10. Father Knows Best... NOT!- Culture - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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10. Father Knows Best... NOT!- Culture

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > How Dangerous

 How Dangerous is this Person? Assessing Danger & Violence Potential Before Tragedy Strikes

CULTURE: Characteristics, Criteria, or Elements for Aggression & Violence Potential
-- Code: NO=not applicable; YES=applicable; DEPENDS= Depends on other issues or occurs sometimes

CULTURE: YES, Specific Triggering Event
CULTURE: NO, Opportunistic Behavior
CULTURE: YES, Sense of Entitlement
CULTURE: DEPENDS, Self-Righteous Attitude
CULTURE: NO, Ego-syntonic Perception
CULTURE: YES, Self-Esteem Gain or Loss
CULTURE: DEPENDS, Intense Emotional Arousal
CULTURE: NO, Pleasure
CULTURE: NO, Resentment
CULTURE: DEPENDS, Functional Reinforcement (positive or negative)
CULTURE: NO, Characterlogical Behavior/Perceptions
CULTURE: YES, Transitory Behavior/Perceptions
CULTURE: NO, Isolation/Avoidance Behavior
CULTURE: YES, Presence of Remorse
CULTURE: NO, History

Jasmine has told Liam that she will not put up with how he treats her anymore.  Jasmine is third-generation American-born of Chinese ancestry.  She is the head of an information technology human resources department.  Liam is also Chinese-American.  Liam's parents immigrated to the United States in the late 1940s.   They intended to make their fortunes and return to China eventually.  The communist takeover of China changed that plan, and they resigned themselves to staying permanently in the United States.  While both of Liam’s parents took citizen classes and became naturalized Americans, on the home front they remained very culturally Chinese.  Born shortly after immigration, Liam grew up as the oldest son in a family that expected and professed a return to China and being Chinese sooner or later.  Liam said his parents did not accept that China would not somehow become "uncommunist" again or that they could never go back until he was in his teens.  He admitted that he internalized a lot of his parents’ traditional expectations about being a husband and the family.  Outside the household, Liam was required to be a good American and be successful in school and work.  That also fit in with his parents’ Chinese sense of success.  His family was delighted that he found a “good Chinese girl” in Jasmine to marry.  She was not white, brown, or red, or- heaven forbid, black!  They were a little concerned that she may not be “Chinese enough” with her college education, but her family was from the same village as their family.  Jasmine’s family was virtually an institution in Chinatown as the second-generation proprietors of a well-known successful dim sum restaurant.  Jasmine said that although she grew up in the restaurant, her second-generation American parents always encouraged her to step beyond racial, class, and gender limitations put on her by society.  

Jasmine put it succinctly in accusing Liam of being “too damn Chinese!  He acts like he’s the big bad Chinese patriarch and I’m the Chinese wifey with bound feet!  Well, I didn’t go to UC Berkeley and UMass so I could just make babies, cook stir-fry, and rub his feet.”   Liam had strong traditional expectations of how husbands and wives interacted, and acknowledged that Jasmine was “not that Chinese” but couldn’t she be a bit more deferential to him?  She had made a major purchase without consulting him.  She had bought a new expensive computer and some specialized software that she needed for work.  If it were for the household or the kids, that would have been OK for him.  However, it was for her and for her work.  They had the money and she earned at least half of their household income.  Jasmine had not given it a second thought making the purchase.  Asking Liam for “permission” was irrelevant.  It was her necessary work expense.  Liam felt ambushed and when he talked to his father about it.  His father knew best... right?  His father advised him about “disciplining” Jasmine to behave properly like a good wife.  On his own, Liam came up with a budget for Jasmine.  At the kitchen table over dinner, told her that she would have to adhere to it.  That did not go well… actually, it went horribly awry.  A huge argument ensued with explosive anger.  Jasmine threw a glass at him.  It glanced off his arm.  Liam was so shocked that he picked up the thing closest to him- a steak knife and waved it at her.  They both immediately knew they had gone crazy and they both retreated to different parts of the house.  The next time they spoke, Jasmine told Liam that she had made an appointment for couples therapy.  Liam reluctantly agreed.  

Being surprised by Jasmine’s purchase and his father’s instigation triggered Liam.  Being told what she could and could not do triggered Jasmine.  Neither of the two partners was looking for opportunities to be aggressive or violent.  They shocked and surprised not just each other but themselves.  In his residual patriarchal mind, Liam felt entitled to discipline Jasmine (an act of aggression).  Jasmine did not feel entitled to throw the glass at him.  It was a reactive impulsive mistake.  Liam felt somewhat self-righteous about “disciplining” her.  After all, she had done him wrong first by buying the computer without talking with him.  Jasmine also felt somewhat self-righteous because she was retaliating for his aggressing first by demanding she adhere to a budget he came up without her input.  However, neither one continued to hold their self-righteousness in the light of day.  They both admitted that feeling in the right did not justify being aggressive or violent.  They both were stunned when they degenerated into violence at the kitchen table.  Liam realized that his father did not know best.  Certainly, his father's way was not the best in their Americanized household.  The violence was completely ego-dystonic.  Liam and Jasmine’s aggression was intricately linked to their respective self-esteem.  “Losing” the argument was intolerable in the moment.  They both had been aroused in the heat of battle, although they are normally fairly temperate individuals.  The intensity of arousal can depend on how emotionally one is invested in a cultural standard permitting or compelling a behavior, such as aggression.  Nothing like this had ever happened before with them.  Neither had pleasure in the violence and neither had deep resentments about the other over prior grievances.  The functional reinforcement was mixed.  Their respective guilt was terrible punishment and the thought of not being together was just as awful.  They were committed to each other and neither wanted to lose the other.  Liam’s father had encouraged Liam’s asserting his patriarchal role aggressively.  His father’s disapproval of Liam “letting” Jasmine get away with independent action bothered him.  Liam had not realized that he still wanted his father’s approval.  Liam and Jasmine despite Chinese models for husband and wife, both knew that they were not being true to themselves.  They were not just Chinese.  They were Americanized too.  Neither was habitually aggressive and the anger had passed quickly.  They both had tremendous remorse for their actions and despite holding each of their respective perspectives, both partners could see how the other one felt or thought.  

Liam and Jasmine share several “entries” to intervention and change: remorse, desire to be social, a non-violent ideal self or identity, experience of violence being non-reinforcing (punishing), and identifiable triggers to avoid or problem-solve.  Their profiles are comparable if not identical to the frustration profile.  An important distinction however would be that although Liam and Jasmine’s frustration and emotional reactivity was functionally driven by circumstances, they were also significantly influenced by cultural models and expectations.  Specifically, their frustration and circumstances are driven by cultural differences between their mutual models.  Liam has a more traditional patriarchal model and expectations for how he and his wife are supposed to act.  His more traditional Chinese practice of being a “good” and appropriate husband-leader is frustrated by Jasmine’s more American egalitarian practice of being a “good” and appropriate wife-partner.  Jasmine was surprised Liam acted as a “bad partner” instead of as an equal partner by questioning her actions and her rights to make decisions as an equitable partner.  Liam was surprised that Jasmine was a “bad wife” by not deferring to his dominant position as patriarch.  

The therapist should not only address dealing with triggers and emotional reactivity, but also use a cross-cultural approach to the couple's therapy.  Pathologizing or making either partners’ models or expectations right or wrong risks antagonizes one partner or the other.  The cross-cultural approach honors Liam’s patriarchal instincts as deriving from a logical sequence of experiences given his family-of-origin history.  It also honors Jasmine’s egalitarian expectations as deriving from a different identifiable set of social and cultural experiences from her history.  Each cultural model can then be examined from the perspective of functionality.  "How did that work for your parents?  How does it work for you with your partner?"  Each model is honored in terms of its applicability and practicality in specific contexts, and then duly challenged for applicability and practicality in other contexts- specifically as currently manifested in the couple.  “I know that is what you want… or what you think is right.  I’m not going tell you what is right or wrong, but I can tell you what hasn’t, don't, or won’t work. What you want the other person to do… to be… is it realistic?  How Chinese a wife is Jasmine?  Do you really want her to ‘that’ Chinese?  How much can Liam adjust?  How ‘non-Chinese’ can he be? What would work for you?”  Using the entries noted previously, especially the motivation of both partners to be together and better be the partners they want to be, the therapist has the foundation to work cross-culturally.  Therapy can be directed as a negotiation of a new mutually beneficial… or mutually tolerable set of attitudes, values, beliefs, and most critically behaviors that they can practice.  

Liam and Jasmine being of Chinese ancestry was important to understanding his behavior and their dynamics with respect primarily because of the patriarchal traditions Liam held.  Other aspects of Chinese culture: work ethic, family loyalty, academic dedication, and so forth were not particularly influential with respect to assertiveness, aggression, or violence.  The therapist or professional should be alert to patriarchal or other strong and rigid values from any group, community, nationality, ethnicity, or developmental era that may permit mandate interpersonal aggression or violence.  Modern American egalitarian values may conflict with more traditional cultural values between genders and lead to problems.  Strong patriarchal cultural heritage including a husband's right to beat and kill a transgressing wife do not normally exist in isolation.  Other personal, social, and cultural influences may reinforce and exacerbate versus mitigate and reduce the husband or male's allegiance to patriarchal traditions and behaviors.  Some individuals may be prone to developmentally based cultural standards to "not take shit from anyone," for example in adolescence.  Or, there may be a sub-culture within a vocation or profession where similar rules apply, especially a male-dominated group such as construction, contact sports, or law enforcement or the military.   There are often multiple influences from multiple cultural systems.  In some cases, an accumulation of expectations from difference sources can lead to a heightened likelihood of violence.  For example, the male adolescent gangbanger may have cultural sanctions toward violence from family dynamics (experience of child abuse and observation of domestic violence), adolescent impulsivity and aggression, male aggression, the paramilitary structure and values of the gang, underclass practicalities of violence for survival, disinhibiting effects of social alcohol consumption, intensified aggression from stimulant drug use, and expectations to protect the hood from "scraps."

The therapist, professional, and other concerned person needs to take care that cultural perspectives do not lead to cultural stereotyping of any individual.  Despite value in using a cultural perspective, the profile for another individual from apparently the same culture, for example even in the same gang often differ.  Their individual criteria would be seen differently despite shared gang affiliation.  The two gangbangers Jake and Chuck discussed earlier have important variations of what is expected.  Although the overall culture of the gang supported and directed both Jake and Chuck to be violent, they experienced the violence and expressed it differently.  Important differences may come from Jake being a first-generation gangbanger from a working class family and Chuck being a third-generation gangbanger with his father, two uncles, his two brothers, multiple cousins, and grandfather having been gang involved and often incarcerated.  Jake's family culture and experience did not anticipate gang involvement.  He did not become involved in gangs until his family moved into a gang dominated neighborhood.  Chuck on the other hand, was "Little C.," son of "Big Chucky," and "Big Charles" in a lineage of gangbangers and was raised to continue in the family "business."  Someone from a Sikh, migrant, corporate, rural, athletic, military, prison, adolescent, art, social services, marginalized, trauma, engineering, or other background may function from variants within variations of attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors.  These can contribute to qualitative distinctions for lesser to greater vulnerability to frustration.  

If the cultural profile reveals entries to intervention, a cross-cultural approach may be successful.  Jake for example would be more receptive to a cross-cultural approach offering him entry into a less violent cultural lifestyle with fewer negative consequences and greater potential benefits.  Jake did not come from a violent culture in his family and is relatively a neonate to gang aggression and violence.  Away from the gang life and influences, Jake may relatively able to give up aggressive and violent behaviors.  Chuck however would be significantly less receptive to considering cross-cultural exploration of a less aggressive or violent existence or lifestyle.  It is questionable whether Chuck is a violent gangbanger because of cultural requirements from being in the gang.  It is more likely that Chuck has joined the gang in large part because it allows him to indulge his significant violent tendencies and needs.  Instead of being punished or ostracized as he would be in mainstream society, his aggressive and violent instincts and behaviors are glorified and rewarded in the gang.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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