Asian Americans & Mental Health: Part 1

Sunday, May 13, 2018



Part 1: Introduction, Racialization of Mental Health, and Shame

Introduction
My friend Helen recently reminded me in her debut poem on depression and bilingualism that in Mandarin, we indicate we are fine by saying 我沒事 -- which roughly translates to having nothing wrong. The opposite, then, is the very rarely expressed 我有事 -- there is something wrong with me. And it carries heavy connotations of fatalism, of unwellness as an identity rather than a byproduct of a full life. It’s the kind of thinking that forces us into false binaries: nothing wrong or nothing right, healthy or unhealthy, success or failure.

I’m not saying Asian Americans have an inherently toxic culture, but I do believe a symptom of hybridity is feeling overwhelmingly misunderstood, a mindset that can breed toxic behaviors. We feel distinctly unlike our black and white friends, but a generation and culture away from our parents and families. All of this contributes to an awful sense that we are absolutely alone in our suffering.

Beyond our inability to untangle feelings of inadequacy, though, are heavy stigmas more closely concerned with having brought our parents shame. Of having burdened them with concern, or the affront of thinking they’ve raised unhealthy children. I think a tenet of filial piety is wanting to give our parents everything and taking little in return, never mind that in practice, parents will always find something to worry about, whether or not we share our concerns with them.

Racialization of Mental Health
I read a lot of studies about the racialization and colonization of mental health, about how mainstream approaches to wellness are often violent or unsympathetic to patients of marginalized identities and conditions. Which I 80% get, but am 20% suspicious of, because it too easily suggests bullshit like “therapy is for white people.” Or the nonsense that anxiety has been monopolized by fragile white Tumblr girls. On a macro level, yes yes, psychiatric and psychological care have histories of being really shitty to minority groups. On an individual level, do not let that stop you from seeking the right kind of care. You are worthy and deserving, and you will find someone or some resource that can help you.

There’s also the “immigrants tough it out” narrative, in which Asian American children are expected to privately deal with their mental unwellness because their parents had much harder lives. We feel privileged for the stability that came at great sacrifice for the generations above, and thus “undeserving” to have our own suffering legitimized. This is concerning on two levels: one, it selectively validates trauma and disallows the immigrating generation from confronting their own mental illnesses, and two, posits that mental health is entirely a function of circumstance. In case it wasn’t obvious, both are fundamentally incorrect.

Body Dysmorphic & Eating Disorders 
I think one of the clearest examples of (the necessity of) culturally-informed approaches to mental health is the relationship between the assimilation/success obsession and a vulnerability to eating disorders, which is often borne out of a preoccupation for control and perfection. On a cultural level, the pressure is real and there are many families who believe that they must be the one to break you, and not a country or society that does not inherently love you as they do:

It was my mother who told him that there exists a sort of love that only survives as long as no one ever speaks of it, and that was why he was never going to have to worry because my grandmother was never going to be the kind of mother who held her children in her arms and told them how smart and beautiful and talented they were. She was only going to scold them, make them feel diminutive, make them feel like they were never good enough, make them know this world would not be kind to them. She wasn’t going to let someone else be better than her at making her children feel pain or scare them more than she could, because to her, that was a form of protection. Sour Grapes | Jenny Zhang

On a family level, we all have aunties who show their concern for us by criticizing our weight, our height, our skin color, and the proportion of these. We also come from countries with recent histories of famine, so leaving food on the table is a mortal sin. It’s a familiar Catch-22: eat less, okay, but finish your food.

I think one of the greater risks of issues informed by cultural values is that we tend to normalize really awful practices. We think it’s normal for mothers to introduce laxatives to their young daughters (I’ve heard this so many times), for our aunties to swap extreme dieting plans, and to develop a really strange relationship with food. Just as we normalize a hypermeritocracy and the model minority myth, we accept these dysmorphic attitudes as a condition of growing up Asian. And then we complain that our culture is really suffocating because we believe it to be fixed and impermeable.

My first thought is to seek therapy, and not necessarily for any specific issue. Therapy can also take many forms: informally, in social networks, and professionally, with a licensed psychologist. The former is like extra-institutional Asian American studies: gather your peers and just complain about shit. Seeing how other people are raised and the values they hold will go a long way in helping you assess cultural and personal differences. The latter is something I recently came to terms with. I started receiving professional grief therapy as a college freshman because I felt like loss was something I could validate. We are generous with our sympathies and condolences for the bereaved, and so seeking grief counseling didn’t feel like a personal attack on my character. My relationship with therapy has since evolved to what I call “general maintenance.” I check in with a mental health professional who helps me reflect on my relationships: with others, my body, my academics. Soliciting guidance from someone who cannot be hurt by my own failures and sadnesses has changed my life. But I digress. In conclusion: don’t normalize shitty attitudes about food and weight, and seek help when you need it.

ps, I also don’t personally buy the whole “Asian Americans are obsessed with having Caucasian features (blonde hair, blue eyes, white skin)” thing. I know there has been social studies research affirming this, but they feel outdated and a little oblivious to the fact that our parents have their own notions of beauty from back home, which are arguably more salient and more difficult to confront because weight loss and eyelid surgery are more realistic than being transracial. That being said, diversity of representation for Asian Americans in the media will go a long way in deflating “white worship” (which is an awkward term, but one that gets tossed around a lot in the discourse.) In my opinion, that the 50 sexiest whatevers every year is predominantly Caucasian has more to do with visibility and opportunity than literal standards of attractiveness. I will fight anyone who does not believe people of color can have their own models of influence without catering to Westernized ideals of beauty.

Shame & Fear of Failure
I’ve heard a lot of people describe Asian cultures as those that are “shame-based,” and I think that’s an incredibly belittling presumption. First of all, if you want to see real shame, take a little stroll through the history of Catholicism. Second of all, there can be no guilt without love, and no shame without concern. I’m not going to justify the really awful ways that people can be forced into social harmony through the concept of “face,” but I also think what mainstream discourse often gets wrong is that “just saying no” to our parents is not a fucking option! Of course we want to protect ourselves and our spirits, but I personally very much respect a culture that values relationships and relational morality. My approach, then, doesn’t tether self-care to telling my parents to fuck off (though that can sometimes be appropriate).

I think the real work isn’t living within a dichotomy of success and failure, but understanding the strange ways our parents try to love us, the ways that often feel unbearably conditional but, at their core, are fiercely protective. I say this because academic papers and research studies about guilt and shame still do not answer the question that matters most: how can I live a life on my own terms while still pleasing my parents?

Because it does matter. It matters a lot. The whole point of culturally-sensitive mental health isn’t to dismantle attitudes based in the Confucian tradition, which most psychologists believe is the source of our “shame.” Rather, it is in understanding how acutely we hold these values and then working within them to identify healthier practices and relationships. I’ve heard friends testify that, in the face of extreme mental unwellness, they have pushed through every impulse for self-harm for the very fact that they owe it to their parents to live. Not graduate with highest honors, or become dual doctors and engineers, but live. To do their best, at their scale.

And I genuinely believe that despite all the sensationalized rhetoric about Asian tiger parents, if one more day or one more year is all you have to offer, it is all they will ask of you. For the daughters and sons like me who would literally use their last breath to make their parents happy: please take care of yourself, that is your highest obligation to your family and those you love.

So that’s a lot. Believe it or not, I do try to keep these entries short.

The forthcoming Part II  will deal more seriously with mental illnesses and resources for psychological and psychiatric care.

Go forth, and do all things with great love.
LC

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