One day last year, my then-20 year-old stepson came home and told me that his friend committed suicide and passed away. I didn’t know how to react to it. I was shocked, terrified, and for reasons that I cannot comprehend, I felt angry. Then, I felt guilty for feeling angry, for not showing enough sympathy, and I felt shameful for not being able to evoke a reaction. In the following weeks, I heard about the funeral planned and money being raised to support the victim’s family. People, including my stepson, talked about how kind and energetic his friend was. Then, life went on.
In fact, this was the second time I heard from my stepson about the suicide of a friend. The first time when it happened, he was a high school senior about to graduate. Just like the second time, I could not come up with an appropriate reaction upon hearing the news. It felt too strange, too surreal, too unfathomable. And for a very long time (even as I am writing), I didn’t know what to feel about it.
Suicide is not completely unfamiliar in our family. Both my partner and I have had family members who took their lives. The sociologist’s side of me objectively know that suicide is an alarming social problem, especially among Asian Americans. In the US, suicide was the leading cause of death among Asian Americans aged 15-24 in 2017. Asian American girls are 20 percent more likely to attempt suicide as compared to their white counterpart(1). However, the Asian side of me cannot help but feel shameful about these instances of suicide, perhaps because they remind me of my greatest fear—to be seen as a weak-minded failure.
According to a research study, one in 10 Chinese Americans and close to two in 10 Asian Americans experience mental illnesses such as anxiety and mood disorders in their life time(2). But when it comes to mental health issues, Asian immigrants are often silent. Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health services than white Americans(3). So, why do so many Asian Americans suffer from mental illnesses and yet so few of us seek help?
When Asian Americans came to the United States in the late 19th century, many sought refuge from racial violence and xenophobia by fostering our own community. Chinatown in San Francisco—the first Chinatown in the country—was created as a safe place for Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans to come together and as a tactic to avoid racism. We self-commodified to make white Americans more comfortable about and around us: we invented General Tso’s Chicken, adopted chopstick font from Yellow Peril images, held up signs with Chinese words. We signify and perform our Asianness to a real and imagined white audience, even when these symbols meant little or even are offensive to ourselves. For many Asian Americans, surviving in America means catering to white comfort and avoiding racism.
In the 1960s, when civil rights movement was operating at its full strength in conjunction with a new inflow of immigrants from Asia, American politicians and the mainstream media was busy promoting the stereotype of model minority. The message was simple and effective. Asian Americans are the model of all minorities. We are the wiz kids, the math geniuses, the conformers, and the “good” kind of minority who study to become doctors and lawyers. While this untrue and toxic message has had great implications for black-Asian relations (a topic that warrant to be discussed separately), many of us have internalized this stereotype.
For many second-generation or even third-generation Asian Americans who have grown up after the 1960s, we strive to succeed not only for our parents but also for surviving in a society that can only see us as our stereotype. Indeed, many of us grew up learning that becoming doctors, lawyers, and scientists is the only way to earn respect, to avoid hardship, and to be seen. Our parents taught us that. Our family and friends repeatedly told us that. And they aren’t completely wrong—our society is racist and xenophobic; many white (and black) Americans haven’t yet learned how to see Asian Americans as individual people. They don’t know how to interact with someone like me, a young female scholar-educator who is highly educated yet has opinions that often don’t conform to whiteness and dominant standards. So, instead of interacting with me, people react to me. This has had consequences on my career and mental health—I am a victim of institutional racism and have developed PTSD due to racial trauma. During my bad days, I wished I had followed the model minority path. But during my good days, I reminded myself that I, among many Asian Americans, simply can’t fit into a narrow definition that the society has given us.
I know the problem that is haunting my community, but I don’t have direct solutions to it. For now, I’ll allow myself to sit with my feelings about the lives that my community and I have lost to suicide and the pressure to succeed. I’ll allow myself to forget about the shame and fear around failure. And no matter how hard, I’ll try to develop kindness for other Asian Americans, including my parents, my family, my stepson, and the friends he has lost. I will learn to love myself and my community, because I can’t love myself if I don’t love my community, and I can’t love my community if I don’t love myself.
(1) US Department of Health and Services. Office of Minority Health. “Mental and Behavioral Health – Asian Americans.” https://minorityhealth.hhs.gov/omh/browse.aspx?lvl=4&lvlid=54
(2) Hong, S., Walton, E., Tamaki, E., & Sabin, J. A. (2014). Lifetime Prevalence of Mental Disorders among Asian Americans: Nativity, Gender, and Sociodemographic Correlates. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 5(4), 353–363.
(3) Spencer, M., Chen, J., Gee, G., Fabian, C., Takeuchi, D. (2010). “Discrimination and Mental Health-Related Service Use in a National Study of Asian Americans.” American Journal of Public Health, 100(12), 2410–2417.