Traditional Chinese mindset of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’

“Your sister isn’t making any sense.”

I was tired and worn out, physically and emotionally. My mother and I had just driven the whole length of Interstate 280 to visit my little sister, who’d been hospitalized for severe depression for the second time. I wanted to go home and have a good therapeutic cry in the shower. We were outside of the hospital, speed-walking in Liu family tradition away from the center of emotion that the hospital had become and toward the car. 

I asked her what she meant. 

“Well, she has everything, doesn’t she? She has a bed, food and people who love her. She shouldn’t be sad. She should just be happy,” my mother said. 

And I just snapped. 

My mother does not seem to understand on a fundamental level what it means to be depressed, to feel anxious or to have a mental illness. Sometimes, for first-generation families like mine, the culprit is a cultural disconnect. In the United States, mental health is a part of the cultural discussion, even if the discrimination has yet to be fully tackled. My mom immigrated to the United States from China with her traditional “don’t ask, don’t tell” mindset about mental health. She brought her misunderstandings, her misconceptions and her confusion about mental health, but her children think differently.

My mom explains this to me every time we visit my sister. 

“I love her; I care about her; I swear. I just don’t know what to do about,” she’d gesture around wearily, “all of this.” 

All of this — the overwhelming emotion that was out in the open, making my mom feel totally uncomfortable and out-of-place. I got that; I could understand her. And I knew my mom cared about my sister.

None of this ran through my mind when I snapped at her. My frustration boiled over. I yelled, I screamed, I ranted. I asked her what the hell she was thinking. Doesn’t she know who my sister — her daughter — is? Does she think this is a cry for attention? That it’s fake? That her daughter would rather be in this chokingly sad hospital that feels like a prison cell than back at home with us, sleeping in her own bed, surrounded by the people she loves?

I took a breath. We kept walking toward the car and both silently got in. My angry fumes were gone and I was just tired, worn out, burned out again.

My mom paused behind the wheel. She said, “You know I care about her, right?” I stayed silent, putting my face in my hands. “You know, right? She knows, right?”

My mom’s not a person that says “I love you.” My sister and I had always been best friends, partners in crime, the whole cute “us against the world” thing. My sister and I never fail to say “I love you.” 

Our mom expresses her love differently. She keeps our house stocked with shrimp chips and supported us in adopting a cat, even though she’s allergic. But my sister didn’t understand that. Why couldn’t our mom just come out and say those magic three words?

During this visit, my sister sent my mom out of the room. My sister sat, smoke coming out of her ears, and ranted — how she didn’t understand our mom, how our mother didn’t know how to show emotions and how she was an “unlovable sociopath.” I sat with her and soaked it all in. When she stopped fuming, I hugged her. I tried to reassure her. Of course our mother loved her, even if she couldn’t say it. My sister nodded but said my words were hollow. That there wasn’t any emotional proof behind my words.

For years I’d acted as a middle man for my mother and sister. I stood between a Chinese immigrant trying to make it in the United States by shoving down her feelings and an American teenager who felt every single emotion with unimaginable intensity. I understood my mom. I understood my sister. But I couldn’t make them understand each other. 

Being stuck in the middle is so frustrating. Sometimes I feel like a parent to my mom, trying to rationally explain depression to my mother and why we must drive my sister to therapy, why her emotions are real, valid and sometimes even dangerous to her. Sometimes I feel like a parent to my sister, trying to explain that no, our mom doesn’t think you’re a burden and even though she can’t talk to you right now, she isn’t mad at you — she wishes she could cry to you but she doesn’t know how to. Sometimes I feel like a disappointed parent when each of my children shakes their heads, crosses their arms and argues with me about what I know is true.

But sometimes I’m proud. I’m proud when six months later, we all sit down for group therapy and my mom explains how she can empathize with my sister, even if she can’t entirely understand. I’m proud when my sister turns to face my mom and tells her that she loves her, that she knows she will be there for her, that she knows she tries her best. I’m proud when in response, my mom tears up, and as I sit between them, tells my sister that she loves her too. 

Contact Katherine Shok at [email protected].