I recently came out of a relationship with a man who prided himself on independence to the point where he wouldn’t want me to take his letters to the post office. As we were wrapping things up he mentioned that I was probably codependent and it’d be good for me to be alone (this didn’t sound as harsh in person). I was in the typical post-relationship “what is wrong with me?” mindset and thought I’d give the label of codependent a try. Firstly, I’m not sure how much he knows about that label, I think he sees pain at separation as a sign of codependence. Or maybe it’s the fact I can be a homebody and if we were to “do something,” it would normally require him choosing and manifesting a plan. It could be because I understand the virtues of independence, but judge activities done with others as generally more enjoyable. What to him were warning signs, I thought as simply a part of my culture.
Here are some commonly accepted characteristic of codependency: low self-esteem, people-pleasing, poor boundaries, reactivity, caretaking, using control to feel safe, dysfunctional communication, obsession with others and/or your relationship with them, dependency on others to make you feel good about yourself, denial, problems with intimacy (unable to be close or accept need for separateness), and painful emotions as a result of shame and anxiety.
Growing up, these behaviors weren’t suspicious to me, but markers of the kind of collectivist mentality instilled in me by my Chinese father. Baba believed in acting like a unit. He was the head of a snake and we were to fall in line. Being together was seen as vastly more important than individually doing what you wanted. Pleasing him, and other elders, was my job as a younger person. I was to follow their orders and even predict what would please them before they did, like prepare coffee to have on hand if they asked. Feelings, which would hinder my ability to follow directions, were to be hidden as a sign of inner rebellion. Resisting was unsightly, unfortunate and something not to be indulged. I was in control of my attitude and therefore responsible for it leaning me towards happiness or dissatisfaction. Having a “good attitude” was part of maintaining control over our feelings. A good attitude was meant to be armor against any affliction. Powerful emotions are chinks in that protection, exposing the inability to control oneself and be invulnerable. Pleasing Baba and my mom, finding self worth in our position as part of the family was exalted. Our highest aim was to be good members of the family, to make them proud, uphold the Wong name. Putting the family before yourself was seen as the greatest attribute, a true indicator of your love, devotion and incorporation of there, and thus our, ideals.
Part of upholding the Wong name was by being a good Buddhist. As a good Buddhist you can’t ignore one of the Four Noble Truths, that attachment (which always comes with life) leads to suffering and only through realizing the impermanence of the things which we desire can we reach enlightenment and end this constant cycle of pain. This puts the responsibility for a person’s suffering squarely on their shoulders, it is not the culture or system which has to change, the pain is an inevitable part of life; you can only change how you are affected by it. In terms of our family dynamics it was subtly implied that everyone but Baba needed to work on their attachment to their ego and desires. This unenlightened attachment caused strife and conflict, if we gave it up, accepted the suffering an inevitable byproduct, we could easily compromise. The more detached from our needs and desires, the better we were truly absorbing our Buddhist lessons.
One of these lessons was we are all interconnected. There is no true “I,” no way to be independent from those who have come before you and those around you who, unseen, constantly contribute to your daily life. A person cannot succeed alone because you can’t ignore all the people who manifested the very environment in which you act. Even the bad and the good are interlocked, leaning on each other, never existing alone. This often came to mean my happiness depended on that of others’ and on the existence and actions of so many others around me. Only by ensuring the happiness of those around me could I make my own secure.
Now, as an adult, I am supposed to be independent, that’s what Western culture expects of me. My desires and actions are meant to spontaneously and originally come from me. There is no wisdom of the elders in this mindset. Codependent. I should express my emotions and desires even if they are inconvenient to the group. Expressing my feelings to my family should be more important than trying to good-naturedly go along. If I deny my feelings, hoping they go away on their own, I am not being true to myself. Codependent. Act out of familial obligation? Codependent.
It’s hard when parts of your culture in the US are closely tied to a mental disorder.
I struggle between my Chinese ideals and those of the West. Both sides are glaring in their contradictions. To the Chinese there is no way to separate yourself from your origin, neglect your role as a daughter or sister, your bloodline, your history, it is a huge part of who you are and who you should appear to those around you. In the West people remake themselves daily, they strike out on their own with no family, they have no Makers to point to in their success, they are their own person, solo. Westerners pride themselves on stories of people who were constantly being doubted by those around them, the underdog, who succeeded against all odds, even the lack of support from their loved ones.
It is hard not to feel pride in the very actions I am trying to suppress, actions I was taught make me a good Chinese daughter and sister, but which are problematic in comparison to who I am supposed to be at 25. Is this the final frontier of assimilation? Adopting your cultural ideals as signs of psychological disorders, or as boundaries to true personhood?
It is hard not to think that in China these traits would be seen as signs of good breeding rather than those of an undesirable partner. If you look for research on codependency in China you will most likely come across scores of news articles about US-China economic codependency. Clearly the epidemic of codependency hasn’t crossed the ocean quite yet. In much the way history is decided by those who write it, it’s become obvious our medical diagnosis are partly molded by the cultural values of those in control of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). However, we are educated not to see the possible cultural bias lurking behind the sciences. In this way we experience a type of medical imperialism, being treated for disorders defined and diagnosed by a system steeped in a Western independent mindset.
While I’d love to rack up my interpersonal issues as another byproduct of The White Man, a cultural misunderstanding or misappreciation, it will never be that simple. Both cultures have values which could lead to happiness. For instance, trying to convince my entire family we are all too codependent will never work, many of those patterns were forged as coping mechanisms or more permanently as cultural indicators. Rather than diagnosing and dismissing, I have to do the harder work. The work of re-examining behaviors, seeing which are true to me in the moment, the best in my eyes, these eyes which will always be infused with Chinese-American values.