Navigating Capitalist Mandates for Happiness and Collectivist Fears of Shame

Both Western and Eastern cultures struggle with hang-ups surrounding failure. Breaking free from both and owning my failures helped me claim my agency and value the indomitable immigrant spirit.

4 years ago

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A couple years ago, I got a Facebook friend request from a stranger out of the blue. It was from a young girl, whom I will call Kyla, who wanted advice on her university applications. Kyla had gone to one of my favourite professors from my alma mater asking for tips on standardized tests, interviews, and application essays, and the professor recommended she talk to me. She was aiming to get into the same schools I wanted to attend when I was her age.

I was both happily surprised and a little puzzled by this request. Why would I, of all people, be deemed a trusted source of guidance and advice on this matter? My old professor, who wrote me recommendation letters, knew I had failed miserably in my attempt to get into these schools. Still, I knew how arduous the application process could get, especially for students whose families have, for one reason or another, little familiarity with Western higher education systems. I wanted Kyla, a young Asian immigrant girl on the cusp of adulthood just like I once was, to feel supported in her goals. So I agreed to help her.

As I gave Kyla standardized testing tips and talked to her about her essays, it became clear to me that her English level was not good enough to gain admission into her dream schools. I thought long and hard about what was the right way to deal with that situation.

Should I tell her politely, but firmly, that it was an exercise in futility? Should I still be encouraging and supportive? Who was I to stop her ambitions before the final verdict from those schools was even released?

Over the last third of the twentieth century, corporations started to pay attention to this shift in cultural norms and co-opted happiness as a function of consumerism.

As I thought about these questions, I recalled my applications years ago. It was a humiliating failure. I remember getting five rejections in ten minutes and sobbing for the entire afternoon into the evening. At the time, I loathed my life. I longed to escape the provincial town of my childhood through a full-ride scholarship where I would get to learn exciting intellectual ideas and have Big Life Experiences that I would use to become a globe-trotting journalist/writer.

My plans were foiled. I was sure I would remain stuck in a racist town in Quebec where overt racist, Islamophobic, and antisemitic attacks happened regularly. I hated that I lacked the kind of family wealth that would allow me to study elsewhere.

It also did not help that at the time, I was recovering from dental surgery. For days after the rejections, I did not leave my bed. I laid there in my bathrobe in a puddle of my tears, drugged-out with various sorts of post-surgery painkillers, intermittently trying to distract myself with my phone before exploding into sobs that tore at my mouth stitches.

Even after I gathered up enough strength to get off of my bed, put on some clothes, and go to class again, I felt like a shell-shocked prisoner of war, trapped in my own life. I had wanted to leave that town since I was eleven years old. I had it all planned out. I worked so hard. Now what? How was I going to cope with rotting a few more years in that idiot town?

For more than a year afterward, the ghost of that failure hung over me. It coloured my reality in a shade of grey that made me unable to feel any joy or any gratitude at where I was in my life at that moment. In a misguided attempt to cheer me up, other people reminded me that I was accepted to good schools closer to home. But their enforced joyfulness invalidated my emotions and only made me feel much worse.

Diamond Yao's university application materials, courtesy of Diamond Yao.

I wasn’t alone in feeling like this. As writer Heather Havrilesky puts it in her essay The Smile Factory, this attitude of brushing all misery under the rug is widespread within North American culture. This attitude is an inherent tenet of the happy promises a capitalistic American Dream makes for anyone willing to believe in it. She writes:

“Everything must be improving. If things are bad, they are always about to get better. Reluctance to see it that way will be encountered as wilful misery.”

University of Stockholm business professor Carl Cederström argues that this capitalistic conception of happiness in any given society evolves according to the values of their time. In an interview with Vox, he said:

“There’s always a strong connection between popular morality and how we think of happiness. What’s interesting to me is that it’s not really until the Enlightenment era that we get this ideal of happiness as something that we, as human beings, can fully achieve in our lives. And it’s not really until the middle of the 20th century that this vision of happiness becomes the dominant cultural norm in Western society.”

According to Cederström, over the last third of the twentieth century, corporations started to pay attention to this shift in cultural norms and co-opted happiness as a function of consumerism and as a goal people aspire to when they move up in the corporate world.

The combination of these factors forged an ultra-individualistic mindset that mandated cheerfulness while simultaneously enlarging already existing social inequalities. It formed a vicious circle where the more negativity there was, the more it would be covered up by happiness to a point where we could not address negativity anymore.

I felt like this when people tried to cheer me up upon learning of my multiple rejections. Something awful had just happened to me, and nobody wanted to recognize the full extent of how bad it was for me, leaving me even more miserable. Havrilesky writes in her essay:

“This chirpy insistence on positivity has a strange way of enhancing the dread and anxiety and melancholy that lie just beneath the surface of things. [...] Today, as the planet heats to a low simmer and ominous images of polar bears swimming in circles make us feel like the universe’s most reckless zookeepers, admonishments to embrace optimism and cheer and ‘greatness’ are more vehement than ever.”

These admonishments are not as harmless as they may look. Practising denial that the continent was built on the blood of Indigenous people, Black slaves and exploited workers of all races enforces the already unequal social order. By never giving any failures the room to breathe, not only is North America mired in a mental health epidemic, but it is also willfully ignoring the massive failings that belie the bloody exploitation on which it was built.

The current coronavirus crisis is only beginning to expose the flaws in the continent’s attitude towards failure. It exacerbates existing mental health issues and survival precarity. People struggling with loneliness and domestic violence are even more isolated than before. Racism against Asians around the world is on the rise. Families already struggling to make the monthly rent are in danger of being evicted in the middle of a pandemic. Racist violence against Black and Brown people continues to be as prevalent as ever, necessitating massive protests amid the pandemic. The denial of the mere existence of failure has produced circumstances where, when a virus finally put an end to collective delusions of bliss, conditions are dire.

Asian cultural hang-ups surrounding failure, heavily influenced by collectivism, compounded my already sad mental state over the rejections. This was also not uncommon.

In their paper Relational mobility and close relationships: A socioecological approach to explain cross‐cultural differences, Dr. Mie Kito, Dr. Masaki Yuki, and Dr. Robert Thomson found that people in collectivist cultures, such as Asian, Latin American and African cultures, have relationships that are more stable, long-lasting and strong. As relationships are formed and defined more by family and geography rather than personal choice, people in collectivist cultures are strongly incentivized to maintain relational harmony as those ties are long-lasting and extremely difficult to change.

Doing anything that would fail to keep the peace has a high risk of bringing long-term unhappiness for everyone involved. An individual failing in a collectivist culture doesn’t just negatively impact that individual, but many people in their social network as well, often for a very long time. In an interview with CNBC, Jacqueline Low, the Singaporean chief operating officer at Janus Corporate Solutions, elaborated on this mindset:

“Asians have a strong ‘saving-face’ mentality where they’re generally unforgiving of failures, as it is perceived that failures mean weakness.”

It was how my relatives reacted when they learned of my multiple rejections. Fearful that word would get out, they neglected to even tell their closest loved ones about my post-secondary education plans.

Viewing failure as an event that will disrupt social harmony and equating it with a weakness does not bode well for people’s mental health. In their article Cultural factors influencing the mental health of Asian Americans, Dr. Elizabeth J. Kramer, Dr. Kenny Kwong, Dr. Evelyn Lee, and Dr. Henry Chung wrote about the way culture shaped the expression and recognition of psychiatric problems.

“Collectivist tradition discourages open displays of emotions in order to maintain social and familial harmony or to avoid exposure of personal weakness. Saving face—the ability to preserve the public appearance of the patient and family for the sake of community propriety—is extremely important to most Asian groups...Patients may not be willing to discuss their moods or psychological states because of fears of social stigma and shame.”

This sort of isolation and secrecy surrounding failure and negative emotions only compounds the distress people experience when faced with these occurrences. It was a primary reason behind my extended despondency over the rejections. Nobody in my family wanted to have an honest conversation about why those polite rejection letters hurt as much as they did. Because for me, this whole ordeal wasn’t about a school – it was about reclaiming my sense of agency. Having grown up in a place I despised and stuck between the Western denial of failure and Asian failure shaming, I saw this agency as the only way out.

Growing up, I was so severely bullied for my race, my personality, my fashion sense, my life aspirations, and my political opinions that it became unlivable. Not being able to feel, want, or desire anything at all without heavy criticism, I walked around in a state of perpetual emptiness, as if I had died spiritually.

There was very little I could do to change that situation for myself, except try to do well enough in school that it would be my ticket out. In retrospect, deciding to claim my sense of agency by handing over my entire fate to an admissions officer who was a stranger to me seems extremely counterproductive. But at the time, I was a child, and often children are given few options in life.

Going away to school was one of the only routes available to me out of that situation. The fact that this course of action was the best I could do underscores how little power over their own lives our society gives children, and therefore how badly systemic failures they have no hand in creating can derail their lives if no one else steps in to help them.

Diamond Yao's university application materials, courtesy of Diamond Yao.

Thus, as disappointed and as heartbroken as I was, I never regretted working so hard on those applications. During many years where it would have been easy for me to fall into a downward spiral of fatalism, they gave some direction and some purpose to my life. When all else was bleak, those applications were a reliable beacon of hope.

Doing them helped me improve my English, my writing skills, my social skills, my testing skills. I accrued captivating life experiences as a result. If it weren’t for them, I would never have worked in a neuroscience research laboratory, tried to publish my writing in major newspapers, and focused on my studies.

For the lower-middle-class immigrant teenager who lived in a white backwater that I was, these things completely changed my life. They made me believe that I could visualize beyond what I had known. They made me confident that in a place filled with accountants, factory workers, high school teacher assistants, and retail employees, I could become a writer, an explorer, an activist, and an adventurer.

Most of all, these experiences awoke the immigrant spirit in me that has since never left. It is an open spirit that dares to dream of a life beyond their current circumstances and ideologies, and that has the will to make that dream come true even if there is a high risk of failure. The immigrant spirit is the ultimate declaration of personal agency over less than desirable initial circumstances.

In many ways, Asian immigrants are the greatest rebels against collectivist cultural ideals. In the movie Blinded By The Light, British Pakistani parents Noor and Malik have a revealing conversation about this.

The family conflicts over son Javed’s decision to go three hours away to Manchester to study to become a writer.  His traditionally-minded father, Malik, strongly opposes this, so his mother Noor confronts her husband about his own decision to immigrate to the United Kingdom.

“Your parents begged you to stay in Karachi, so why did you go?” says Noor. When her husband replies that he wanted a better life for his family, she calls out his hypocrisy. “You thought you knew better than them. He just wants to study to be a writer for a few years in Manchester. You were leaving Pakistan for good!”

Malik castigates his son for wanting to move three hours away even though he made the ultimate rebellious decision to build a life thousands of kilometres away within a culture that highly prizes family unity.

The essence of an immigrant claims agency by performing individualistic, bold actions for the ultimate collective good, something from which both Eastern and Western cultures can benefit.

His agency is a testament to the spirit of all immigrants of tremendous resilience and fierce desire to chart our course amidst often unhelpful environments. It is a spirit that is willing to take a stand against injustice and break out of the collective often at immense cost to build something better not just for oneself, but also for one’s family and one’s community. In this way, the immigrant spirit is about every individual making an active free choice of being who they are with the knowledge that, ultimately, it will benefit their entire collective.

Western society would benefit from treating all individuals within the collective with equal respect by allowing them to be valued just as they are. The essence of an immigrant claims agency by performing individualistic, bold actions for the ultimate collective good, something from which both Eastern and Western cultures can benefit.  

It is the unification of an Eastern and a Western values system that results in an entirely new hybrid to best suit our globalized, diverse society where we treat each individual within the harmonious collective with equal respect and value.  We would do well to remember that spirit as we watch the world as we know it crumble before our eyes and are called upon to build a new visionary society.

It was because I wanted to nurture the immigrant spirit she already had that I continued to help Kyla. We worked together through the fall and the winter. I suggested her books, websites, exam skills, and study tricks, doing the best that I could despite not being an expert myself. In our time together, her English improved, her plans became sharper, and her confidence brightened. She knew her chances were dim, but in true immigrant form still wanted to give it her best try. And I was proud to be a minuscule part of her journey.

In the spring, Kyla sent out her applications. She got nothing but rejections from her dream schools. A few weeks later, she invited me to lunch at a local delicatessen. Over pasta and bread, she thanked me for my help and told me about her excitement at her acceptance into a well-regarded North American university that wasn’t one of her dream schools. We laughed and took selfies that we sent in gratitude to our old professor, who replied with smiley faces.

After that, Kyla moved away for school. I didn’t hear from her again for many months. One day, I opened Facebook Messenger and saw a wall of text from her. She wrote about her new friends, her classes, and the initiatives she was getting involved in. She sounded nothing but happy.

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Diamond Yao

Published 4 years ago

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