Growing Up Asian American (Part 2)

The idea is not to make this a whole saga of consecutive posts, but rather enter some thoughts and reflections as I think about myself under the identity of Asian American. And as you will notice in this post, the previous one, and any hereafter, I will not be hyphening the term. I’ve experienced too much internal (and some external) conflict over being Asian American, that it feels wrong to my experience to merge what I consider two separate identities into one.

That out of the way, I’m going to talk about being Asian American and working in the Human Services field and touch upon growing up with undiagnosed anxiety and depression.

The first thing I noticed when I started working in the Human Services industry was the lack of Asians and Asian Americans in the field. When I worked at a residential facility for alcohol and substance abuse, only one of the counselors was Asian. I wasn’t surprised by the lack of Asian presence in the human services workforce because it’s not a traditionally encouraged or accepted field, job, or career path. Not to feed into the stereotype, but the professions I was encouraged to pursue were: accounting or something business related, medicine, or law. That’s it. The one exception I remember was when I said I wanted to be a teacher and my parents were okay with it. Barely.

I think part of the reason why the professions within the helping field aren’t encouraged is the understanding that a job is just a way to make money to provide for ourselves and our family. And it’s a well-known thing that government agencies and not-for-profit organizations don’t pay very much compared to corporate and private companies. Another thing is the concept of working to help people. If there’s one thing I learned growing up Chinese is that you mind your own business and ignore problems not directly related to you. So my work and my job go against the grain, goes against the whole concept of making money and taking care of me, myself and I.

Another thing I noticed, and again not surprised by, is the lack of Asians and Asian Americans served at the agencies where I worked. The populations I’ve worked with are those with mental illness, substance use disorder, and homelessness. And quite infrequently do I encounter individuals of Asian descent, and I’m speaking broader term Asian not just East Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Korean). And I think that could be attributed to the fact that none of these issues are talked about within the community, at least not the one I grew up in. Mental health doesn’t exist. You just get up and go. And if anyone has a mental illness in the family, it’s hush-hush or that person just isn’t ever talked about, or you’re gaslighted into imagining what you’ve heard about the person.

I can attest to my family not believing in mental illness. I went undiagnosed for over a decade because any time I talked about feeling anxious or feeling tired, or if I laid in bed all day, it was chalked up to being sensitive, lazy, and unmotivated. I was usually advised into getting up and just keep going, and also guilted for feeling the way I did because, “All you have to do is focus on school what’s there to be stressed or depressed about?” I believed something was off about me because there were some really dark thoughts that I recognized should not be floating in my mind, but I chalked it up to my parents and siblings being right. Maybe I was overreacting, and it’s just the phase of being an angsty teenager or something. I let it go. I probably shouldn’t have, but there wasn’t a huge culture boost and support for mental health at the time.

It wasn’t until I was struggling greatly with college (and not the academic portion) that I finally went to a mental health professional, after a lot of encouragement and support from my friends, that I received a diagnosis. After finally getting a name to my experience, I started doing research. I learned about how anxiety and depression manifest in childhood, adolescence, adulthood, etc. And I was mind blown! My experiences and symptoms matched and I felt both concerned and relieved. Concerned because wow it’s a long time to have been left untreated, but relieved because now I can do something about it.

Now, in this new generation and age of mental health advocacy, it was a little less daunting to talk to my friends from high school about it. Also Chinese, and so many of them told me they saw oddities in my behavior and chalked it up to me being me. They didn’t think anything of it because we weren’t educated in this enough. Not at school and definitely not at home. But I remember some of the conversations being that they just figured it was in my personality to be sensitive, to be moody/irritable, to have a short temper. I was astounded. This whole time the signs were clear, but we ignored it because we didn’t know any better.

I don’t know if my life would be significantly different or improved if I started working on myself earlier. I don’t know if I would’ve been open to hearing a diagnosis and believing it earlier. All I know is that because I grew up in a culture that denies the existence of mental illness, I didn’t get any help before it got out of hand. And though part of me is upset and frustrated by that, the other part of me is grateful. In my experience with mental health as an Asian American, I became more resilient and more driven to break the cycle.

So I am proudly and Asian American in a predominantly non-Asian field, and I hope to encourage others of my background to consider and pursue it. And maybe even outreach to people who may not understand it so much within the cultural landscape, it could be comforting to have someone from a similar background talk about traditionally taboo topics. Who knows?

For the time being, I will put a pause on anymore being Asian American posts. Like I said in the first one, these initial posts are dives into my identity, and though they will be deep, I don’t want to focus solely on one piece of my identity. Also with the Stop Asian Hate and crimes against Asians, I don’t want to add to the narrative at this point. I want to take some time and reflect on the issues and my feelings about them before I write or say anything about it.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely believe and support the advocacy and agree with the movement, but I’m not ready to throw my hat in the ring just yet. It does not mean that I’m turning my back on it or not giving it any attention because I am flooded by the reality on all platforms, and my feelings of apprehension and fear of going outside and for my family’s well-being are very real.