Asian American college students are 1.6 times more likely than all others to make a serious suicide attempt. They are 3 times less likely to seek out professional therapy or counseling. Across all students, about 24% are estimated to experience suicidal ideation at some point in their time at school. It’s safe to assume that the proportion for Asian American students is even higher. When I entered university in 2014, Asian American student deaths at Yale, MIT, and UPenn were making national headlines. Recently, the death of Luke Tang at Harvard University prompted a university-wide conference on Asian American mental illness and the filming of Looking for Luke, which follows Luke’s parents’ life after their son’s passing.
Increasing national focus on Asian American youth’s suicide rates has coincided with the growth of our mainstream liberal political movement. Mental health initiatives are becoming ubiquitous at large universities and in Asian neighborhoods. Conferences such as Harvard’s attract hundreds of participants from all over the country. The popular image of the number-crunching Asian robot has broken down. Ali Wong’s jokes about miscarriage and Eddie Huang’s body-empowering line of panda themed underwear herald a new era of vulnerability. Asian women even took center stage on Logic’s performance at the Video Music Awards. At the center of this whirlpool of attention is the search for an explanation for our community’s struggles with mental illness.
The dominant model we’ve come up with is that Asian kids collapse in a pressure cooker of parental expectations and cultural stigma. The story goes that Asian parents raise their children ignorant of the stress their expectations cause. Immigrant narratives overwhelm students with the impossible demand of a return on interest. Asian kids are stretched so thin that only a lucky few don’t suffer some kind of breakdown by the end of high school. Hanging over every family is a strict cultural network that, since the days of Confucius and the Buddha, discourages emotion and favors self-control through hard work. Refusing to quit this outdated thinking causes families to miss out on a sense of national belonging, placing further strain on children. Arriving at college, Asian students are neither able to adapt to the competitive environment nor adjust to a community where emotional openness is accepted. Conversations with parents, already difficult at home, become clogged with intergenerational static. Eventually, the stress erodes away their ability to endure, leading to anxiety, depression, and, in the long run, suicidal ideation.
This was the model explored when I attended Harvard’s conference last spring. Hundreds of students, parents, and educators packed the reception rooms. A screening of Looking for Luke was the first event of the day. Afterwards, attendees were split into breakout sessions, which focused on how parents can support their children as they move through high school and transition into difficult college environments. Biting down on croissants and fidgeting in their dresses, parents expressed surprise and guilt as they were told of their generation’s failure. However, the conference ended on a positive note, as keynote speakers reassured attendees that students’ mental health struggles could be overcome as long as parents made an effort to change their ways.
I recognized those looks of surprise and guilt on my own parents’ face when I told them about the panic attacks I suffered in my freshman year at college. They had been talking about Luke, about how they didn’t understand why he had done it. By this time I was well versed in the model. Across the marble counter in our kitchen where we typically chatted during dinner, I accused them of failing to care about my struggles in high school and criticized their English proficiency, which I imagined to be the root cause of our difficulties in conversation. In that moment I saw them as apostles of a foreign spirit I wanted no part of. I wanted them to see my self-hatred, and understand that it was a reflection of their failure to truly integrate into America. Their ignorance of Luke mirrored their ignorance of their son, and so I told them until my throat grew hoarse.
I am not surprised that our movement, which has come far enough to recognize the gendered racism in Asian-white relationships, the supremacist philosophy of assimilationist politics, and the vital role of affirmative action in our fight against oppression, seems to embrace a model of mental illness that cuts down immigrant narratives and identifies Asian cultures as a source of weakness rather than strength. In the fight to assert ourselves, a colonial, anti-Asian ideology remains rooted in our memories of pain. I don’t know what I expected from my parents. My mother left the room. My father looked angry but didn’t say anything. The impression my words left on them stunted our conversations for weeks.
That high expectations, responsible parents, and strong connections to cultural backgrounds in Asian American families give rise to suicidal children is a uniquely American paradox. However, we should not be surprised. Model minority stereotypes and racist rhetoric around families of color lead Asian children to associate strong families with Asian-ness. Furthermore, America’s denigration of Asian men, fetishization of Asian women, and general xenophobia toward Asian peoples link Asian-ness to badness. Asian American children are therefore brought up believing that their families are bad. For white families and families of color, responsible and firm parenting is celebrated, while for Asian families, they are shameful and problematic.
An outpouring of this sort of hypocrisy emerged in the national response to Amy Chua’s The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother in 2011. The ideas that Chua put forth are not novel: children are not responsible enough to make decisions regarding their future, good parenting must be firm and confident, hard work is necessary for children even if it’s not fun. Hundreds of parenting books have been written on the same topics. What drew fire was the fact that her writing was about Asian children. Positive responses to the book declared that non-Asian parents should adopt Chua’s recommendations, whereas negative reviews condemned Chua for the imagined harm that her parenting was surely taking on her children. White parents would have the intuition and know-how to implement Chua’s parenting strategically. Asian parents, emotionally distant and lacking fluency in American ways, are surely taking it too far.
Strong families and hard-working children are not unique to Asian culture. Academic achievement is closely tied to parents’ immigration status, parents’ socioeconomic class, and parents’ education level for all racial groups. Higher education level, socioeconomic class, and immigration status all correspond to higher achievement for children of all racial groups. The Asian population’s achievement is a reflection of its higher proportion of privileged parents due to America’s skewed immigration policies. That privileged children perform better than their underprivileged counterparts is a black mark on America’s schools and treatment of its people. To believe that Asian children are inherently better at school due to their race or cultural background is to buy into a racist hierarchy.
Only Asian American children have significantly higher rates of suicidal ideation and depression. Perhaps it has to do with the stigma against discussing mental illness in Asian communities. However, even rudimentary research into other communities of color reveals that such stigmas are not unique to Asians. Perhaps there it’s an inexplicable but somehow intrinsic quality of Asian cultures. However comparisons reveal that Asian American college suicide rates are on par with, if not higher than, rates in Asian countries. In places where “Asian culture” is most concentrated, suicide is not noticeably higher. It follows that Asian culture is not some kind of mentally destructive force.
The narrative of harmful Asian-ness halts immigrant parents’ sense of belonging in this country, and widens the false dissociation Asian Americans feel between being happy and being Asian. When I blamed my parents for the harm that my environment causes me, I not only did nothing to resolve my problems, but also drove deeper the generational wedge between us. On a whole-population level, this problematizates Asian-ness and fractures any possibility of cohesiveness between generations. The end result is stagnation of our formation of a sense of self. In a country that deems us worthless, the maintenance of our racial selves is like trying to light a match in a thunderstorm. Seeing our parents and our heritage as the cause of that worthlessness only makes things worse.
The idea that Asian families and Asian-ness are uniquely harmful to Asian Americans needs to be abandoned. If we refuse to examine the way that this country’s prejudices condition us to be in conflict with our own parents, we will never be able to heal and thrive as a community. Strong conceptions of the racial self, connection to racial communities, and understanding of systems of oppression have been shown to correlate with positive self-esteem and reduced risk of depression in other communities of color. Although it will be the same for us, we must do the appropriate work.
We must shift our blame onto the model minority, perpetual foreigner, and Orientalist stereotypes that constitute our oppression. Despite our familiarity with these tropes, we are unable to believe they produce real consequences on our well-being. They are the root of our hypocritical views on Asian families and mental health resources’ failure to earn the trust of Asian clients.
When a therapist or counselor believes that Asian Americans suffer solely because of familial pressures, they buy into the idea that Asian families are unnatural and inhuman. When they refuse to consider the effects of racially rooted stress on their client’s mental state, they uphold the outdated belief that Asians cannot possibly be affected by racism. Little wonder that the follow-up rate for Asian Americans who do visit therapists is virtually nonexistent. At some level, we understand that heaping criticism on our families neither helps us understand ourselves nor provides a practical solution for our problems.
While the demand for professionals trained to address the needs of Asian Americans is widespread, this training lacks specificity. What training exists, following the pressure cooker model, has counselors locating the source of the problem within Asian communities. The one and only time I visited my college’s mental health services, a white lady reassured me that she’d seen lots of Asian students with “similar problems”, and encouraged me to “be more open” in my relationship with my parents. I left without a clue as to what I was actually supposed to do. While I have no confidence that America’s mostly white population of mental health care providers can truly embrace and have conversations about race and mental illness, some training is better than none. The increasing diversification of the population of care-providers also gives me hope that services will improve.
I no longer want to listen to the argument that Asian suicides are somehow to be expected given our “culture”. I do not want to open the latest heartbreaking email and weigh the odds that the name will be like my own, or imagine how a mother crumples with foreign guilt added to her despair. The patronizing tone with which white experts explain their theory about our families enrages me; I am deaf to news articles and think pieces that, year after year, draw the same tired conclusions about our community. I want to believe that my own children will one day be proud of who they are, and will not flinch when they hear me speak my mother tongue to a friend on the street. The wounds and words I spoke into existence with my parents should never have existed in a country that loves its people, but I must repair them.
The movement to drain the sea of self-hatred in our community has begun in earnest. But we cannot love ourselves if we do not first affirm our love for our families in the face of America’s demands that we toss them away.Amputating our anti-Asian views on our health is difficult when we were raised to believe them. But they must be removed if we are to heal. Our lives depend on it.