5 reasons why being in a Chinese family is murder & ways to break the cycle

betty ming liu Relationships 23 Comments

Jennifer Pan’s parents pushed her to be the perfect daughter. But once she grew up, she hired hit men to kill them. Her story is about more than girl gone bad. Asian family values are detonating in the 21st century. And we must do something about it. 

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Jennifer’s story & our personal stories

I found some research studies that might help us understand what’s happening. But first, a brief summary of Jennifer Pan’s disturbing tale: The parents were ethnic Chinese political refugees from Vietnam. They resettled in Toronto, Canada, met, married, had two kids, Jennifer and Felix). The Cantonese-speaking couple, both workers in an auto parts factory, scrimped to buy a house with a two-car garage. Plus, a Mercedes for him and a Lexus for her.

Jennifer started piano lessons at age 4. The control freak dad tracked her studies and after-school activities. Figure skating lessons led to Olympic dreams — until a knee injury. Eighth grade hopes of being class valedictorian evaporated too. Jennifer started cutting herself. Her grades nosedived into mostly Bs, except for music, which was her best subject. She failed calculus and didn’t graduate from high school.

And her parents didn’t know. The clever, fearful daughter crafted fake report cards. She made excuses about not attending graduation. The parents thought she was commuting to classes at a nearby university pharmacology program — Dad’s dream for her. In reality, she was hiding out at a public library downtown. The Chinese-Canadian boyfriend was another secret. Finally, confronted by her suspicious parents, she confessed. The father put her on lockdown. The daughter hired contract killers.

On Nov. 2, 2010, three gunmen walked into the Pan residence and shot the mother dead. The father survived with broken bones and bullet fragments in his face. Jennifer, 24 at the time of the incident, was sentenced in January 2015 to life in prison, along with the boyfriend and two of the gunmen. They all plan to appeal.

Details of Jennifer’s horrifying, elaborate farce make for a riveting read in Toronto Life magazine. The story was written by Karen K. Ho, a daughter of Chinese immigrants who went to school with both Jennifer and the boyfriend.  Her description of Jennifer: “A social butterfly with an easy, high-pitched laugh, she mixed with guys, girls, Asians, Caucasians, jocks, nerds, people deep into the arts. Outside of school, Jennifer swam and practised the martial art of wushu.”  As for life with a dad who forbid dating or parties: “By age 22, she had never gone to a club, been drunk, visited a friend’s cottage or gone on a vacation without her family.”

Judging by the hundreds of online comments for this Toronto Life article, many readers relate to the issues presented by the Jennifer Pan story. Raise your hands if you do too. Definitely, count me in. My father was also ethnic Chinese from Vietnam. I was supposed to study hard for medical school. Free time was for more studying or going to church. No parties. No non-Chinese friends. I commuted to a nearby college and lived at home. Dad picked all my classes. He wouldn’t let me sign up for writing or English lit. Cs and Ds littered my transcript, which was heavy on business courses. I saw no way out.

Then, when I was 19, a fatal heart attack took my dad. Eventually, I found my way to a writing life. The path included tons of therapy. For me, the only way to heal was to figure out ways to get the love and happiness I never had. Lately, I’ve been combing through hundreds of research studies for a book I’m writing about my experiences. Through the decades, all the studies make one point, over and over: As a community, Asian Americans do not seek enough mental health counseling.

Facts & findings from the experts

Many reasons stop us. Since Asian family values emphasize collective decision-making, parents have both first and final say. The problem starts right there. Because of the cultural stigma attached to mental illness, going to therapy is an act of shame. Other problems keep people away too, especially among the poor — they might lack health insurance, transportation options and English language skills.

The professional articles I’m reading also point to a culture gap between the community and American health care providers who are unfamiliar with our history and how we’re wired. Thankfully, studies show that health care providers who learn about the community can make a difference. In recent years, psychologists have also found Asian Americans more willing to discuss depression; the subject is not totally taboo anymore.

Our ability to open up makes more research possible. Scholars and experts are piecing together a profile of who we are today. Here are highlights of some studies that speak to me:

Fact #1: Research consistently shows that immigrant parents of all cultures are stricter with daughters than sons. Very often, girls are not allowed to party or spend time with friends after school. They usually have more family-related duties that keep them home. Parents, meanwhile, struggle in their marriages. Working wives achieve levels of empowerment that threaten old world, man-is-king dynamics. Husbands who feel emasculated compensate by bullying their wives into obedience.

Fact #2: Self-injury is a growing problem. I’m hearing about it more often but found only one relevant paper on this topic. Female students of Asian heritage at Canadian universities are turning to cutting. Like their white counterparts, they self-injure in a struggle to manage their emotions and personal relationships. Difficulties with parents, peers and suppressed anger are common, according to a 2015 study by Simon Fraser University Researchers. 

Fact #3: When it comes to suicide, young Asian Americans are clearly distressed. Overall, Asian American adults who are 18-34 think more about suicide than any other age group within the community. Those who are 20-24 have the highest suicide rates. From here, it gets worse: American-born women of Asian heritage think about suicide more than anyone else in the country. Asian American women who are over 65 have the highest suicide rates in the entire nation. Interestingly, Asian American men trend in the opposite direction; they kill themselves at rates lower than those on record for white men (whiteness is the standard against which other groups are measured in a majority of studies).

Fact #4: Chinese parents — especially those who have been in the country less than a decade — are reported for physical child abuse at rates higher than the general population. Widely accepted traditional disciplinary practices include shaking vigorously and leaving marks, which are common signs of child abuse, according to a 2014 study by Johns Hopkins University nursing experts. But you don’t have to lay a finger on your kids to abuse them. Isolating a child or withdrawing attention (the silent treatment) for extended periods are also forms of abuse. Remember how it felt when your parents froze you out? I do.

Fact #5: Chinese parents lie quite a bit to control their kids. A 2013 survey compared parents in China to their peers in the U.S. (The mix of American parents was majority white but 15.5% were Asian American.) Most parents copped to making this specific threat: “If you don’t come with me now, I will leave you here by yourself.” But Chinese showed a sharply higher rate of lying to kids to influence their behavior. (E.g., “If you don’t behave, I will call the police.”) Still, parents in both countries said they wanted to raise moral kids who told the truth.

jennifer pan

These studies are reflected in the Jennifer Pan’s sad story. She had the strict dad, the bullied mom who didn’t fight for her, the isolation, the self-cutting. Her brother, according to the Toronto Life story, is out on his own and suffering from depression. We don’t know about suicidal thoughts or if the Pan parents lied to their kids. But these topics are worth thinking about in the larger context of how we either lift up or destroy ourselves and our kids.

Solutions to break the cycle

The Pan family tragedy reminds me that I’m carrying around baggage that needs to go. Way too often, I catch myself in the act of torturing those around me. Definitely, it’s time to change some more, to get more unconditional love and happiness into my life. So here’s what I’m doing to break the cycle:

Solution #1: Give more hugs and kisses. Two years before my mother died, I felt emotionally open enough to reach out and hold her hand. She was 90 and I was 51. The awkwardness eventually passes. We enjoyed sitting together and holding hands, comforted beyond words.

Solution #2: Say “I love you” more often. Words still matter. I was too angry at 19 to talk to my dad. But my mom and I learned to say it to each other all the time. We said it to each other right up until the day she died at age 92. “Love you” is the standard “good-bye” when I talk on the phone to my daughter and bf.

Solution #3: Shut up when people are talking. If someone tells me that they’re nervous or unhappy, I’m itching to either fix things or snap them out of it. If they share their plans, I jump in with suggestions. No! Stop meddling. Leave everyone alone. Just listen. The ability to accept their feelings and ideas is an exercise in unconditional love.

Solution #4: Celebrate my family and cultural heritage. I have great childhood memories of delicious family meals in Chinatown. As an adult, I discovered Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture. I also love dusting off forgotten moments in Chinese American history and exploring what they mean today.

Solution #5: Take life and love a day at a time. Traditional Asians think long-term and big picture. By elementary school, I was told to prepare for my future as a doctor. Once I realized I had other options as an adult, I started living in the moment instead. Day at a time. There is only today, this moment.

Breaking the cycle means making changes. It starts with sharing more hugs. xo


Comments 23

  1. Post

    The five research studies fascinated me. Did they do anything for you? Let me know either on this post or email me privately. I can share more stuff I’ve dug up, if anyone is interested.

    1. My DIL is Chinese, from Puxi Shanghai. I am disabled and her treatment of me has been very abusive. She mistreats me using the same tactics as the parents in your story: guilt-trips, silent treatment, telling me that I am unimportant, immature, impressionable, manipulative, and a bad mother. I recently caught her in a scam to get me out of my apartment. She apparently considers me to be inferior to her. She is a straight A student with 3 degrees in 4 years.
      The saddest part is that I loved her very much until she completely changed after marrying my son. Now I have no direct contact with my son. I am broken hearted and in therapy.

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  2. Betty thanks for this piece! Being married to an Indian guy, I can kind of relate. Makes me wonder what kind of parents we’ll eventually be, or at least how confused a kid we could raise.

    1. Post

      Welcome to the family, Laura! There’s so much going on in the heritage cultures. Mix in the immigration experience and all kinds of things happen. You are in for a wild ride. But at least life will always be interesting.

      “Asian American” covers more than 30 different Asian ethnic groups and nationalities. Each subgroup has distinct qualities and variations. By the way, I found a fair amount of research on Asian Indian issues too. Keep your eyes out for this stuff. If I had access to the kind of material I’m reading now, I think I would’ve been a very different Chinese American woman and mother.

  3. I see lots of similarities here to some West Indian families, Betty. The bullying, forcing kids’ studies, pressure and unwillingness to seek out help when needed are traits that certainly appear in both cultures. Thank you for writing this and for demonstrating ways to break the negative cycle.

    1. Post

      Gayle, so glad you’ve commented. I’ve come across plenty of studies that make your point. So many groups have this tough love track record, especially in immigrant communities. Immigrant moms and dads desperately want better lives for their kids — and themselves. It’s tragic that misguided tactics hurt more than help.

  4. Great post, as always, Betty.

    I wonder if speaking up when people see these sorts of abusive conditions is also another solution. Jennifer’s situation seemed to worsen as her (awful) boyfriend basically egged her on, instead of trying to get her help or intervene in her family’s behavior.

    I feel like Asian people tend to not speak up about these sorts of things, preferring to “leave it in the family”, and these cycles perpetuate.

    Really unfortunate that it takes incidents like this to really raise this sort of discussion…

    1. Post

      Ray, you speak the sad truth on every point. As the health care profession says, Americans of Asian heritage are the least likely to get help. As you point out, the typical response is to leave it to family or wait for the problem to resolve itself. Just by talking about it now, we’re making a difference. I really believe that.

  5. Good to write honestly about this topic, Betty. Earlier this year, my daughter told me of an Asian classmate at U Penn who comitted suicide. The news was startling because while they were not close friends, my daughter knew her well enough to attend the memorial. Seeking mental counseling has traditionally been frowned upon in the African American community as well, and only recently has there been more willingness to seek counseling, and know that it’s OK to do so….

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      Leslie, the college suicides should not be happening! If only we gave our kids more support. People of color have not been big on therapy — people of all colors. I found one interesting study that said white college kids, as a population, tend to be in better shape mentally and emotionally. This is because they are the most affluent student demographic compared to kids of color. With more resources, they more help, more counseling, more advancement opportunities. The whole thing is a viscious cycle of need.

      1. Betty, Asians and Indians are more affluent than Caucasians so that can’t be it. Maybe Caucasians on average are just doing the best parenting job.

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          I don’t know, Mai. It might be hard to generalize. The only thing I really know is what I experienced being in a Chinese immigrant family. And even with that, my perspective keeps shifting as I grow more. Thanks for dropping by to share your thoughts!

        2. Post

          Mai, the older I get, the harder it is for me to generalize. At this point, all I know for sure is what I experienced growing up in a Chinese immigrant family. And even with that, my perspective keeps shifting as I keep changing. Thanks for dropping by to share your thoughts!

  6. My sainted father once said “raising kids may sometimes be difficult but it isn’t complicated. All you have to do is give them love no matter what – always give them love.” I was always rewarded in some way when I did something well but never punished for failure (Algebra!! I HATED it! and I might add, they lied when they said I’d need it later in life. I have NEVER needed algebra.) Father was a star athlete in high school and college and played pro football for 2 years in 1930-31. I was the classic gay boy who hated team sports. Far from trying to make me into a copy of himself, I never even knew about his athletic career until after he had passed away. I was into books and worlds of fantasy so that is what he encouraged me in. I attribute much of my happiness in life to how I was raised and it saddens me beyond words to hear stories of those like Jennifer Pan whose parents didn’t understand such basic concepts as your child is not an extension of yourself, obligated to fulfill your dreams and aspirations. Genuine love is expressed by helping people become what THEY want or need to be – NOT what you think they should be – a good maxim for all relationships, not just for raising kids.

    1. Post

      Toby, I envy you! Can’t even imagine having a dad like yours.I’m intrigued that he never told you about his sports career. Is that a form of shutting up and listening to who you are and what you want? The notion of putting control back in the hands of the individual goes against traditional Chinese culture. It’s all about the collective. But change starts one person at a time, right? Thanks for stopping by. :)

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  8. I busted my butt off in high school and endured countless physical and emotional toil that’s all familiar with kids growing up in immigrant Asian families. I ended up getting into a top university in the US but things went downhill after I graduated (with a low GPA.) I wanted to start working at a job but my parents (who have been brainwashing me that the only path to success is getting a PhD) pretty much blackmailed me into going to grad school (which I didn’t get into a good grad school due to my low undergrad GPA.)

    I feel that one of the reasons Asian Parents want their kids to go to grad/Law/Med school is not just for the prestige because they can keep them on the financial leash for as long as possible (but I digress.)

    Long story short, I failed out of grad school with a Masters, then was forced to reapply to another grad school which I ended up finishing with another Masters again. And this is when I finally decided to give up on my parents’ path regardless of how much coercing, guilt tripping, blackmail, etc. Due to being in school for so long and not having worked (not to mention finishing my 2nd Masters in 2009 during the worst of the recession.) I’m now an unemployable person with 2 Masters Degrees in Engineering, few career prospects, and never made more than $45K a year despite ALL the pain and suffering I’ve endured from my parents.

    Is it my fault? Before I answer that, in the eyes of prospective employers and pretty much the outside world, the answer is a resounding “YES”. But if I told my story in gory detail (more that what I’ve briefed here), I’d be willing to bet most people wouldn’t put 100% of the blame on me. Down to heart, I still partially blame myself and put the rest on my parents (although the exact proportions seem to shift randomly over time.)

    I feel that Jennifer Pann was put in a similar bind as an adult. She had a shitty life and couldn’t muster up the courage to outright rebel against her parents and take full responsibility even though that’s probably what the world expected of her if she were to turn her life around. The world, with its superficial understanding of traditional Asian Parents, put the blame entirely on her when she put most of the blame on her parents. Trapped, she decided to murder her parents and collect the inheritance and life insurance payouts. Not that I’m justifying what she did (and believe me, I’ve wasted countless hours of my life contemplating what I needed to exact revenge for what my parents have done but never thought of going as far as Pann did.. and I eventually settled on doing something more constructive like creating a blog advising other Asian young adults how to turn their life right side up again after regaining control of it from their parents.)

    1. Post

      JJ, I just looked at your blog and it’s great that you found a way to stand up for yourself. I still think you can have your life back. It’s not too late. Some of us our late bloomers. That is certainly my story. It’s taken me a long time to find my voice and myself. But at least I’m finally on a path of my own choosing. Good luck with your journey!

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  9. Betty your post is wonderful. I am a Puerto Rican Biracial American women. My mother was just as controling and crazy as any Asian mom out there. So while the Asian community does trump my culture in general….It does exist in other cultures in a big way. I thought perhaps it was just an issue of growing up with a control freak or a mom who was a white Puerto Rican of the upper classes. Whatever it was I saw my own sister run into the arms of her English husband and leave me stranded. There was really not many people who could relate to my story of crazy control and abuse. I didn’t even have the luxury of putting a cultural stamp on it.
    But I got through it and though I did take care of both of my parents through there old age. Looking back I would never want to relive this again and wiuld not wish it on anyone….but, I am extremely strong now and know it is because of what I went through. We can help others to become healthy and not accept the heritage of fear, and severe mental insanity that we abused immigrant children inherit. And we can share more hugs and kisses. And write articles like your. Let the healing begin.

    1. Post

      My goodness, Alba, what a wonderful note you’ve leaving me here. I like how you describe the issue: a heritage of fear. We’re dealing with a problem that transcends any one ethnicity, race or culture. It’s a human condition. I am also inspired by your compassion in caring for your parents. It’s taken me a long, long time to truly love my parents. But I do now. They did the best they could. And it’s up to me to do better. Thank you so much for stopping by!

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