Author: 'I Love You's Are For White People'

As a young child, Lac Su made a harrowing escape from the Communists in Vietnam. With a price on his father's head, Lac, with his family, was forced to immigrate in 1979 to West Los Angeles where living conditions were poor and community acceptance harsh. Lac's search for love and acceptance amid poverty — not to mention the psychological turmoil created by a harsh and unrelenting father — led him to gang life. Host Michel Martin speaks with Su about his father's distant affection, and how he now raises his three children.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

By now you've probably heard of the tiger mother, author and mother of two, Amy Chua, who spoke with us, and a number of other media about her provocative memoir, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." In it she defends - some say exalts in - a very strict parenting style that leaves her daughters little room for choice and certainly not for disagreeing with her.

And even though she gets her comeuppance in the end, sort of, the book is still being held up as a challenge to the supposedly lax Western style of parenting that values nurturing and creativity and all that other stuff. But now in the wake of the bestseller, a very different perspective from another child of Asian immigrants.

Lac Su is now 36 years old. He's done very well as a professional. He's finished his education. But in his memoir, "I Love Yous are for White People," he writes that his parents' often very strict methods of parenting left lifelong emotional, as well as physical scars. And Lac Su joins us now from San Diego. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. LAC SU (Author, "I Love Yous are for White People"): Thank you, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: Just to go back some, your father is Chinese, your mother, Vietnamese.

Mr. SU: Yes.

MARTIN: Both left communist Vietnam by boat when you were a very young child. Did you feel that those experiences influenced the way they behaved toward you?

Mr. SU: Yes. I've thought it a million times. My father brought his family to America to, you know, take advantage of the American dream. Three years later, he became ill. He was placed on permanent disability by the doctors. He felt like with the disability, he was no longer able to provide for his family. And, you know, he became very depressed and angry and bitter about the situation.

MARTIN: Well, you know, he wanted to be recognized and respected as the head of the household, I guess, is part of what you're experiencing here, which is, you know, an experience a lot of people have, perhaps particularly men. But you make the point that grades, for example, academic achievement, was extremely important in your family.

But the way that your father in particular went about encouraging this, and I use that term advisedly, was very harsh. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Mr. SU: After the six or seven hours at school, when I came home, he expected me to pick up the Chinese language. So he home schooled me, Chinese lessons for three or four hours after regular school. He would have three whipping switches on the table while he taught me these Chinese lessons. When I made a mistake, he would pick them up and use it on me.

Looking back, I imagined how a child can learn anything under that type of environment where fear was enforced if you made the wrong decision.

MARTIN: How old were you when he started hitting you if he made a mistake?

Mr. SU: It started back in Vietnam when I was two or three years old, and more so when I immigrated here to America. My last whipping was sophomore year in college.

MARTIN: In college.

Mr. SU: Yes, in college.

MARTIN: There's one anecdote in your book that a number of people who've read it found very upsetting, and that is when you stole some money from your mother's piggybank and you took the money to pay for videogames that you and your friend played, or somebody who you wanted to be your friend. And what happened after that is, I think, I'll just have to warn people, is very upsetting to hear. But I think it's important for people to understand what we're talking about.

Mr. SU: Right.

MARTIN: So, would you mind telling that story?

Mr. SU: So there was a bully in the neighborhood named Javi(ph). At that age, I figured that if I befriend Javi, I would have an in to the other neighbor kids in terms of, you know, receiving friendship from them. And he really liked videogame and, you know, I wanted to give him quarters for videogame. So I found my mother's piggybank and I took a bunch of money; at the end, it was $500. So he found out, actually, he beat the truth out of me, and I confessed that it was me who stole it. And after half an hour of beating, I was a zombie at that point. And he took that expression as me not caring that, you know, I had stole from my mother.

And so he ripped my clothes off and shoved me out the front door of the house and we lived on Sunset Boulevard back then, so it was a real packed and busy street. And all the neighbors came out, including Javi. They stood there laughing at me while I was butt naked. At that point, all the physical wounds that my father did to me that day, it was no comparison to the pain that I witnessed experienced, when Javi was there laughing at me. That tore my heart up a little bit.

MARTIN: Where was your mother when all this was going on?

Mr. SU: She was usually behind the scenes, submissive, most likely brainwashed by my father too. She herself was very afraid of my father and, you know, rarely did she intervene and try to tell him otherwise.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're speaking with Lac Su. He's a psychologist and he's author of the memoir, "I Love Yous are for White People." And he's talking about his experiences growing up. In your world, did anybody ever say to your father, that's not right?

Mr. SU: Oh, that, the abuse that was happening in my household was kept in my household, so it was a secret. And, you know, the mind game that my father did with me was that he dared me to call the police to report him. And threatened that if I do, they will take him to jail forever and I wouldn't be no longer able to see him for the rest of my life. That was a way we kept it a secret.

MARTIN: Well, he also, the other thing you talk about, though, is the ethnic isolation. That he moved the family from Hollywood to Alhambra because it was a more Asian area.

Mr. SU: Yes.

MARTIN: And he said that you would be protected from the white people there. In part, that speaks to the title. I wanted to ask you about the title of the book, "I Love Yous are for White People." What about this attitude toward the white mainstream culture?

Secondly, do you buy Amy Chua's construct that there is Chinese style of parenting that does demand an extraordinary level of obedience which can spill over into an unhealthy form? Do you buy that there's this big divide there?

Mr. SU: My father considered white people anyone that weren't Asian people. I took those words straight from his mouth and made it the book title. It was an incident when I was maybe in junior high school, the first time that I told him that I loved him, it was around Christmastime when I visited my friend, Art's house, they were having a Christmas Eve dinner. During the dinner, you know, I would hear all of his family members using sentimental words and warm words to each other. When Art, my friend, told his father that he loved him, Art's father returned those words to him.

And I'm, like, oh my god, what a perfect family. I told myself, Lac, you've never used those words to your father. That's why he's the way he is. And, you know, I decided that night to run home, 'cause I was excited about this new revelation that I had. I ran home and wanted to tell him these three words. I didn't think that those three words sank in the first time I said it, so I said it again, making sure that he heard me.

He got really angry and he slapped me a couple of times. He made me promise to never use those weak words to him ever again. Asian people, especially in his household, we do not use words to express affections. We express our love for each other through action. And, you know, for a long time after that episode, I was scared of using those three words.

MARTIN: Do you think that this is Chinese culture, as he puts it, or do you think that's just him?

Mr. SU: It's a mixture of both. I mean, my father was an orphan ever since he was 12 years old when he lost both of his parents. He didn't get a lot of intimacy and affection growing up. And I think that hardened in terms of, you know, his thinking.

MARTIN: We were interested in what he would have to say about that, so we contacted him. He does not speak English fluently. One of our producers was able to speak with him in Vietnamese. Let's play a clip of what he had to say.

Mr. SU (Father): (Through translator) When a child is born, we love them. Parents have responsibilities to teach and guide them since they are young. It's not they may turn out to be bad. You can't teach them anymore when they're grown up.

MARTIN: What do you make of that?

Mr. SU: As a child, I was used to that type of training technique, if you will, from my father. I didn't think that he was doing anything wrong. An interesting thing is that after he would beat me, he would tell me, the reason I beat you, son, is because I love you. And, you know, it's, like, so you can imagine how confused I was.

MARTIN: One thing I did want to mention, though, is that you say in the memoir, that you do think you were attracted to gang life for a time, in part because, I think a lot of people would be interested in that because you say that in part it offered the kind of affection, camaraderie that you weren't getting

Mr. SU: Sense of belonging.

MARTIN: Sense of belonging that you weren't getting somewhere else. Could you talk a little bit about that? Because I think a lot of people would have a hard time with that.

Mr. SU: In the gangs that I ran with, there was a lot of compliments, even though they were, you know, bad actions that I did. It was a form of retreat as well. We hung around each other to be away from our families. So we'd get together and talk about the way our parents beat us. And sometimes it's so hard that we resorted to drinking and, you know, drugs, and all that, to forget the circumstances of the way our parents raised us.

MARTIN: Well, I guess I have to ask this, do you think your father loved you in his own way?

Mr. SU: Yes. In his own way.

MARTIN: And is there room for that way? I guess that's the question I have. Is there any room for that? Or is that one of those kind of ways of thinking that might be best left behind?

Mr. SU: My father's a very wise and intelligent man, considering, you know, he only had a second grade education. He just learned everything on his own in the streets. But in terms of the approach and the techniques and the over-controlling quote, unquote, "tiger parenting style," I don't think that's beneficial to the children at all.

MARTIN: Do you love him? Do you think you'd still want to say that to him, I love you?

Mr. SU: I love him. I've always loved him. I loved him as a child. I love him now. What son doesn't want to have his father embrace him? Now as an adult I still love him because from writing this book, I was able to regress and look backwards and try to see all angles of the old man's life and came to the conclusion that under our life's circumstances, as Vietnamese refugees, all these elements made him a hard man. So, yes, yes, to answer your questions, I still love the man.

MARTIN: Lac Su is the author of the memoir "I Love Yous are for White People." Lac Su, thank you so much for joining us.

MARTIN: Thank you, Michel, for having me.

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