We Need to Talk About Mental Health in the Asian-American Community
“You’re supposed to be the doctor, not the patient!” My father spat, disgusted.
I stared blankly into the tiled floors of the hospital, disassociating, as people diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) sometimes do.
“Is this what you want to be like?” my father gestured around the room, completely ignoring the other teenagers with their parents waiting to be checked into the psychiatric ward.
I crumbled and tried to will myself to sink impossibly deeper into my chair.
“Wong!” Finally, a nurse had called for me. I was ready to get away from my father.
“You tell them you are fine,” my father hissed in Cantonese, grabbing my arm as I stood up. “You tell them this is all a mistake and don’t take any medicine they give you.”
This memory burned itself into my mind, after that day.
Asian immigrants come to this country with the clothes on their backs, their passports and maybe enough money to get to their first destination. They can spend years working illegally in nail shops, salons, restaurants, getting paid under the table well below minimum wage. Several families get crammed together in the run down apartments of Chinatown where they all try to make ends meet.
This was the American dream.
Naturally, a lot of Asian parents push their children to do better. What’s a life of servitude, picking toe jam out of other people’s feet?
In my experience, each Asian-American child was like a racehorse, bred to become a lawyer, a doctor or a politician. Asian-American children I knew went to school, went to after-school school and then went to Saturday and Sunday school for more work. When homework from all of these schools were finished, you had a personal textbook for the next grade up to do, ensuring you were ahead of your classmates.
Being “average” meant you could choose a belt from your father’s closet. Choose which one you’d like your whipping with today.
Getting an “A”meant you needed to be disciplined and told you weren’t good enough, because you didn’t get an A+.
And yet, here I was, straight “A” student, member of the school choir, member of the ROTC, AP classes, set for college and instead of skipping the next grade or applying for a more prestigious school, I was laying in a psychiatric ward’s bed with both arms bandaged from a suicide attempt.
“I can see why you were diagnosed with borderline personality disorder,” the doctor said, when it was finally my turn to be seen. He flipped through my file quickly, reading the notes from my last hospitalization. “Do your parents still beat you?”
“No.” But they tell me I’m useless and pathetic every day of my life, not that I’m going to tell you that because that’s not actually considered abuse, right?
“May I?” he asked, gesturing to my bandaged arms.
I held them both out in front of him.
He delicately opened one of my bandages. “Oh my…” he said, “And what was the reason you wanted to end your life?”
I seriously debated over what answer I wanted to give him. My parents told them it was because a boy had broken my heart but no… that wasn’t the truth. The truth would have taken hours, some backstory and lots of screaming, but he only had five more minutes with me before he needed to move on to the next patient.
“I just don’t want to be alive anymore,” I said.
“Do you have a specific reason?”
“Because life sucks.”
“Is this because of a boy?” He asked.
I wish. I wish this was all because of a boy.
My parents, who were high school sweethearts, were still married. No history of drug or alcohol abuse. No previous arrests, except for a little visit from Child Protective Services. They were legal immigrants paying taxes. A child from that kind of home has no business taking up space in a psychiatric ward.
In less than a month, I was released with a prescription for antidepressants and antipsychotics, that my parents insisted I didn’t need. I had taken them previously and they had shamed me over and over for being so weak for needing Western medicine to fix something that was all in my head.
When their friends would inquire about where I had been, my parents would tell them I had poor health. It’s much easier to say that your child is chronically ill rather than mentally ill, apparently.
And they would always remind me… it was all in my head. It was mental weakness not mental illness.
Yet, despite the fact I no longer speak to them and I’m completely estranged from my family, I do feel sympathy for them.
For Asian-Americans, this is a culture — and no, I am not using culture as an excuse to treat your children terribly. My parents were beaten by their parents, and their parents were beaten by their parents. You had to be strict with your children to protect them.
I had asked my mother once why she had never expressed love and affection towards me, to which she said, “This is just the Chinese way.” She accepted it and she never questioned it.
My parents have always been cold, physically violent and emotionally abusive — not only towards me but even towards each other. I’ve never seen my parents hug, kiss or even show a shred of romantic love for each other.
To them, there was no such thing as mental illness. Where they come from, everyone is violent. They were taught it was OK to use violence to teach a lesson. It was accepted because everyone in the neighborhood practiced it. The children were brought up with this being the norm.
Their children (Asian-Americans like me) are often left with the burden of trying to honor our parents and more importantly, our culture. We try to hang on to what we can of our identity, because we’re sometimes not accepted as a “true minority” while we’re not white either. We try to find some way to still be Asian — speaking the native tongue, learning cultural rites, eating the foods of our people — while our parents force us to assimilate, learn English and blend in with the Americans.
And some of us become lost.
We get the straight A’s, learn how to play piano, become this model student tutoring our peers and yet, Asian-American women have a higher lifetime rate of suicidal thoughts than the general population.
But we don’t talk about it.
We’re told mental illness doesn’t exist in our culture and we have no idea where to begin.
Where do we get help?
Who will listen to us when we are the oxymoronic example of being “high-functioning,” yet fucked up?
What about the shame that we bring to our family who risked everything to come to this country?
I have two sons now, little boys, who will one day grow up to be Asian-American men. I struggle every day with trying to figure out how to best show them love and affection and discipline them in more appropriate ways, completely different from my upbringing.
For their sake, I try to take guesses on how I can break the cultural cycle of violence, abuse and silence.
And what if my sons do have borderline personality disorder (BPD) or suicidal ideation like I do? What if they begin harming themselves the way I did? How do I spark the conversation that the Asian-American community so desperately needs to have?
I’m still trying to figure that out… This is something that we, as the Asian-American community, need to talk about.
If you or a loved one is affected by domestic violence or emotional abuse and need help, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
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Unsplash photo via Larm_Rmah.