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How I'm Reclaiming My Asian Heritage from Generational Trauma

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I remember just being shy of 20-years-old when a counselor at the counseling center of my university asked me if I had ever considered myself a trauma survivor. Trauma? What was that? I had always thought the way I was raised was intended to instill in me resilience and independence. It is only now, about a decade after this first encounter in therapy, do I realize that what I experienced is a result of generational trauma that my family and my other immigrant families, experienced in their country of origin and new countries as well.

My parents and I immigrated to the United States in the early 90s. When we did, it was as if our surroundings changed but the inside of our apartment and our nuclear family did not. My parents grew up in communist China and experienced the hardships of the government, living in poverty much of their lives. My parent’s parents, my grandparents, lived through the cultural revolution which itself had dire consequences for generations of family to follow. 

The statements said to me as a child, “Stop crying,” “You have it so easy” and “You are treated like the first born son,” left deep gashes in my heart and psyche as I grew up. I embraced these statements as if I was a bad child, that I did not deserve the love and affection my parents were trying to show me. It turns out, as many years of therapy would reveal, my parents had no idea how to show love and affection. They didn’t learn from their parents so they couldn’t pass that down to me. Having an understanding and appreciation of their experiences has helped me come to my own about the lasting effect generational trauma has had on my life and how I ended up hating myself for so long.

For as long as I can remember, up until a few years ago, I hated the way I looked. I wanted to get rid of my chubby cheeks, my small narrow eyes and my disproportionate body. I always felt like an outcast. I didn’t look like my peers and didn’t eat foods like them either. I spoke this strange language that nobody could understand.  I just wanted to hide away every time I tried to open my mouth to speak when I spoke English with my Chinese accent. I hated myself. I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa when I was 14, as I tried so desperately to fit in like all the skinny, popular, American girls at school. I didn’t speak unless I absolutely had to for fear of being ridiculed for my accent. And I avoided eye contact as much as possible so people wouldn’t look at my face and see my narrow, squinty eyes.

As I got older, and as I got into intensive therapy in my early 20s, I learned a lot of what I was experiencing was due to generational trauma. I was an emotional child who had emotional needs that were not capable of being met by her parents, thus I ended up turning in on myself. I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, explaining some of my self-destructive behaviors. I worked hard in therapy for the early part of my 20s yet still struggled to love myself. There was still a part of me that hated who I was and my cultural heritage.

As time has gone on, and with even more therapy though, I have come to see that my upbringing and my experiences are not anybody’s fault. I tried to be somebody I am not because I didn’t understand and appreciate the struggles that my family experienced. I didn’t understand and couldn’t understand that my parents experienced unspeakable trauma that they didn’t know how to process themselves. It took up until this recent year, 2021, to recognize that I am proud of who I am — Asian, not Asian American, but Asian — because I am Chinese and proud. I am proud of the upbringing I had and the experiences that have shaped me into who I am today. I recognize now, my experience is not isolated and healing required understanding generations of trauma in my family, not just my own. My experiences seem isolated but in reality, are intimately tied to that of my parents and grandparents. With time and understanding, with patience for the therapeutic process, I have been able to recognize that I am a strong, independent, Chinese woman with no excuses for who I am and who I am becoming. I am me and this is my story.

Lead image via Getty Images

Originally published: May 4, 2021
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