How intergenerational trauma, family conflicts, and racism block us from healing
Most recently, I was tasked with creating a community program that provides mental health care for and addresses the impact of racism/xenophobia and COVID-19 on the Chinese immigrant families in the city. For the past two months as everyone scrambled to find and adjust to a new normal (including myself), I was also busy reaching out to community leaders, families, and individuals to learn about their emerging needs and build alliances and partnerships for the cause. I felt like I was stuck in quicksand—I had to stay calm while making small movements to better the situation.
Before engaging myself with this work, I’ve known from a personal standpoint that the Asian American community is plagued with intergenerational trauma. Similar to many second-generation Asian Americans I know, I had carried resentment toward and developed anxiety due to the way I was raised—the shame, the guilt, the emotional avoidance, and the mindless pressure to succeed. To say the least, there are many things that I don’t agree with my parents, politically, culturally, and socially. Of course, such generational differences are thickened by cultural boundaries, immigration experiences, education, and the myriad of distinctions that make us who we are.
Traditionally, most community work offers education and guidance in accessing resources to marginalized communities. Cultural interpreters and advocates like me often go into relatively isolated community to educate and connect community members with resources that are available in mainstream systems. The work is unidirectional: care workers provide services to people in need. However, promoting mental health among Asian Americans is different. It begs for a more innovative model. Since intergenerational trauma continuously inflicts conflicts and erosion within the family unit, it is not enough for mental health care work to be delivered to first-generation Asian parents or second-generation Asian children separately.
Within the Chinese immigrant community, there are distinctive mental health needs between first- and second-generations. Pragmatically, these differences are often based on language needs, age groups, life roles, and cultural beliefs. (This is not to say that there is no distinction within each generation. Differences exist, especially along class line). Due to these differences, from a service provider’s point of view, mental health services tend to gear toward each group separately.
However, to promote and improve the mental health among Asians, we need more than point-to-point services to individuals based on their generational statuses. We need intergenerational spaces of healing. Indeed, the transmission of intergenerational trauma from wars and colonialism coupled with the hierarchal and collectivistic characteristics in many Asian cultures bound many of us together, regardless of generational status. Many Asians continue to experience painful conflicts with their families. And we have continued to suffer from depression and anxiety related to emotional trauma inflicted by our very own families.
In addition, Asian Americans face racism in ways that are peculiarly tied to our racial stereotypes. While first-generation Asians are often labeled as dangerous and barbaric “yellow peril”, second-generation Asians are pressured to become the “model minority”, paddling frantically while remaining calm on the surface. These toxic stereotypes further divide our generations, reopening old wounds, deepening familial gaps, and hardening unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Because of the intricacy of the ways that Asians experience intergenerational trauma and racism, normalizing mental health in our community is more complex than simply raising awareness. For instance, framing the maintenance of mental health as individuals’ effort to change the mindset, care for oneself, and talk to a therapist can not only fail people who can’t afford any of those things, but it can also solidify stereotypes—that first-generation Asians are unassimilated and uneducated when they don’t change their mindsets and that second-generation Asians can treat their trauma away if they practice self care hard enough. As we work to come up with models to better serve our Asian immigrant community, it is important that we keep in mind about the nuances of the diverse needs and experiences of those in our community. In addition, we need to create new grounds for intergenerational healing to happen.
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