Advice by Sahaj Kaur Kohli
Question: My elderly mother lives alone in her home country.
My sibling and I are American-born and don't speak the language there.
We come from an Asian culture where lying about things like illness is common (think "The Farewell").
For the past year, whenever she had a doctor's visit, she'd brag about how healthy she was.
Due to Covid travel restrictions, we were only able to visit recently.
Today, she told me that actually for the past year she had been battling Stage 2 stomach cancer - and is now cancer free!
While I am glad to hear she is healthy, I am flummoxed and infuriated at having been directly lied to for over a year (she suffered several "food poisoning incidents") and can't find it in me to celebrate her good news.
We've talked to her about lying before and how it makes it hard for us to trust her and that it feels manipulative.
This lying has even led to us stepping back from our relationship in the past. She cannot see our point of view, and truly believes she was doing us a favour and that we should be thankful. How do we get past this, especially as she ages and wants to come live closer to us?
Answer: I wish this question surprised me, but it doesn't.
As a South Asian who works predominantly with the Asian diaspora, I know how complicated the cultural and generational differences can be between family members.
When my Indian dad was diagnosed with cancer, I had to face his similar tendency to avoid discussing what he was going through.
His inclination toward making choices without support made me feel like he was being inconsiderate.
Eventually, I had to meet him where he was. Simply telling him I was upset didn't work, I needed to focus on his feelings, instead of my own, to have an inroad to a larger conversation.
If you truly want to find a way to sustain this relationship with your mom, you will have to forgo wanting her to see her behaviour as "wrong," because the reality is your definition of right vs. wrong is different from hers.
You say it feels manipulative that your mom lied to you, and you're not wrong. She tried to control and maintain your perception of her and her reality.
However, I would argue that if your mom was trying to manipulate you in a malicious way, she would have used her illness to control you.
Ask yourself: Did your mom hide this from you to hurt you? This may help you see that she made her choice from a place of love, even if it's a drastically different choice than you wanted.
Accepting this won't make it feel okay that she didn't tell you, and you should absolutely find safe relationships, or a professional, to process your emotions.
But if you keep focusing on what you believe is right, you will continuously fall short on understanding the why. It's like you're each playing a board game by your own set of rules.
Your mom made a choice about what she wanted to share with you, regardless of whether you agree with her decision.
It's not fair that she lied to you. It's painful that she didn't trust you with this information. It's her prerogative to decide whom and what to tell. All of these things are true.
You feel it's your right to know that your mom was sick (and that makes sense!), but she is driven by other priorities.
As a parent, she may have wanted to avoid burdening you with her illness - especially as you are far away.
She may have internalized defining and common Asian values, like protecting her reputation and dignity, or stoicism, causing her to avoid talking about her emotions for fear of seeming to complain.
For as long as her illness was something she could hide, it may have been something she could pretend didn't exist.
Sahaj Kaur Kohli is a mental health professional and the creator of Brown Girl Therapy and Culturally Enough
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