Learning About My Mental Health Through the Lens of My Chinese Immigrant Parents

Embracing my mental health journey as a Chinese American

Published on
July 20, 2021

It was the summer of 2019, another hot and sweaty day in China. I was participating in a program called Friends of Roots where I explored the Guangdong province alongside ten other Chinese-American interns to learn and discover more about our family heritage and history. Each day of our trip, we had a “rooting” where our cohort would visit each of our family’s ancestral villages. 

I did not have a clear motive for joining this program, but I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn about my parents’ and grandparents’ life back home.  On the day of my rooting, I went to visit the village and home my mother and maternal grandparents grew up in. Standing on the farm they once lived on was comforting. This was once their home and it was hard for me to imagine what they must have felt to leave this behind when they moved to America.

Over time, I’ve come to realize that this trip brought me so much more. It allowed me to connect with my cultural identity and develop an understanding of how my life experiences as a Chinese American and my mental health journey are intertwined.

Mental health was rarely talked about among my family, friends, and the Chinese community growing up. In a sense, I felt that there was always a negative connotation tied to when one opened up about their feelings and challenges related to mental health. That person must be weak or need special attention. There’s something wrong with them. I saw how my relatives and friends would keep things to themself and sweep their problems under the rug as if everything was okay, even though they were hurting deep down. They would instead bear the pain because they did not want to burden others with their problems.

The Chinese values of being modest, polite, and keeping to yourself held true in my family. It was always very difficult for me to be open and honest about my thoughts and emotions with my parents. I had trouble communicating my needs and asking for things due to a constant fear of being criticized. I received validation and appraisal only when it came to external successes such as performing well academically or attending a top college. 

In turn, I was always hard on myself and based my self-worth on my achievements because that was the only way I would feel worthy. As time went on, this developed into a coping mechanism that negatively contributed to my mental health and led to me distancing myself from my parents.

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There was a moment during my 2019 rooting trip in China that brought me a lot of solace and peace. I saw how the people in my mother’s home village were so happy and content with what they had, even though they did not have much. I looked out into the horizon and saw the green grass that stretched far. I closed my eyes and imagined what it was like for my mom and grandparents to grow up here. I remember my mom telling me stories about how they sometimes went days without food due to poor weather and the impact war and military presence had on their communities.  

I first learned about intergenerational trauma in a college course about mental health disparities among Asian Americans. Intergenerational trauma includes distressing events or challenging situations that can leave emotional marks which carry forward from one generation to the next. I used to place a lot of blame on my parents for my inability to express my emotions and speak up. Though I may never truly understand the challenges they went through growing up, I have slowly begun to accept that my parents’ lived experiences and hardships have shaped who they are today and how they interact with me.

For many children who come from first-generation immigrant households, I believe we are brought up in a unique environment that makes us strong and resilient. We are the first in our family to do many things and it is not easy. From balancing the different cultures we are surrounded by, being the first to pursue opportunities those before us may not have had, defying norms, and working to prioritize our mental health by opening up and healing our trauma, we are transforming barriers.

It was not until recently that I took the time to reflect on my mental health journey. I have experienced depression and anxiety on and off since high school, but silently struggled and kept it a secret for many years. Many days felt empty and lonely, where I was in a never-ending battle with my thoughts and I believed there was no way out. I would continue to push forward, suppressing what I was feeling because that was what I was accustomed to doing since I was young.

This past year, I finally decided to see a licensed therapist. It’s uncomfortable and hard at first-- going from hiding all your emotions and pain within to finally learning to open up and be vulnerable. I have been working on reframing the negative mindset and narratives I have built-in my head about myself. I am slowly learning to embrace and be proud of what it means to be a Chinese American because it makes up a part of who I am.

Taking steps to heal and prioritize mental health and wellness is not easy. Sometimes it may feel lonely and isolating, but always remember that there is so much love and support around you. You are working to become a better version for yourself and future generations, and that is so powerful and beautiful.


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