The “Asian Experience”: Complicity vs. Relatability
Ever since I was six, I have gone to after-school classes – not tutoring for subjects that I was bad at, but learning a few grades higher in order to keep a pristine report card. I’ve been staying up until midnight almost every school day since the eighth grade. I started drinking at least two cups of coffee a day when high school began.
I have always been told that was normal. From my mom, who casually describes her friend’s son staying up until 11:00 p.m. and waking up at five in the morning. From my Chinese friends, who laugh and brush it off as a universal experience and a coming of age that just happened to strip away our childhoods. Not quite from non-Asian teachers, peers, and counselors, but it’s evident in how they look almost shocked when any Asian student gets what would usually be considered a fair grade, or how they dismiss every mental health complaint an Asian student brings to them with “just don’t overwork yourself” or “tell your parents to put less pressure on you”.
It hurts when social issues become a gimmick for relatability. “Relatable” posts about parents beating you if you don’t get all A+’s are as ubiquitous as posts about not wearing shoes inside the house. Too often, Tiktok stars and comedians that rise to fame make a joke out of their parents’ anger and redirect it to them being Asian. Even in serious environments, mental wellness is rarely discussed – they are shunned in favor of fawning over the new movie or show with an Asian lead, or a sob story of wanting Caesar salad for lunch but getting kimchi instead.
Worst of all, people do not realize that while certain issues are related to the experience of growing up Asian, they don’t have to be.
Objectively speaking, dismissing issues of mental health hurts people. Receiving the response of “lol me too” after ranting about how meaningless life is might seem nice at first, but will hurt people. Being told that a family’s high expectations are inherent to the experience of an Asian person, just as stress is increasing due to said expectations, will hurt people.
It’s important that we, in our communities, acknowledge certain things as part of the Asian experience, but not in the same way that we celebrate Lunar New Year or learn our parents’ native language. We need to see them as problems, plain and simple – compromising your wellbeing for status and achievement is a problem. Therapy and discussions around mental health being seen as taboo is a problem.
Specifically, they are problems that are influenced by shared experiences of those in the Asian diaspora. For example, the pressure many young Asian people face to excel at school is a cultural phenomenon, one that came from their parents’ pursuit of a “better education” in the West. Extracurricular institutions prey on parents who want their children to have high-level achievements. Elders must navigate a world that doesn’t care for so-called “backwards Oriental traditions”, and adults handle a family’s survival knowing a language mishap could cost them more than just an apology. Thus, the stress that many older Asians feel does manifest itself in frustration that can affect interpersonal relationships. Many therapists and counselors do not work well with people of color, due to years of medical racism in psychology, language barriers, and a lack of understanding of their experiences. Neurodivergent Asians suffer particularly – the stigma surrounding mental “illness” is unbearable for those with ADHD, Autism, OCD, and bipolar disorder, and more conditions that the average person in many parts of Asia are unaware of, and labeled as “insanity.”
Discussions are most productive when they start within our community – we understand our struggles as shared circumstances with similar causes, rather than believe bigoted opinions that say all Asians are innately abusive, scheming, or book-smart. Encouragement from people in similar circumstances is crucial. If I saw another Asian girl succeed in convincing her parents that mental health is important, that she must drop some courses and take a break – and that they listened – I would be much more willing to ask for the same from my parents. Many people in communities that have been wronged by the West tend to dismiss ideas if they are associated with the West. When mental health becomes more accessible as a concept, more people – including older people – can see their personal problems as legitimate. Furthermore, our desire to relate to things often trumps how harmful those things can be – the vague idea of an Asian American identity can only be connected to so much, given that the Asian diaspora is very diverse.
Without paying attention to the gravity of stress, what are currently viewed as the most pressing issues for Asian people will not change. This is not to say that issues like representation of Asians in the media, or Asian children being teased for bullying are not important, but their prevalence translates to a dismissal of other subjects. A vicious cycle exists where the more a subject is spoken of, the less others gain any attention; this is how social media and journalism, two important modes of communication, capitalize on popularity.
Therefore, what is necessary is an active shift in our thinking and our goals. The intersection of mental health and one’s experiences as an Asian person is something we as a community must approach – not as another lighthearted “relatable” experience to create a shallow sense of unity. How we define the Asian experience should be less complicit in the issues that hurt individuals, and be inclusive of those who are hurt most by the silence.
Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.
Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.
We have grown since then, putting out bimonthly issues (we are contributor powered: apply to write for our next one!), and weekly reviews of culture, and news that is important to us.
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We do not claim to speak for all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. We are just here to give them a place to speak for themselves.