An intimate conversation on mental health within the Asian community
I picked up Dr. Jenny Wang’s recent book, Permission to Come Home, from Eastwind Books — an independent, Asian-owned, local bookstore in Berkeley. It was incredible timing having read this book the same month I moving out from my family home. I went into this book knowing two things: I wanted validation and I wanted insight. Two things I did receive. In a weekend I finished the book, here’s what I learned.
To preface, I would like to share details about my relationship with my family that may include subjects of abuse. If I have learned anything at all from Dr. Wang’s words is that creating space and community is vital for progress. I intend to shed light on the reality of imperfect families; one that I know spans across the Asian community and beyond. Where does intergenerational cycles of abuse begin and end? This is the beginning of healing for me.
“What if our community invested in the individual transformation
that could give way to communal and collective healing”
What spoke to me
In my family we do not say ‘I love you’ or ‘I am sorry’. Not even in the form of a bowl of fruit — a common method of silent communication in Asian culture. I thank Dr. Wang’s words for piecing it all together for me. My lack of a traditional loving childhood and my parents’ inability to show up for me is due to “unresolved trauma from earlier parts of their lives”. Both of my parents come from families of abuse and here they stand today perpetuating the same. Unlike Dr. Wang, my mom is the most triggering person in my life, with my dad not too far behind having stood witness through all my abuse.
When I think of my mom two words come to mind: materialistic and reactive. Every holiday was anxiety driven knowing how easily triggered my mom can become whenever reality does not meet her fantasies. At just sixteen, I took my hard earned paycheck from my first job at Old Navy to buy my mom a gold bracelet she liked while window shopping. That was the only Christmas that did not end in a fight. Some of the worst holidays growing up resulted in very public screaming fits in parking lots of restaurants and many nights at a friend’s house. While I respect my parents for their immigrant story and the hardships we may share for simply being Chinese, I am undeniably angry in their decision to become parents and the societal teachings that urge everyone to have children as the only correct path in life.
I understand the type of love wrapped up in years of baggage from generational harm. Yet when Dr. Wang writes of her relationship with her father comes from a place of tough love and not malicious intent, I think the opposite for my family. Oftentimes at the height of arguments, my mom was quick to dial the police on myself and other family members. The severity of such erratic emotions is damaging to the wellbeing of those who surround her. Even then, her individual story reminds me of what this can look like when an entire community struggles to come to terms with their emotions.
There were times when reading where I felt like the same bell from Selling Sunset was ringing off every time I read a line that resonated with me. For example: “Trauma can appear as explosive anger or involve emotional coercion as tools to shape the behaviors of others, such as physical or verbal abuse, threats of self-harm to get others to comply with requests, or threatening to expose personal secrets to force compliance from others.” Check, check, check, check! Just this line alone diagnosed my mom. I realize now that years of experiencing these fits was a reaction to someone unsure how to handle their emotions. Nonetheless, “We are each responsible for our own emotions and how these emotions cause us to act.”
After finishing Permission to Come Home, I felt sure in my decision to step away from the roots of my childhood emotional baggage. Dr. Wang asked, “What is the cost of not changing?” I consider what setting boundaries for my family might look like. I consider the loss of a childhood that is now long past as I am weeks from turning 21. There will never be an apology and that alone is a triggering thought. I must learn to come above the transgenerational experience as a Chinese American to re-define healing on my own terms. To come home is to discover a space where we cannot be turned away, turned out, or denied.
What I learned
You deserve to take up space no matter what you have accomplished. Asian culture often tells us otherwise as a way to survive during the first wave of immigration. Our community needs to take up space to dismantle current systems.
We must question powerful frameworks at hand in order to be aware. When we are not aware, we act on impulse or instinct to triggers and situations.
Emotion gives way to connections to others. It is a powerful tool that alerts us to what is working or not working. “If the first function of emotions is to alert you and create self awareness, then the second function is to help you communicate with others.” It is important we hold a space for our emotions then shift a focus to better communication. It is not our responsibility to control others’ anger when triggered. When people do not know how to manage their emotions they project.
Value based living instead of goals to guide your life. “Values-based living means living your life from a of set core values focused on the person you believe you are and the person you would like to become.” Chasing after goals amid capitalism is never ending and will always leave you feeling unsatisfied.
Anger within ourselves protects us from mistreatment and injustice. Healthy expression of anger becomes positive communication: (1) “I feel angry,” (2) “I need my body to move through the anger,” (3) “What is my anger trying to tell me?,” and (4) “I need to share about what caused my anger so that others will understand what I need.” Then set boundaries to communicate a plan for change.
Steps to setting boundaries in your life: (1) Pay attention to your emotions, not necessarily as absolute facts, but as signals for deeper investigation (2) Define what behaviors, actions, or interactions trigger a boundary violation (3) Find a healthy, workable boundary.
Learn to prioritize yourself. “There will be times when taking up space also means courageously making the decision to walk away and go where you will be valued.”
Although I finished Permission to Come Home in a weekend, I see myself returning to this book throughout my life. I hope to slow down to create a space for my emotions. In one generation, Dr. Wang‘s mother broke the toxic cycle and chose to be loving despite years of hurt. Our community has much work to do to better ourselves from within. Thank you Dr. Wang for guiding us all x