Last November, I attended a talk featuring Jenny Zhang, a Chinese-American writer whose work centers on the Asian-American immigrant experience. When asked about forms of expression in immigrant communities, she addressed the stigma surrounding mental health among Asian-Americans, citing a fact that might not be surprising to anyone: Asian-Americans suffering from depression are far more likely to attribute their condition to a “headache” than consider the possibility of mental illness.
Since then, I have mulled over this idea countless times, revisiting when I have seen it in action: my parents treating emotional aches with throw blankets and memory foam pillows, as if 10 hours of sleep fixes everything; my cousin locking the bathroom door when she needed space to cry in private; my childhood friends spitting “that’s ridiculous” every time someone talked about being sad or anxious or something else they didn’t understand. A few years ago, when I mentioned wanting to see a therapist, a close friend of mine simply blinked, then laughed. “I think that’s a white person thing,” she said.
At home, I felt like my white peers and I were assigned to opposite ends of the world, separated by vastly different expectations and upbringings. As the child of immigrants, I felt a special, personalized pressure to succeed—anything short of perfect was shameful. Sometimes, I felt like this was unfair: My white classmates were raised their whole lives to speak, to cry, to fail and start over, while I had to keep quiet and earn high grades, or else I would be overlooked. My friends and I spent Sunday afternoons at one of the many Asian-dominated SAT prep centers that display the names of Ivy League universities—the all-caps success stories—on their lobby walls and websites. Many of my childhood friends with similar backgrounds would spend unthinkably long hours poring over textbooks, pausing only to practice their instruments or eat dinner. I learned early on that America, the land of opportunity, gives people of color only one chance—if you’re lucky.
When I arrived at Columbia, many of my childhood pressures came with me. Here, the first thing I noticed—perhaps unsurprisingly—is that everybody, regardless of background, wants to do well. Surrounded by high achievers at one of the most expensive universities in the world, I felt that it was even more necessary to succeed. It is no secret that stress on campus is often a competition of who’s more fucked this week, despite how often we remind each other that this is unhealthy. The ways we react to each other’s burdens is established, and maybe even methodical: On some days, it’s with respect; on others, it’s with sympathy. On certain days, I realized, it’s with a mere shrug and nothing else—like when my friends and I watched a student brush his teeth while scouting out a seat in Butler during reading week. Having seen it all, we laughed and resumed studying.
While this culture of academic pressure has and always will be incredibly toxic—just last semester, Columbia’s Center for Student Advising released an ill-conceived time management chart that suggested we spend nearly 50 hours a week on homework—it has pushed me to pursue more positive outlets for stress. Growing up, conversation surrounding mental health was virtually non-existent. At Columbia, on the other hand, many of my peers welcome the topic with open arms, fighting for reforms and demanding more resources. I have recently started seeing a therapist again, and I try to carve out seven hours of sleep on most nights. My friends and I bring each other snacks to fuel our all-nighters, sometimes even sitting with each other the whole night for the sake of company. After a few years here, we have learned to take care of each other.
But sometimes, despite everything, it is still not enough. The Columbia bubble—with all of its stifling, seemingly impossible expectations—still collapses in on itself. At times, we are left to fend for ourselves, especially given the inaccessibility of Counseling and Psychological Services. Sometimes, we are still too afraid to say it out loud. For me, this is especially true—how can I complain when I was given an opportunity that other children of immigrants would do anything for?
This is not an easy answer. It is not an immediate one, either—unlearning the cultural necessity of silence is a confusing, emotionally burdensome process. For me, part of it was a matter of representation—seeing my favorite artists speak openly about their experiences gradually helped mitigate the burdens of my own. So far, I have spent two summers living in New York, during which my friends and I have attended countless exhibits featuring Asian artists and other artists of color.
One of my favorite experiences happened by accident—my friends and I had arrived too late to a concert, so we hastily decided on new plans. In the oppressive heat of August, and during a particularly cumbersome period for the MTA, my friends and I trekked nearly 30 blocks to attend a short film festival exploring the Asian-American immigrant experience. Although we intended to see only a few works, we ended up staying the entire day, unable to peel ourselves away from the realization that simply existing in public involves unimaginable bravery. With each film, we took in the difficulties of starting over in a city like New York—realizing that within each challenge, liberation can exist. In this city, where people of all backgrounds come together to express themselves, it is sometimes impossibly easy to speak—if only you know how to begin.
At my therapist’s office, when I feel like I have to prove that I belong, I turn on the bathroom sink—both knobs—and stand pin-straight in front of the mirror. I do this until I am someone who is vulnerable, someone devastatingly honest with herself. I do this until I drown out the voice of my friend telling me that this is a “white person thing,” that people like us have never needed space to be human.
“I’ve been lonely my whole life,” my favorite Asian-American musician admitted to the crowd at a concert last October in Jersey City. In that moment, my best friend and I reached for each other’s hand. “Me too,” I thought. “And now, I can say it out loud.”
Melissa Ho is a junior in Columbia College studying economics and art history. She has a lot of thoughts about girlhood and wants to know what you think, too. Say something to her at email@example.com. Your Worst American Girl runs alternate Fridays.
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