Navigating My Complex Identity as an Asian-American With Invisible Disabilities
Throughout 20-plus years of navigating life with family mental health traumas, being partially blind with glaucoma, and having autism, there were a lot of struggles and hardships along the way that caused an identity crisis for me and the people surrounding me. I never felt as close to others as I should be based on the circumstances and hands I’ve been dealt in life. The intersectionality of being Asian-American and living with disabilities is pretty complex, considering one has to navigate life with both their Asian and American identity, but also life with disabilities. To say the least, without a solid support system or resources, it can get really lonely, causing depression, anxiety, and all sorts of insecurities.
I went through this and carried this huge baggage with me for pretty much my entire life, always feeling conflicted, while not knowing how to express what I was going through or be vulnerable to others. This all stems from the society and system we grew up with in the U.S., but also the cultural upbringing growing up as an Asian-American that has shaped who I am. This also explains how my circumstances and experiences have left a lasting impact on me for both the good and bad in my life.
There are various factors that contributed to these struggles and hardships. Everything can be broken down into a few topics:
Cultural and Family Trauma
Growing up as a kid of traditional Asian parents, talking about our feelings, emotions, mental health, or even disability wasn’t really a thing. It was often seen as weak or a disadvantage, something to be ashamed about. We could feel the constant comparison between our peers, our family members, and relatives. If we as kids do things differently, pursue something untraditional, like our passion, or have a mental health condition or disability, we would get called out, judged, and shamed for it because it was hurtful for our parents’ images and how they are seen by others. This would cause us to feel unseen, unheard, lonely, and disconnected from who we are as people trying to navigate life as Asian-Americans. As a result, we deal with our mental health and disability on our own without much support.
Gender and Societal Norms: (Masculinity and Femininity)
Growing up and going to school among my peers, where Asian-Americans only made up about 4% of the school population, I struggled to connect with others. I came to realize that the gender norm for guys was to be very masculine in characteristics. By this I mean, physical and emotional traits: they need to be strong and dominant, and they need to be seen as cool and assertive, or jerks sometimes. Characteristics that are considered more passive and feminine, such as being kind, showing emotion and vulnerability, or sharing how we feel will make others see us as weak, gay, unpopular, or a loser compared to others. As a result, we resort to small talk.
Growing up, there were hardly any Asian-American representations in the media or film, so a guy like me didn’t have any role model to look up to. We only have our parents, family members, and peers to turn to. This can make us put ourselves second by valuing the opinion and values of others. In addition, there were limited resources for mental health services, and disabilities were still taboo and considered more black and white then, as was therapy.
Overall, the struggle, hardship, and journey I went through to get to this place make the intersectionality between being Asian-American and having a disability more unique due to its complexity. I struggled a lot up to this point, but have now gotten to a better place due to an increase in representations, resources, and awareness that will have a ripple effect for future generations. The struggle and hardship in life that I have to navigate as a disabled Asian-American can end with me. We can continue to show up for each other, to be better allies to our community, to break the generational cycle, to end the stigma, to normalize the conversations around mental health, disability, and our feelings, to be authentically true to who we are, and to connect with others as human beings should. I’m excited to be a part of the Asian-Americans with Disabilities Initiative, or AADI, where I can help build this community and help other Asian-Americans with disabilities with similar experiences feel seen, heard, and understood. Together, we can shift our mindsets from surviving to thriving!
Getty image by coffeekai.