Differentiated Oneness and Implications for Asian Americans

Last month’s symposium covered counseling and psychological issues related to Asian Americans and healing memories. One of the questions it raised for me was this: What do we do when the notion of “boundaries” is based on a western individualistic model of the self doesn’t readily fit in an Asian/ Asian-American context?

An old friend referred me to Auris Huang Hung’s 2004 master’s thesis (Dallas Theological Seminary) titled “The Concept of Differentiated Oneness and Implications for Asian American Families.” A shortened version was also published as an article in the Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 2006, Vol. 25, No. 3, 226-239 (Copyright Christian Association for Psychological Studies ISSN 0733-4273) and in the introduction, Hung noted: “Western and Eastern cultural differences, at the core of which are differing views of self, make direct application of this Western-based psychological principle to Asian Americans problematic.”

Much of the article covered a detailed comparison of Western vs. Eastern cultures. Then, Hung suggested an approach that can work better for Asian Americans and even makes an argument based on the Trinity, and that’s where it really gets good. Here’s the excerpt from the article (towards the end of the article up to the conclusion that goes on to suggest references for further study):

… The incongruence between the direct use of idiocentric based psychological concepts of individuation, differentiation, and boundaries for allocentric Asian Americans is reflected in C. Kagitcibasi’s (1997, p. 19) definition of the Western individualistic view of self as “self-contained, individuated, separated, independent self defined with clear boundaries from others” and the Eastern collectivistic view of self as “relational, interdependent self with fluid boundaries.” The fluid boundaries, family integration, and interdependence that are characteristic of an Eastern allocentric self will be considered unhealthy from a Western view of healthy family functioning that advocates clear boundaries, individuation as the family goal, and differentiation of self. Thus, those with interdependent self-construals may have a different need for separateness and understanding of differentiated oneness because of how they view the self and the relationships with others (Kwon, 2001). They may view family problems as a lack of integration or connection to support networks rather than a lack of individuation (Chan, 1996; Tamura & Lau, 1992). As such, applying boundaries and achieving the separateness (in unity) of the individual’s identity apart from the group characteristic of differentiated oneness will be more of an issue for Asian American families (Tamura & Lau, 1992). To further consider this issue of application, the final sections of this article will integrate all three preceding analyses.

Applying Differentiated Oneness to Asian American Families

In helping Asian American families, Christian counselors not only need to be sensitive to differences in relationship dynamics between Eastern and Western cultures, but also, as with families of any ethnicity, should encourage values, thinking, and behavior that are consistent with God’s discovered and revealed truth. In the realm of revealed Scriptural truth, differentiated oneness does seem to align with the theological emphasis on both connectedness and separateness in relationship as demonstrated in the Trinity and the body of Christ metaphor. In the realm oF discovered scientific truth, the basic concepts related to differentiated oneness, individuation, differentiation, and boundaries seem to be supported by empirical research, but without clearly showing direct cross-cultural applicability. These findings seem to confirm the discovered truth within this article’s cross-cultural analysis, which suggested that individuation, differentiation, boundaries, and differentiated oneness cannot be directly applied to Asian Americans without adjustment for cultural differences in their self-construals and family values.

The integration of the results of the psychological, theological, and cultural analyses leads to several implications. First, while the concept of differentiated oneness has not been completely refuted in psychological research and possesses significant theological support, Scripture does not provide specific guidance as to the exact balance between separateness and connectedness that families must achieve. As such, families have the
freedom to uniquely manifest diversity and unity in their relationships, and counselors can help Asian American families discover the right balance of separateness and connectedness for their particular unit and needs (Chan, 1996). For example, employing differentiated oneness to obtain a better balance between separateness and connectedness may help culturally conflicted families adjust to the more individualistic mainstream American society (Chang & Yeh. 1999). Also, this paper’s analyses can help counselors understand cultural barriers to achieving this balance. Western families will likely struggle with separateness at the expense of connectedness; Asian American families will likely struggle with connectedness at the expense of separateness. Thus, for Western families, counselors can advocate boundaries to create greater separateness but within the context of connectedness (as family systems theory advocates and as opposed to approaches that portray the use of boundaries apart from connectedness). For Asian American families, counselors can advocate boundaries to allow for more separateness, whatever they perceive it to be, in their connectedness and to balance competing subsystem needs without disconnecting certain relationships to maintain others (Tamura & Lau, 1992). For example, structural family therapy’s prioritizing the marital relationship over other family relationships must be balanced with Asian Americans’ need to maintain healthy connections with tbeir extended family and to not alienate an elder subsystem.

Recognizing tbe problems associated with using boundaries in collectivistic cultures, Rev. Soo-Young Kwon (2001) advocates in Korean American ministry relationships what pastoral psychologist Carrie Doehring (1995) refers to as _relational boundaries_, in which individuals value the needs and rights of both self and others, leading to mutual empowerment. The self is defined as an individual in empathetic relationship, rather than as an independent self regardless of context or an interdependent self only in relational context (Doeliring, 1995; Kwon, 2001). Because relational boundaries seem to allow for a balance between connectedness and separateness (Doetiring, 1995), they may serve as a useful concept to help Asian American families achieve differentiated oneness.

Second, even though each family has freedom to uniquely manifest a balance of connectedness and separateness, because Scripture emphasizes oneness not based upon sameness and affirms the value of both the individual and the community regardless of their cultural context, one aspect of differentiated oneness relevant for Asian American families must be negotiating their relationships so that the individual members’ cultural values are respected. Christian counselors can help individuals assess and prioritize their values (versus family values) and develop ways to either accommodate or assert themselves within tbe acceptable constraints of the family rules (Ko, 1986). Individuals (and also families) can choose which cultural values are more valued in any situation, since both individualistic or collectivistic orientations have strengths and weaknesses (Triandis, 1995). At the very least, counselors can help individuals avoid feeling ignored or misunderstood by their family by facilitating communication that allows their voice to be heard (Jung, 1984). In this way, individuals can express their God-given uniqueness without threatening their identity in the group (Chan, 1996), the family’s inherent diversity will be revealed, and the connectedness that often characterizes Asian American families can still be maintained.

Third, because Scripture grants freedom to manifest differentiated oneness according to a family’s cultural values, counselors must be aware of tbe differences between Eastern and Western cultural values and the impact that ethnic identity plays in self identity. This awareness will help counselors to better understand the source, nature, and potential resolution of intergenerational conflicts often experienced in Asian American families. Awareness of cultural differences will also help counselors not only to recognize counselees’ potential reluctance to change, but also to manage their expectation regarding the progress of change. Moreover, integrating this cultural knowledge with other discovered and revealed truth as modeled in this paper, counselors will be better equipped to critically analyze and adapt relevant Western-based counseling techniques to address counselees’ specific cultural needs.

From the Asian American family’s perspective, realization that intergenerational conflicts are often a result of the clashing of opposing cultures (resulting in differences in communication, motivation, etc.) may help them gain a better perspective on their perceived disunity. In such cases, counselors may reframe the situation not as a threat to unity but as an opportunity to display true biblical unity, in which diversity is essential to a healthy, functioning family.

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About djchuang

DJ Chuang is a social media strategist for churches and non-profit orgs, with a personal priority on next generation Asian Americans. He's a veteran blogger at djchuang.com and resides in Orange County, California


  1. Wayne Park says:

    thanx for this. I read this the other night, didn’t really get it, but it’s been processing somewhere in the background – coming to the fore more and more. Which means (at least for me) I’ve read something very important – and applies to my context very well.

    In short – and I’m still teasing this out more – I apply the concept of differentiation frequently with my own congregation, in counseling, pre-marital, etc. But that is in the context of ppl who are 2nd gen. Occasionally someone more 1.5 or 1st gen will wander in who I cannot apply the same concepts; I have to make exceptions (e.g.,an adult who LIVES with his parents that economically depend on him will not benefit from ideas of “leave-to-cleave”). In such cases, neat ideas of Western differentiation have to be re-formulated to include Eastern ideas of familial oneness – and yes btw – that is quite Trinitarian: “oneness in differentiation” / “differentiated oneness” I think he calls it.

    If developed I think this could be a big step forward in Asian-inter-generational ministry.

  2. Auberry Lane says:

    I appreciate the Western v. Eastern view of self described here. There are many nuances to the way Asians relate that are hard to put into words.
    Not understanding the different ways of relating can have drastic effects on those counseled. A well-meaning white missionary friend of mine, counseled an ethnic family using her Western psychology world view, and it broke up the family. She staged an intervention in English (which the mother could not speak) and did a psych exercise involving writing down affirmations (can you imagine an immigrant mom doing this?). When the missionary didn’t get the result she wanted, she encouraged the family’s teenage daughter to leave her own family to move in her temporarily. In my opinion, it was unnecessary and a complete misunderstanding of how ethnic family relationships work. It was heartbreaking and I warned her about it, but she went ahead any way.
    I live in a mostly white town, and my question is, how do I educate white people about these relational differences, when it is so hard to put into words?

  3. djchuang says:

    @Auberry, thank you for adding your comment and noticing the difference that a subject’s cultural influences can make. I too have my own challenges learning about Chinese culture, since I grew up in America, and navigating non-verbals felt like groping in the dark. Seems to me that much of culture is caught than taught, and it’s something one learns through experience. In a mostly white town, I’d say that media could give people a glimpse (albeit limited and distorted) view into a different culture, but the need for exposure and experience is irreplaceable.

    Soong-Chan Rah’s book, Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church, explains the importance of developing CQ (cultural intelligence) as much as we need EQ (emotional intelligence) and IQ (intelligence). This could be a good starting point to introduced to the importance of understanding cultural differences.

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