Congress designated May as Asian Pacific Islander (API) Heritage Month to celebrate the breadth and depth of contributions from Asian and Pacific Islanders to American history. May marks the month when the first Japanese immigrants arrived in 1843 and the completion of the transcontinental railroad by 20,000 Chinese laborers back in 1869. Chinese immigrants were paid 30-50% less than their White counterparts, were assigned the most dangerous jobs and yet ironically were indispensable.
This type of horrific discrimination led many Asian individuals to develop their own businesses. Despite their achievements, the government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, banning all Chinese (the only nationality prohibited in our history) from entering the country. From the Civil War to this very day, generations of APIs have honorably served with distinction in the armed forces. This information, along with many other advancements by API civil rights leaders, have been largely ignored by our history books. Therefore, this month is representative of essential progress in promoting the recognition of these unsung heroes. Our hope is that one day, the histories of marginalized and disenfranchised people will become so thoroughly intertwined within the standard curriculum that the knowledge becomes ubiquitous.
API Heritage Month may last a single month, but for me, it is an inescapable reality in which I integrate diverse aspects of my roots in everyday life. From using various spices to emulate traditional cooking styles to honoring the memories of my ancestors who sacrificed everything for their descendants, my family’s culture is an inextricable part of my identity. The immersion I have had into this culture has molded me into a resilient, multifaceted human being.
No doubt, immersing myself into both cultures has taken effort. Growing up in San Francisco with conservative immigrant parents made me well aware that I was to consider myself Indian first and American a distant second. From childhood through adolescence, it was difficult to relate to peers because I was not permitted to attend sleepovers, eat meat, date or even whistle (that was reserved for the boys). It was not until I was older that I began questioning these expectations.
Why is it bad luck to clip my nails at night? Is how much money I make supposed to be more important than how much happiness it brings? How do I know what I want in a marriage partner without any experience in dating? And what if I fall in love outside my ethnicity and family’s religion? What’s wrong with adopting a child?
Over time, new values embedded themselves within me through eye opening experiences such as education, travel, and community service. When those values inevitably clashed with my ingrained cultural beliefs, I attempted to shield myself from disapproval or conflict by putting on a mask and leading a double life. This became my coping mechanism against bicultural stress.
According to Clinical and Counseling Psychologist, Dr. Dina Buttu Ph.D, C.Psych, bicultural stress is defined as, “stress caused by difficulties encountered while having to live in two cultural environments that are difficult to reconcile…problems making sense of and integrating differences in dietary rules, dress, social behaviour, dating/marriage rules, and gender-roles.” Bicultural stress is prevalent in many immigrant communities and if not appropriately addressed can result in anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, substance abuse, disordered eating/body image issues, lower self-esteem, anger, family conflict, etc. National studies demonstrate that when adolescents (of both minoritized and majoritized backgrounds) have higher rates of bicultural stress, their mental health/well-being suffers.
Therefore, it is equally crucial to address mental health awareness as it shares significance (and the same month) with API awareness. Asian individuals are three times less likely to seek mental health services than White Americans despite having commensurate rates of serious issues. Asian females (aged 15-24, 65+) are at the greatest risk of suicide compared with women from all other racial groups. Asian-American women also have a higher lifetime rate of suicidal thoughts (15.9 percent) than that of the general U.S. population (13.5 percent). Asian-American college students were found to be more likely than White American students to have had suicidal thoughts and to attempt suicide.
Cost, time and language are common barriers that prevent APIs from seeking a therapist. Families may also prefer to rely on Eastern medicine or home remedies over trusting foreign, Western medical care. As the API background is more collectivist, acting as a whole family unit, many problems are expected to be discussed within the family. Sometimes there is fear of outsiders discovering secrets or issues that will (in their eyes) adversely affect the reputation of the family, and hence they want to save face. If the family is not able to resolve this matter, it may make the family appear weaker. Other times, emotions may be suppressed and not allowed to be shown, or psychological distress is expressed as physical complaints, if not discounted completely because families may not understand them. There is a notion that because their children’s basic needs are being taken care of, they would have no reason to develop anxiety or depression. Religious beliefs (e.g. filial piety, respect for authority), spirituality, and traditional beliefs about mental health (e.g. karma from past life) can prevent families from further reaching out. Another factor that deters APIs from seeking professional help is the social stigma/shame of needing help and/or having a mental illness label placed on a family member. This would reflect poorly on family lineage and influence that individual’s suitability for marriage.
Fortunately, today there are many more culture-specific resources available for children and families. These include multilingual and multicultural therapists, support groups, family counseling, mental health advocacy organizations sharing resources and statistics that assist in shedding stigmas. As more stories of family mental illness in API communities are told, seeking behavioral health care will become normalized, and thus the stigma will begin to dissipate.
Indian-American Mental Health Counselor Sona Shornden offers hope to those balancing their biculturalism: “The gift of biculturalism is that we don’t just have more issues to juggle, we also have ancient treasures from each unique culture to incorporate into our toolbox for managing life, and all our experiences, thoughts, feelings, and emotions. We are blessed with DNA specially encoded to be able to understand and utilize wisdom from more than one avenue of tradition. That’s a wonderful gift to those of us who have the sense to delve into our traditions, see where they complement each other, and find our unique resilience magic. It’s there if you look for it, I promise you.”
Among all of these resources within and outside the culture, finding the set of tools that work for one’s self is critical in managing biculturalism and mental health. Remember we are not alone in our experiences. Ultimately, self-exploration and listening to one’s inner voice of truth and authenticity will be instrumental in making peace between multiple cultures.