By Anne Jiang ’23
From the ages of 4 to 8, I was a competitive diver. I use the word “competitive” loosely here. I was, by any standard, a poor diver, and had gotten well acquainted with the feeling of my face or my stomach slamming against the surface of the water. As a result, I often went to kindergarten with a bruised face, which, naturally, was concerning to my teacher. She asked to meet with me, and I still remember my mother whispering to me as I walked to meet her “If she asks if I ever hit you, just say no.”
I grew up straddled between two mindsets. Like many other Chinese Americans, I existed in America, but went home to Chinese food, the Chinese language, and Chinese cultural norms. In my childhood mind, my relationship with my parents always existed in an alternate universe. At school, I learned about what healthy familial relationships looked like, and even preached to my friends about having “boundaries” and “disconnecting from toxic people, even if they are family.” At home, I tolerated what any Western eye would label as emotional abuse from my parents. My mom relied on shaming to push me to work harder and achieve the success that she knew I was capable of.. Her outward anger was communication of her belief in me. Once, when I was six, she grabbed my rugged Junie B. Jones book that I meticulously chosen at the library and ripped it to pieces because I refused to write the book report I needed to turn in the next day at school. And yet, my mom is my best friend. She makes me laugh harder than anyone else. My perfect night is putting on a mediocre rom-com and lying in bed with her judging each and every character (Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada has no depth. #changemymind). We go shopping and pick out clothes for each other and she gives me more hugs and kisses a day than I can count.
To anyone outside of the Chinese community or perhaps the greater Asian community, it sounds as if I just described two different people. When speaking to therapists and guidance counselors, I always had a canned and filtered answer memorized. I tell them that my mom “could be harsh at times,” but overall it “wasn’t a big deal” and we got along “just fine.”
Facing a therapist for the first time in high school, I struggled to elaborate on this. She wanted to know how my mom spoke about my weight. It is so difficult to convey to the general public how Chinese families regard weight. It’s as if their lives revolve around tracking, analyzing, and gossiping about others’ weight, both in disgust and admiration. Mine is no different. My earliest memory of being told I was too big was when I was five years old. I wanted to eat an ice cream bar, but my dad told me that I could only eat that ice cream if my stomach didn’t protrude so much. The memories pile on like tangled film from a tape that couldn’t stop itself before it span out of control. Each time I didn’t fit into a piece of clothing, asked for a snack, or arrived at a family gathering, a comment was made about my weight along with suggestions on ways I could lose it.
These anecdotes are not unique to my family. I grew up in cities with large Chinese populations and I repeatedly heard stories from my peers that their parents can be harsh when pushing their children to be better versions of themselves. We even discussed the fact that their behavior could be seen as “abusive” by Western standards. Comments about Chinese immigrant parents pushing their children–especially regarding their bodies and academic performances–became an over sung chorus among my classmates. The majority of the surrounding Chinese American community experienced this in some way, but we didn’t discuss it outside of our own bubble. Even when we did, we didn’t delve deeper than daily surface-level complaints, the same wayWellesley students speak about our many commitments. Personally, there were two main reasons for this, both of which I subconsciously rationalized at the time. First, I had no doubt that my parents loved me and that everything they said and did were to make me a better and more successful person. If I spoke up too loudly and the white American community caught wind, I would just be contributing to their stereotypical ideas of Asian parents. I know that, on the surface, they do sound like your classic, late-night show caricatures of tiger parents. However, my relationship with them is so much more nuanced and layered than the punch line of a joke. It’s too hard to truly convey their dedication and our truly great relationship, so I just stay silent. It’s better to say nothing than to try to correct a stereotype only to make it worse. Now, here comes the paradox. The second reason is that my parents, like many Chinese parents, made us internalize the idea that pain is best left unseen. This is done by either indirectly suppressing their own struggles, or very directly through reprimanding us for expressing emotions that they didn’t deem as “valid.” Therefore, not only are Chinese Americans, especially first-generation Americans, more susceptible to having poor mental health due to the burden of justifying our family’s sacrifices for us but are less likely to seek help for our mental health. This is proven by data. A study by the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that AAPI teenage women have the highest rates of depressive symptoms of any racial/ethnic or gender group and die from suicide at a higher rate than other racial/ethnic groups. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health services than other Americans. We must create a community in which Chinese Americans, and Asian Americans at large, can speak honestly of the negative aspects of their culture without others assuming that those negative aspects encapsulate the entire culture. It is imperative to allow Chinese Americans the freedom to embody a nuanced culture, one that lives outside the boundaries of racial stereotypes.
My hope is to find the place where my two worlds meet, a plane of the universe where both can exist. Only then can we heal our wounds and move forward in this ever-globalizing society.