Growing up as a second-generation immigrant, Joseph Lam didn’t get along well with his parents. After immigrating to the U.S. from China, they displayed habits and beliefs that Lam found quirky and incomprehensible, and which he felt were antithetical to the American culture into which Lam, who was bullied at school, was trying desperately to fit. “They had a whole different set of understandings of how to operate in the world,” Lam says, “and cultural norms that I flat-out rejected.” That gap in understanding led him to unfairly lash out at his parents.
It was only later, years after graduating, when he was at a low point professionally and personally, that he came to a realization that his earlier behavior had been selfish, and came from a lack of understanding—or making any effort to understand—his mother and father. “I either have to start rebuilding this relationship now,” he realized, “or I’ll live with that regret for the rest of my life.”
That was inspiration for Lam to to develop a card game, Parents Are Human, that helps younger generations bond with their parents. The cards have prompts that get participants to open up to each other in a way that might not organically happen in daily life. It’s especially helpful for immigrant families, where ties may be weaker due to cultural and linguistic barriers. Lam says it’s helped him, and many other buyers of the game, completely revitalize relationships.
Game players pick from a deck of blue cards, containing questions to be asked to the older generation (and back, if desired). There’s a set of easier questions (denoted by a single chili pepper symbol), like “What was a book that changed your life?” Even those simpler questions can produce some deep conversations. One of Lam’s favorites is “What was your favorite food growing up?” which he says has led to multi-hour discussions with his parents.
Those easier questions provide a smoother gateway to the harder prompts (denoted by double chili peppers). We’re not conditioned to get into such deep, vulnerable, and sometimes awkward conversations in daily life, where we often tend to discuss mundane subjects. These prompts may end up revealing some personal traumas—but, for Lam, it’s where “really amazing things happen.” Questions include: “What are you most proud of in your life?” and “What are the hardest choices you had to make in life?” Also included in the deck are red cards that contain actions, such as taking a selfie together, sharing things you are grateful for, or giving each other a warm hug.
For Lam, the game has been a way to finally understand his parents’ customs. For example, his mom tended to overfeed him as a child. “I didn’t see at the time that was just their way of loving me,” he said, and that it probably sprung from his mother experiencing hunger in China, during the Cultural Revolution, when she was growing up. “So many of these stories are the puzzle pieces that fit into why they are the way they are now.”
Of course, any family can play Parents Are Human. But, the immigrant experience is different, in that there’s often a pronounced divide between generations. The younger generation is relatively privileged, with the luxury of striving for their own dreams because of what their parents worked for. “What our parents had to face growing up was a completely different, parallel universe to what we experienced,” Lam says.
What’s more, immigrant families are often straddling two languages. So, each card has the parents’ native language on the reverse. The original game is in English and Chinese; now, cards in other languages—Vietnamese, Korean, Tagalog, Spanish, plus one that’s English only—are available for preorder on Kickstarter, where the funds will finance manufacturing. Since starting the game, Lam has had 900 requests for 40 different languages; next on the list are Japanese, Hindi, Thai, and French.
Additionally, people can download a digital version of the game for free, and donate whatever figure they see fit. That option stemmed from Lam’s strong belief that the cards should be accessible to all. He wants everyone to experience the same level of connection that he’s come to have with his parents. Says Lam: “You really never know until you ask.”