Has anyone watched “New Amsterdam?” It’s a relatively new doctor drama series on NBC. Spoiler alert: The 8th episode of the first season focuses on a 21-year-old Asian-American girl and her family’s stigmas around mental health. The character’s mother constantly equates depression to insanity. She believes that the world outside the family can never know about the struggles her daughter has dealt with unless she wants to be considered weak.
As I watched the episode, I saw how it echoed reflections of my own upbringing. Now, I’m not trying to speak for the entirety of the Asian-American experience, but I’ve had a lot of friends who could also relate.
In my experience, my family’s culture creates an environment where toxic masculinity thrives.
As a rebellious teenager with depression and anxiety, dealing with these “cultural norms” proved to be extremely difficult. At family parties, a distant aunt or annoying older cousin would never fail to make a blunt or negative comment about my appearance. I would start crying almost instantly. When I finally collected myself, I would try to explain to my family that their comments were inappropriate and made me feel terrible. I would be told to “stop being so sensitive.”
When it came to expressing feelings in my household, the M.O. was aggression. My family would just yell at each other—they were quick to anger and slow to resolve. I have vivid memories of my grandfather, angry that we weren’t leaving for somewhere on time, leaving dents on our doors with his cane.
I know a lot of people would say that this is just a product of a culture and time different from my own.
There are harsher ways to grow up, and at least my family members never physically harmed one another. While the cultural influence might be a valid point, it’s not an excuse. Expectations to never show emotions other than anger and to mock more “feminine” traits isn’t culture—it’s learned toxic behavior.
It’s funny. My family never encouraged toxic behavior in me, but they led by example. Cursing, yelling, throwing and breaking things—this was how my family dealt with their emotions, so this was how I dealt with mine. After I graduated from high school, I started to feel myself unraveling. Small inconveniences would send me to the edge.
I didn’t want to live the rest of my life repressed and angry, so I decided to see a therapist.
Therapy was where I began to unload years of repressed feelings. I learned how to process raw emotions and learned methods for communication. At age 20, I moved out of my family home to complete my undergraduate degree in Communications. Spending time away from my family allowed me to separate myself from the toxicity of that environment, but realizing that it was my family who fueled the years of aggression broke my heart.
How was I supposed to continue on my journey of emotional intelligence without rejecting my family completely?
I’m 24 now and I’m proud of the person I’ve become. I feel well-adjusted, I know how to handle my feelings, and I know how to communicate when I need help. More importantly, I’m able to bring all of who I am and what I’ve learned into my family home. I’ve made the greatest strides with my father—it’s been quite a journey and we still have a long way to go, but at least I’m not being told I’m too sensitive anymore.
My family, in general, has come to learn that their words can hurt and that their behavior can traumatize others. It’s also been extremely challenging for me, being the person who both recognizes this and tries to implement change. You often feel alone in this challenge.
At the end of the day, it’s been worth the struggle. Now I can still enjoy the cultural richness of my background without feeling like I’m allowing destructive behavior to occur.