Swords drawn, regal warriors charge toward each other, dauntless in the face of piercing arrows and fallen friends. Ruby and midnight banners flutter above, distinguishing right from wrong, the good guys from the bad. My parents sigh in relief from their perch on the couch as the protagonist narrowly avoids being hacked up into pieces, thanks to the quick intervention of his comrade.
Honor, loyalty and fierce family pride are legendary hallmarks of Asian culture and the melodramatic television shows that have carried it into contemporary being. On both the screen and in real life, emphasis on the family unit asks members to protect one another and split responsibilities in caring for fallen ones. As Asian immigrants began to trickle into the United States, these values followed them, possibly contributing to one of the lowest rates of homelessness and incarceration for any racial group in the country.
But this creed to maintain the family image has also protected and perpetuated a dark secret that lingers within almost every unit: the stigma of mental illness.
The Korean term for mental illness is more suggestive of psychosis, caricaturing victims of depression or anxiety as those who have completely lost touch with reality —, crazies cackling manically in some “Criminal Minds” episode. And the connotation of the word is a perfect reflection of Korean culture’s perception of mental illness. It’s something to be feared, to be locked away or destroyed for the protection of the family and its reputation.
Korean traditions suggest that mental illness is a generational curse, a philosophy magnified by the religions that many Korean Americans cluster together in as safe spaces. One’s sins can manifest in later generations through “psychosis,” so the reveal that one member of the family has a mental illness immediately widens the scope to the entire lineage. When whispers of suspected mental illness began floating around one member of our congregation, her family quickly wiped their hands of the shame by cutting ties with her after marrying her off.
It’s convenient to chalk up this stigma to the archaic traditions of Asian countries. Our Americanized lens has favored the West as the only part of the world that managed to escape from an era of witch hunts and horror-movie asylums.
But the very fact that we pedestal the newly unfurled discussion about mental illness shows that the stigma is not too far removed from our own soil. Second-generation Asian Americans in particular dwell in a confusing duality of culture, as we try to compromise American expectations for openness with our family’s demands for secrecy.
Our parents’ warnings of racist prejudices ring in our ears, pushing us to live up to the model minority stereotype. We will would have to work twice as hard for half as much until we successfully integrate into mainstream society, until the slant of our eyes finally becomes trivial compared to our prestigious degrees and flourishing careers. In a society built on an undercurrent of racial bias, their tales of caution aren’t that far from the truth. But living up to expectations, both our own and our family’s, creates self-doubt and deprecation that threatens to break the command of silence.
For those still with wet ink on their immigration forms, children’s mental health can be one of the least consequential concerns on their mind. My hometown has bloomed into a popular destination for newly immigrated Asian families, a Petri dish of peer and academic troubles as elementary school kids grapple with foreign expectations. Often, one parent will move with the children first, sparking the inevitable chaos of a sudden familial imbalance. In the mad flurry of assimilation, immigrants are pressured to swallow the darkness brewing within them and suck it up.
Whatever the cause, mental illness in Asian Americans has been reported as generally more progressed. By the time we — and our families — are ready to admit that we need outside help, the road to recovery has become long and bleak, and in the worst cases, leads to a dead end.
I am humbled to speak from a vantage point of privilege. My own parents broke away from the mold of secrecy, actively seeking professional help for the people they care about most. And just as important, they have stepped up to the podium to educate other parents on mental health. They are the true warriors of honor and loyalty, fearlessly battling the status quo of the issues closest to home, selflessly abandoning the security of feigned ignorance to plunge into our darkness and guide us out to the light.
Sarah Heo writes the Friday column on the semblance of security. Contact her at [email protected].