It’s human nature to often associate ourselves with labels as it usually gives us the means to categorize or classify with others around us. Labels can act as a form of measurement and therefore it gives reason for comparison and sets the precedence as to how we associate our status and success with one another. Within Asian cultures, labels are generally resorted to as a means of measurement to your achievements, hierarchy within a home, and where you fit within society. It also serves as an extension card to your parents and family members.
However, most of us don’t realize that labels aren’t always a good thing. Humans are complex and adaptable human beings which makes us not easily categorized or compartmentalized. We all have uniquely different upbringings, temperaments, experiences, and mindsets that attribute to who we are. When we attach labels to ourselves, we begin to define our individuality to the label. No longer are we molding ourselves to who we naturally should be, but we are molding ourselves to the idea of what the label ought to be.
In Asian families, there is a hierarchical position of each person’s role that plays a significant rule in how we approach one another. Because of this, elders typically favor age, as it’s perceived to come with experience, over innate and cognitive abilities. This means that elders typically resort to labels for their decision-making process or to display respect and admiration. This overshadows a person’s skills and abilities and whether or not the perceived experience holds merit and validity, especially when those skills and abilities are within a field that the elder does not deem to be of any importance. However, if a younger child is able to obtain the title of a preferred career choice, such as a doctor, this trumps the hierarchy rule as their doctorate degree is now an extension for every other family member to boast about, regardless if the child is a happy and successful doctor. This also means that labeling isn’t something that is biologically inherent, it is learned, cultured, and adaptive.
Labels also tend to stick, and it makes it hard for self-assessment and growth to occur. If you’ve been labeled as being different your entire life, you start to cement the assumption that you can’t do certain things, and it’s hard to find change. You may even use it as a crutch. Labels also come with an all-or-nothing mentality making it hard for one’s point of view to be put on a spectrum in regards to who this person is. When you deny people and yourself the opportunity to change and move in a different direction, you deny a sense of what makes us human.
Even labels such as “mother” or “father” can be dangerous, for we allow these roles to define us rather than ourselves deciding how we want to define and show up in these roles. Labels typically come with a standard or example to them, making it hard for some people to have self-expression, vulnerability, and humility. To further this, children are typically blinded by labels, and thus they are unable to see their parents as regular humans capable of making mistakes and having their own needs. Understanding each other is so important for a trusting relationship. It allows us all to better navigate our relationships with clarity, empathy, and compassion. Thus labels are very limiting and reduce our abilities and proper judgments.
If we define ourselves by a doctor, musician, manager, or any other job title, then who do we become once we lose these jobs, abilities, or interests? Most would say that Asian immigrant parents would want us to strive for careers as doctors, lawyers, or engineers, for the perceived stability within the community and a secure future for their kids. But what’s unfortunate is that most parents don’t realize that these roles aren’t always cut out what their labels portray them to be nor do they realize that their child’s inner strength may not be best utilized in these jobs. Personally, I would be spinning with anxiety knowing that a doctor is performing surgery on me yet he/she has no interest in being a doctor at all. Labels are so empowering that these underlying points are often overlooked by Asian parents.
Most Asian parents view these careers as stable set-for-life careers without really taking into consideration what the major highs and lows of these careers really entail and if it matches with their child’s temperaments. There is also a sense of personal gratification when Asian parents are able to label their child within these careers as if their child’s achievements are an extension of themselves without understanding the trials and turmoils that are felt when their child is performing at these jobs. If the child has a shortcoming in these perceived achievements, their parent often would reprimand and use comparison as a tactic, rather than trying to understand the child’s temperaments, strengths, and weaknesses.
So rather than encouraging children to grow into their individuality and allowing them to succeed as their genuine selves, Asian parents utilize fear, anxiety, competition, status, and extension of authority as a surefire way to get their child to succeed in life.
Labels are sometimes externally given to us, and when we live up to a label that someone, who doesn’t know our entire picture, has given us we can become demobilized thanks to another person’s perception of us. For me, I get extremely uncomfortable when I’m put into a group where other people get to decide what my values are – especially when they’re unable to see all the other parts of me that make me who I am.
Joining groups, being a part of a ‘tribe’, being accepted in a family, are all common social desires within human nature. It becomes problematic, however, when we are unable to draw distinctions between our own original thoughts and recognizing when we blindly accepted someone else’s beliefs and thought patterns as our own. We make our world smaller and simpler by filtering what we hear and shaping the reality we see within ourselves and those around us through labels – this is an unrealistic view of the reality we live in. Human beings operate on a multitude of spectrums and levels and we can’t fit in a simplified labeled box.
“We won’t be distracted by comparison if we are captivated by purpose.”– BOB GOFF
Labeling something we are all guilty of. We fail to look at the whole picture within someone’s humanity, which in return causes harm to their individuality. This creates mental health stress as people feel the pressure of having to live up to something or not being good enough. In Asian families, these labels can cause family members to feel trapped and they’re unable to properly identify between the label and the human that the label is covering. It is very common for people to begin to internalize their labels as well. Words hold power, and we seem to forget that time and time again.
Labeling is essential in life as it’s a useful tool we use to catalog information, experiences, and even a great way to introduce ourselves to someone. But we need to remember is that labels are just that, labels. Among topics of race, gender, socioeconomic status, mental health, religion, and everything else in between, we would have fewer issues of stigma and discrimination if we all gained more perspective on our actions and our words.
When was the last time you removed the “Mom” and “Dad” labels that were defaulted to your parents when you were born? If you did remove these labels, who would you see, and can you accept their humanity without letting it interfere with yours?