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Boundaries in the Context of Asian American Households: Where do you start?

When two very different cultures meet, they tend to clash. This is a common experience for Asian American households. Especially between the first- and second-generation Asian Americans, their values conflict. Individualism versus collectivism—which one is the “right” way to be? Specifically, when we talk about boundaries, which values should we prioritize? 

But first, what are boundaries? And why are they important?

What are boundaries?

Boundaries are the lines that separate between one person and another. Boundaries help us distinguish what is me, and what is you—whether it is your physical space, feelings, thoughts, responsibilities, needs, or preferences, each individual has different boundaries. We all have different needs and standards on what is acceptable to us.

Are boundaries bad in Asian American families?

Oftentimes in Asian American households, boundaries are seen as “bad” or “too American.” Boundaries are often associated with Western culture, along with having blurred boundaries being labeled as “codependent.” Being “codependent” has also been labeled as “bad” in Western culture. However, this is from the lens of a White American, and does not consider other cultures that may have different social norms, one being boundaries. Many Asian cultures have collectivistic values, meaning it is normal for Asian American households to prioritize group needs over individual needs. Before answering this question, let’s first explore what individualistic and collectivistic means, and how they apply to boundaries.

Individualism vs. Collectivism

A happy family laughing together representing that setting boundaries can bring harmony to families in the Los Angeles, California area.As mentioned above, collectivism refers to prioritizing the needs of a group, rather than individual needs. Collectivism values community, belonging, and harmony. Individualism prioritizes individual needs, freedom, autonomy, and independence. Individualistic cultures, such as American cultures, see more of a separation between people and embrace uniqueness. Collectivistic cultures, such as many Asian cultures, see a person as part of a group; each person plays an important role in maintaining the harmony and functioning of the group. Many Asian American households tend to have more collectivistic values, which means that their idea of boundaries may sometimes be nonexistent, or it may appear as if they have little to no boundaries compared to a household that adopts individualistic values.

It’s challenging to have first- and second-generation Asian Americans in one household, where the first-generation Asian Americans tend to keep their values from the country they immigrated from, and for second-generation Asian Americans to be conflicted between honoring their parents’ values, but also having to adapt to individualistic values outside of their homes.

How boundaries may look in Asian American households

When we prioritize group needs, it is natural for our boundaries to blur and we tend to look past our own needs. Older generations tend to not know what boundaries–or even privacy–are. These concepts were nonexistent to them. I personally have experienced this with my own parents, who are Korean immigrants. I have seen their lack of knowledge and awareness of boundaries and privacy as part of them living in poverty during their childhood in addition to adopting collectivistic values in their homes. Sometimes there just wasn’t enough physical space for privacy to be granted, or a lot of day-to-day items were shared by the family because they didn’t have the luxury to have their own items. Immigrants usually carry this mindset and lifestyle into the United States, and often don’t realize that their children may have different standards in what is acceptable to them. Due to the discrepancy between the values of usually first- and second-generation Asian Americans, there may be a lot of conflict in Asian American households.

For example, I have personally dealt with my parents barging into my room without knocking and opening my mail. I have had to tell my parents several times to knock on the door before entering my room, and to not open my mail before they hand it to me. Initially they did not understand what the problem was, so it was difficult for them to honor the boundaries I had set. Eventually, I think they began to understand that there is a line between me and them. Perhaps they would have liked to have their privacy as well when they were growing up in Korea. It has also been difficult for my parents to understand that I cannot drop everything I am doing whenever they need my help 24/7, but I think we’re slowly coming to a mutual understanding on how having these expectations are not always feasible.

Why is it important to set boundaries?

When we see ourselves as a part of a group, such as being a part of a family, it’s easy to neglect our own needs. Our families may have expectations that we will drop our lives to help the family as much as we can, but the truth is, we also have our separate lives and obligations. It’s important to take care of ourselves in order to take care of others. To do this, we need to set healthy boundaries.

Self-care and boundaries go hand-in-hand. A common analogy to depict this is having a person put on their oxygen mask first before helping those around them put on their oxygen masks when a plane falls. When we do not honor our needs first, then what emotional, physical, and mental capacity will we have to be there for others?

Interracial family laughing in a bed together representing how closer bonds can be formed with appropriate boundaries are established in the Los Angeles, California area.We use boundary-setting as a way to be compassionate towards not only ourselves, but to others as well. For example, let’s say you’ve had a long day and feel depleted and tired, and your mother wants to vent to you about an upsetting situation she faced recently. You may want to be there for her, but you may not be able to show up for her the way that you want to. Maybe you’re having difficulty staying present while she’s talking, or you’re too tired to really listen to her.

Perhaps your mother sees how inattentive you are, and she gets hurt. She may internalize this as her not being a priority, or you not caring enough to listen to her. You’re tired and unwillingly there, trying to be there for your mother. Your mother feels hurt that you don’t seem to care or show interest in what she has to say.

In this case, it may be best to gently tell your mother that you would love to listen to her and want to be there for her, but you just do not have the bandwidth to do so right now. You can suggest a time to call or see her to make that time if that feels authentic to you.

What does it look like to set boundaries?

Some of my clients tend to believe that setting boundaries with their parents means that they must completely cut off contact. In extreme situations, this may be the case, but most of the time there is a wide range of ways we can set boundaries. Setting boundaries means that we are finding ways to honor our space, feelings, thoughts, and responsibilities without sacrificing our relationships.

Here are some ways you can start setting boundaries with your family members:

  1. Get in touch with how you are feeling first as much as possible. It may be a bodily sensation. Does your chest tighten? How low on energy are you? Maybe you’re hungry. Whatever it is, we want to be aware of our mental, emotional, and physical states first before saying yes to a task.
  2. Assess your needs. What are your needs? Do you need to eat first? Go to the bathroom? Do you need emotional support?
  3. Say no when necessary. We have to be able to learn to say no rather than spreading ourselves too thin and feeling overwhelmed. This can be done gently by stating you want to do certain tasks or being there for a family member, but you just cannot seem to have the bandwidth to do so right now.
  4. If applicable, set a time/place of when you will be able to do the task. You have a choice to say no and not do the tasks at all, even if it may feel as if you do not have a choice. However, if you genuinely want to do the task later, then you can suggest a time when you plan on doing it.
  5. Be authentic with yourself. How much of your role in your family feels performative, or obligatory? How much of your familial responsibilities are what you really want to do? How much guilt do you feel when you say no? Is facing the guilt manageable enough, or does it feel like it consumes you? Sometimes, the line between want and obligation can get blurred. Sometimes, we need to do certain things out of obligation that we choose not to escape from due to possible consequences. But being honest with yourself as much as you can may help bring clarity to where this line lies for you.

Which is better–individualism, or collectivism?

We need both. Interdependence is at the heart of collectivism and in good spirit. We need and rely on each other; humans are social creatures, and it would be unrealistic to attempt to live a life to not rely on anyone, and to expect each individual to be fully self-reliant. It’s also important to embrace uniqueness and acknowledge one’s individuality. Having freedom and autonomy are crucial to cultivating agency in our lives. Each of us has different needs, and the only way for people to know how to know our needs is to be able to communicate them effectively.

Heart of healthy boundaries are closer relationships

Mother and daughter cooking together representing that if good boundaries are set, closer relationships can be flourish in the Los Angeles, California area.Setting boundaries is not a luxury, but a right. Each of us deserves space between one person’s physical space, feelings, thoughts, responsibilities, needs, or preferences. It can be immensely difficult to set boundaries, especially when coming from a collectivistic background; it can feel threatening to the status quo in Asian American households. However, we may want to challenge the status quo if it is only hurting our relationships to our families. We use individualistic and collectivistic values to concoct a better way that honors your needs and your family’s needs. We want to be able to play our familial roles in our Asian American households, but not at the expense of our well-being. Boundaries help with preserving the relationships that matter to us the most.