By Jennifer Li, she/her
I always thought that I was a rather fidgety child. I fiddled endlessly with pen caps and struggled to sit still. Large groups of strangers would excite me for maybe ten minutes before I suddenly felt very fatigued and I wanted to retreat somewhere quiet and isolated. I was a poor sleeper and tests had me doubled over on the verge of tears and panic. Now, as an adult, I can easily identify that I was not a fidgety child, but an anxious child, who did not have the vocabulary to describe how she was feeling. It probably didn’t help that my parents couldn’t identify the signs of my anxiety, either—traditional Asian culture does not acknowledge mental health.
Who isn’t depressed, I’ve been told when speaking about my struggle with anxiety and depression, or who doesn’t want to die every day? This interaction of mental health awareness and traditional Asian culture can trigger a negative feedback loop for young Asian-Americans who are admonished for speaking about their mental health struggles, causing them to diminish and intellectualize away their feelings and experiences. This can act almost like a muzzle when young Asian-Americans are forced to confront racism in their daily lives.
To give some context, traditional Asian culture is very opposite of Western culture. Where Western culture values independence, directness, and individuality, traditional Asian culture values interdependence, indirectness, and conformity. It relies on internalized shame to prevent non-conformity in order to preserve overall harmony. To silently and uncomplainingly endure pain and rage in the face of hardship is a virtue upheld as dignified and honorable.
Traditional Asian culture also strongly values education and loyalty to family. For many immigrant families, these values are especially important as many immigrants are fleeing as refugees, isolated from their extended families and lives, and are searching for better opportunities for their children. The United States is a foreign land to them, so immigrants keep their children close out of fear of the unknown. Young Asian-Americans who have their immigrant parents’ hopes pinned on them are taught to stay close to their families, keep quiet, and find stability and success in safely prestigious fields like law or medicine.
This leaves the Asian-American dialogue around mental health poorly positioned. As traditional Asian culture does not acknowledge mental health, mental health struggles are incorrectly interpreted, (they can be seen as “complaining” or “excessively sensitive”). Asian-Americans who have been vulnerable about their mental health struggles within their community only to be told they are complaining have their shame triggered almost reflexively and will retreat within themselves and question the validity of their feelings and experiences.
This questioning further escalates in harm as Asian-Americans begin to experience racism outside of their community. Asian-Americans who have been coached by their environment to question their feelings and experiences can begin to intellectualize themselves out of their feelings, especially as anti-Asian rhetoric often begins as early childhood microaggressions that somehow passed for humor.
Intellectualization is a defense mechanism we use to distance ourselves from emotional stressors, like hurt or frustration. With intellectualization, emotions are treated as irrelevant, and emotionally stressful situations are treated as interesting mental exercises. Say a classmate pulls their eyes, or says “ching chong”—it’s hurtful, but young Asian-Americans are taught in white spaces to excuse this racist behavior, or are told not make trouble and to stay quiet. As a result, Asian-Americans are forced to internalize everything they experience without any community to emotionally confide in.
“It’s a part of our culture,” agrees Norman Chen, the co-founder of Leading Asian Americans United for Change (more succinctly known as LAAUNCH), a non-profit organization empowering Asian-Americans to fight racism with their collected data and partnerships.
“We are from a culture where confrontation is not encouraged. I did a lot of business in China, and I saw that people will not say no to you, even if they don’t agree,” says Chen. “In the United States, people would openly disagree or call BS. In China, they’ll nod while not agreeing, because it’s not a part of the culture to disagree and be openly negative. So, when an Asian-American is confronted with racism or microaggressions, they’re usually trying to diffuse the situation. So they’ll laugh it off or confront it or raise an issue, instead of escalating it with a confrontation. It puts a burden on us because we have to internalize it and take it.”
This damaging and confusing experience is erased, boiled down instead by Western culture to diminishing stereotypes. LAAUNCH’s STAATUS Index (the Social Tracking of Asian Americans in the U.S.), has been tracking stereotypes and perceptions that American adults have of Asian-Americans, taking into account factors like race, gender, political affiliation, age, income, region, and education, and measuring the impact of major events such as COVID-19. As far back as 1933, stereotype research has shown that Japanese people were seen as intelligent, industrious, progressive, and shrewd (competent), but shy and quiet (unsociable). Chinese were sly (implying competence), but conservative, tradition-loving, superstitious, and loyal to family (implying a lack of mainstream sociability). An updated version of this study in 2001 showed similar stereotypes: both Chinese and Japanese were seen as especially intelligent, industrious, and scientifically-minded (highly competent), but also loyal to family and reserved (not sociable with the dominant group).
Stereotyping Asian-Americans’ success based on perception, rather than reality, is a longstanding American tradition, and the rise of Covid-19 has set this long-simmering anti-Asian sentiment to a roiling boil.
“Hate crimes are an extreme form of prejudice,” says Chen. “People have certain impressions of different groups. During difficult times, these groups can be scapegoated, targeted, and attacked. So when you try to understand the root of anti-Asian sentiment, we surprisingly found that there hasn’t been a lot of comprehensive national research on Asian stereotypes.” Though many Asian-Americans have spent years questioning their reality at the expense of their mental health, LAAUNCH’s STAATUS Index is here to use data to show the truth.
The 2021 STAATUS index found that 37% of white Americans say they are not aware of an increase in hate crimes and racism against Asian Americans over the past year, with 24% saying anti-Asian American racism isn’t a problem that should be addressed. These numbers are higher for respondents who identify as Republican. While Asian-Americans are significantly under-represented in senior positions in companies, politics, and media, nearly 50% of non-Asian-Americans believe Asian-Americans are fairly or over-represented. 20% of responders believe that Asian-Americans are more loyal to their home country than to the United States. Just 2.6% of Americans would describe Asian-Americans as “bullied or oppressed.”
“77% of Asian-Americans do not feel respected within American culture,” Chen says. “But respect is so important to our culture and to who we are.” Respect isn’t just politeness, though. Respect is awareness and understanding. Respect is valuing contributions and voices. It’s seeing reality, instead of just boiling it down to reductive stereotypes and ideas. LAAUNCH’s STAATUS index and data are some of the first studies in over 20 years to quantitatively measure how Asian-Americans are being seen in reality—and it conclusively proves that Asian-Americans aren’t just imagining things—their experiences are valid. Anti-Asian hate is real, and so is Asian-American mental health.Written by Jennifer Li for Youth To The People