It is not surprising that Asian Americans underutilize mental health services. After all, we are seen as a model minority, excellent at math and science, and as lovely and strong as a geisha or samurai. There is a pressure to take on this Americanized version of our identity that has nothing to do with our lived experience.
Withstanding microaggressions and xenophobia with silence has become a strength to our own detriment. I cannot count the times I have faked politeness at someone asking, “Where are you from, really?” Or another person telling me they have a new Oriental rug, or that they see me as a regular person who speaks very good English, not a Person of Color. Having our own voice, narrative, and mental health support may not be easy to obtain, but it is long overdue. Seeking the kind of healing that comes from being a vulnerable human with individual and collective hurts cannot be a stigmatized activity that we continue to avoid if we are to grow. Our stories matter and distinguish us from being the sized-up, stereotyped representations of our ethnicity.
My mother, a Korean and Chinese immigrant, came to the U.S. to marry my Caucasian father a year before I was born. They had met when he was deployed in Korea. As she raised me, she would make decisions about whether she would teach me about my Asian heritage. She selected food and education as acceptable parts of Asian culture to pass on to me.
While she spoke Korean, Chinese, and English fluently, she would discourage me from speaking any language except English. She told me she wanted my English to be perfect. She reasoned that this would protect me from sounding as though I “just got off the boat.” My mother arrived in the US from South Korea on a 747 Boeing plane. I wonder how many past and future generations of immigrants will continue to be typecast by the racial slur of “just getting off the boat” related to our earliest ancestors traveling to the US by boat.
My mother also wanted me to lean into Western values of independence and women having equal rights. She worked hard to afford higher education for me. She directed me to be as White as possible to protect myself from the same racism she experienced. While I understood her heartfelt wish to take care of me, I still experienced racism. Oppressors do not take time to appreciate whether a Biracial person is assimilating Western culture. My mother’s hiding of her culture did not seem to protect her either.
As an example, days after the 2007 Virgina Tech University shooting where a Korean student killed 37 students, my mother felt she was handled roughly in airports and searched unreasonably by airport security. She was made to remove her underwire bra because the male security guard said it kept setting off the alarm. When she told me this story on one occasion, she had humiliated tears and said she threw her bra on the ground and stormed away. Another time when she told me about it, she said she had been frozen and could not defend herself with a single word or action. Either way, the hurt was present in both versions. But never would she share that story with a mental health professional to try to heal. Instead, she shared it to warn me.
Providing our offspring with cultural understandings and rituals for gender roles, relationships like marriage, as well as lifespan events like death and bereavement can be a rich ancestral inheritance and gift. My mother intentionally omitted Asian culture to give me the best chance to blend in with American culture. Unfortunately, when it came to mourning, this left me with little to turn to when I needed it. She became terminally ill and in the progression of this illness, I had a short time with her before she died, which I am grateful for. I also realized that even in the dying process she still held fast to her maternal protectiveness. “Be dominant society,” seemed to be her enduring message.
I made her the traditional Chinese soup, congee when she was bedridden and I selfishly hoped that she would share Asian rituals or guidance for mourning. Again, she encouraged me to be White with advisement to grieve in a Western way. She told me I would move on. American culture also instructed me to “move on.”
My Mom and I had planned to go to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Seoul, Korea. She promised that she would be an ambassador for me in all aspects of Asian culture. I imagined seeing Korea with her and not worrying about disguising my Asian identity. Regrettably, she died from metastases of her cancer just days before the Olympics began.
I wanted to be able to give myself and my children the ability to grieve and grow. Given my lack of understanding of how to grieve, I sought guidance in the education my mother worked so hard to provide me with. I have learned that telling one’s story to a compassionate listener who encourages slowing down to appreciate the painful and triumphant details is healing in a relational way. Re-authoring one’s narrative to incorporate exiled parts so that a full, rich, life story can be experienced as a poignant story of love and striving is the goal of narrative therapy. I am most honored to serve as a companion traveler as you reflect on your journey and grow from your experiences.
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