a painful divorce, right after I hit the big 4-0, I had to deal with the reality of having to “trouble” others for the first time. There was no opt-out. I needed help.
Months back, I had felt a lump in my breast, but I was avoiding the truth (much like I avoided my feelings all my life). When I finally got the mammogram, I had not 1, but 3, tumors. As this news collided with my difficult divorce and custody battles, I reached my Asian (very tippy) tipping point. I finally admitted that I am NOT fine.
I thought that was the beginning of the end. I had broken nearly every unspoken Chinese taboo. I admitted fault. I admitted I felt ashamed for failing to become a doctor. I admitted I was sick. I admitted I needed help. I admitted I was very unhappy. I admitted I was living someone else’s dream for my life. I admitted I didn’t even know who I was. I admitted I was full of anger and resentment. I admitted I spent my entire childhood on school and schoolwork at the expense of developing personal relationships and now I was doing the same by prioritizing my career. I admitted I didn’t know what I wanted in life…but I knew it was NOT being a doctor. I admitted I was scared I’d regret how I spent my time on earth.
I was broken.
And then something amazing happened. In the space created through the release of admitting everything that I had felt for years, I felt a tingling of something new. Could it really be…. hope? Even mixed with some excitement? Sprinkled with gratitude?
My status quo was crumbling and it wasn’t the end of the world. Rather, it felt as though it could be a new beginning.
Becoming an advocate for your career and life design
As I was finishing up my last chemo treatments, I bought myself a pet rabbit (something I’d always wanted as a child, but my very clean rodent-phobic mother vetoed). I got my nails done at a high class salon (my mother would have called it excessive, so I rationalized that I needed to look professional at work.) I bought myself a piano and joined a choir (after years of putting everyone else’s needs before my own, I knew that music could help heal my soul). I quit my job in which I felt unrespected and taken advantage of (and, in hindsight, allowed me to keep playing small) and I started my own business (what I’d been dreaming about my whole life). I asked for help (and didn’t feel ashamed) and spent a small fortune getting all the help and resources I needed (without the slightest twinge of guilt.)
Finally giving myself permission to say, to hell with everyone else’s opinions, I started to be my own advocate for who I REALLY am and what I want to create in my life. I started to live my life ….and I LOVED IT! We’re talking the kind of love that challenged resting bitch face’s 40-year-reign. That kind of only-child-girl-becoming-the-leader-in-her-life kind of love – one that I could feel buzzing through me and out of me, and that others could feel when around me.
My external transformation was a reflection of my new internal reality. For the first time in my life, I believed that I AM ENOUGH. I am valuable as a human being. I belong and I matter. I was done looking for approval from external sources. I had done that all my life and the only result was it cementing my resting bitch face more and more each day….and may very well have been the catalyst to my getting Stage 2 breast cancer.
My Chinese heritage taught me to be hard-working, respectful, and extremely resilient in adversity. I love that about myself. However, the missing ingredient that freed me to take ownership of my career and life was: confidence. I never had the confidence to become my own advocate. So I did what others wanted or asked of me.
Magic happens when we unleash the confidence that has been so long suppressed by our unspoken norms, shaping us through our Tiger Moms.
I know you’re reading this asking, “Can I have that transformation too, but without the cancer?”
In any way that you’ve been taught excessive humility, self-effacement, deference, or to keep harmony at all costs, I want to help you create the internal transformation that empowers you to live your leadership potential.
Creating a new norm begins with thinking differently. Here are 5 examples of how you can reframe cultural trainings and set the foundation for creating the life YOU desire:
- “Do what others expect of you, even if it means personal unhappiness.” BECOMES “Do what is best for you, because your happiness will fuel others’ happiness.”
- “Fate deals all of us a bad hand, and our job is to suffer silently. Accept the status quo.” BECOMES “The one power stronger than fate is choice, and you always have a choice to change the status quo.”
- “Don’t be a nuisance to anyone. To ask for help is to risk being a burden. It’s better to be invisible.” BECOMES “We all need help. Asking for help doesn’t make you a burden, it makes you human.”
- “Your worth as a person is only measured by your GPA, your degree, and your title.” BECOMES “Your worth is defined on your terms – the limit to which extends as far as you want it to go.”
- “Emotional connection and fulfillment aren’t reasonable goals. Bringing your family honor is.” BECOMES “Honor begins with letting your heart speak through all of your connections and actions. It’s about being true to yourself, along with all those you love.”
Don’t settle for someone else’s dream.
Look in the mirror deeply and find out who it is that is looking back at you. When you finally become your own advocate and design your career and life as you want it here’s what you’ll discover: Happiness – the kind that glows through your face each and every day. Goodbye bitch face, hello real blissful me.
The greatest lesson for me was realizing that when I live with confidence and embrace who I really am (all of the unclaimed potential that I carried around for so long!), I serendipitously found the alignment of fulfillment, success, and impact that I’d wanted all my life. In the end, none of it came through the achievement and approval seeking culturally ingrained within me…it came when I set myself free to be me.