When my brother blew over my house of cards for the second time out of spite, I burst into tears — heartbroken as I watched my hard work collapse into a pathetic pile. But instead of comforting me, as I had hoped my aunt would, she merely glared at me.
“You think I am here to sweet-talk and comfort you? Those things only happen on TV. Stop crying right now — wipe those tears away and go back downstairs.”
I was 9 years old at the time, and my aunt’s words made me ashamed and embarrassed of my tears. I did as I was told and came to the conclusion that my aunt was right.
The family practices that I observed in TV shows such as “Full House” didn’t apply to my life. The Tanner family resolved their issues through an open conversation, oftentimes ending with a sincere hug and an apology. But my family didn’t find forgiveness this way.
Instead, to find “forgiveness” from my family meant letting go of the argument and acting as if nothing ever happened. To this day, no one in my family can say the words “I am sorry” or “I love you” to one another without making a joke out of it.
We could go on for days, weeks and even months without talking to the person we disagreed with. But then we would wake up one morning and forget the whole situation and suddenly be OK with one another — all this without ever apologizing.
It took me years to realize that the family practices I saw on “Full House” and other American TV shows couldn’t apply to my own family’s practices because of our drastic cultural differences.
I was raised by refugee grandparents who had survived the horrible massacre perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. They had experienced for themselves that silence is critical to survival during a time of mass genocide, and they instilled the mentality of silence in me as I was growing up. My expectations for my family to be like the Tanners would mean breaking a cultural practice that has been passed on for generations.
When I came to UC Berkeley, though, I found that “forgiving by forgetting” made it all the more challenging for me to make and maintain friendships. As one of the few Cambodian American students on this large research campus, I struggled to find a community that I could relate to. And because I was taught and only knew how to forgive by forgetting, I came off as stubborn, rude and hard-headed.
Many of the friendships I made in my freshman year residence hall dissolved because of my refusal to openly discuss my feelings and verbally apologize — even in situation when I knew I was at fault. When I disagreed with people and we engaged in conflict, I would do what I knew best — brush it under the rug and let time work its magic.
But as the time passed, I began to realize that the more I avoided these conversations, the more they turned into battles of microaggressions.
It was only when my normalized behavior caused problems with one of my closest friends that I began to reanalyze how I approached conflict. When my friend approached me and said that we needed to talk about some of the issues we’d been having as roommates, I was genuinely scared. I wanted to do everything in my power to avoid a confrontation, but not because I didn’t want to talk about things — I just didn’t know how.
I didn’t know how to verbally express to someone I was sincerely sorry for my actions — I didn’t even know how to begin the conversation. So when I agreed to speak to her only if a mutual friend of ours would mediate a conversation, it was scary, it was strange, and it was uncomfortable. I didn’t even want to look at her in the eyes to converse, but after we ended the conversation, all that tension was lifted, and it felt amazing — I’m forever thankful that my friend pushed me to have that confrontation.
Although I haven’t mastered addressing conflicts through open dialogue with my family, I’m glad my experiences at UC Berkeley have taught me healthier methods on how to address conflict resolution in both a social and professional setting.
As a proud, young single mother, I plan on instilling this new practice of open dialogue and conversations as a form of conflict resolution with my daughter. I hope that by shifting practices on how to apologize, I will not only improve my relationship with my daughter, but she may also be that friend who can teach her peers who struggle to address conflict, as I did.
I’m breaking from tradition to give my daughter what I wish I’d had.
Valerie Kong is a UC Berkeley alumna who graduated in December 2016.