By Joanna Corpuz (art by her sister, @hellohaupia)
Growing up Asian, I had to keep secrets, including my queer identity and my emotional struggles. I had to keep these secrets from my family and my social circles because of the pressures enforced by the model minority myth and intergenerational trauma. The concept of the “model minority” defines Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) as groups that owe their socioeconomic and academic success to a stronger work ethic, as compared to other minority groups. This myth holds up systems of white supremacy by placing AAPI in a higher position than Black Americans based on microaggressions that one’s intelligence should be ascribed to race.
Model minority myth harms AAPI people. It is impossible to adhere to every standard that it sets. Model minority myth can bar individuals with emotional struggles from asking for support. If you have to uphold others’ unrealistic standards of you, it can impact how you view your own mental health.
When I was attending school, despite living in a predominately Asian area, I was still used as a point of comparison. I was upheld to a higher standard due to my high grades and quiet demeanor, and this made me the Asian girl that my friends’ families would compare them to.
I was the Asian that other students should strive to be, and I hated it. In reality, I was suffering from various mental health struggles.
I felt I had to hide my real emotions due to the pressure I felt to maintain an image of faultlessness. While these social pressures perpetuate a culture of silence, the familial and community-level expectations drawn from these can create even more barriers to help-seeking.
These societal demands can often mix with familial ones, including intergenerational trauma. Intergenerational trauma can stem from first-generation immigrants’ experiences, especially if they were fleeing conflict or experiencing racial discrimination. The impact of these experiences, from the ways they cope to the outlooks they have on the world, can be passed onto their children, and their children’s children.
I remember when my sister ordered a bowl of soup with my grandparents and they chastised her, saying she should eat more. They worried that others in the restaurant would think that our grandparents “couldn’t afford to take care of us.” At the time, I felt confused and hurt by their reaction to something that seemed so inconsequential. Later, after learning more about my grandparents’ early experience as immigrants in America, I began to understsand. My grandparents came to America with no financial support or social connections, and they had felt the burden of others’ assumptions about their livelihoods for decades — and this carried on to us. I wanted to be the best version of myself that I could be for my family. However, when my cultural perfectionism began to clash with new realizations about myself, including my sexual and gender identity, along with mental health struggles, I was scared.
Being a queer AAPI with mental health struggles can feel like a contradiction: how can you fit an ideal that doesn’t include other aspects of your identity?
When I was coming to terms with my identity, I had to face not only my own fears of disapproval and rejection, but the lack of acceptance perpetuated by the model minority myth and intergenerational trauma. While AAPI are held on this pedestal, it is precarious: one wrong move and you’re back to being an affirmation of every negative stereotype about your race.
I was aware of how conditional this supposed social power was: I was afraid of being discriminated against, not only for being Asian, but for being queer. Eighty-two pereof LGBTQIA+ AAPI individuals reported discrimination based on their sexual orientation, with the same amount reporting ethnicity-based discrimination and harassment. Experiencing intolerance toward various aspects of your identity can often lead to mental health struggles: another study found that, for Asian-American women, feelings of responsibility competing with unrealistic familial and social standards led to low-self esteem.
So, how do you seek help when it feels like you have an image to uphold — to yourself, your family, and society at large? Here are some tips to cope:
Reflect on what community means to you!
- The AAPI experience and community are highly diverse: various subgroups face varying challenges, many of which conflict with the idea of “perfection.” Remember that your community is one that has a rich fabric of experiences and outlooks that you can learn from and connect with.
- Find AAPI inclusive spaces you feel comfortable in as a queer individual, or find positive AAPI media that reflects this experience. Movies like Everything Everywhere All at Once can encapsulate feelings of belonging and identity. I also recommend reading Laura Gao’s Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese American, which discussed their experiences growing up as a first-generation Asian-American coping with intergenerational trauma, coming to terms with her queerness, and the pressures of the model minority myth. Reading from a viewpoint that you can relate to can help in feelings of isolation. For me, it felt like a safe outlet for exploring my own identities through others’ experiences.
- Community and family are incredibly important culturally: the onus is not fully on you here. Caregivers and communities should also take on unlearning cultural stigma and learn about how intersecting these identities can be. If possible, consider sharing resources with them, but also give them a chance to reflect on their own. For me, I had to have many long conversations with my family about boundaries, acceptance, and what internalized racism, homophobia, and transphobia look like. These conversations took work, but I felt they were very rewarding for our continued relationship.
Find culturally-competent care!
- If you’re able, seeking professional help can also be a great outlet to process your mental health struggles. However, just because you’re seeking help doesn’t mean you need to separate yourself from your community. Seeking out culturally-competent care, especially from providers who have experience working within your culture and other aspects of your identity is integral.
- When you first meet with a provider, you can ask questions to understand how you will work together, including asking about your provider’s own experience treating AAPI people and how this might impact your relationship together. For me, finding a therapist who understood my needs without disregarding my culture was essential: I didn’t want to abandon my community, because, at the end of the day, I loved them and wanted to stay connected.
Be kind to yourself, too!
- Psychologist and author Jenny Wang recommends giving yourself permission to make the best decisions for yourself. Even if those decisions clash with those of your family or society, acknowledge with your caretakers that you share the same goals: safety and success, even if those things mean something different for you. Being open with my family about my mental health journey hasn’t always been easy, but ensuring we both feel heard and understood has been incredibly helpful in moving forward together.
- Often, being AAPI means you feel like you have to excel at it all, or you are a letdown.You don’t have to do it all. Joy can exist in other outlets. Remind yourself that it is not your responsibility to uphold the impossible standards set upon you.
I’ve come a long way from the closeted student just trying to fit into others’ mold of me. I value my community. I wish they hadn’t faced the hardships they did, and I hope to be the one who breaks the cycle of intergenerational trauma, but often racist societal values can make that difficult. The most important thing to me is reminding myself that I can be AAPI among so many other things, and that doesn’t reduce me down one bit.
I no longer have to keep my true self a secret.
Joanna Corpuz is a teaching assistant from the Pacific Northwest, who is passionate about activism, mental health awareness, and education. When they’re not working, they enjoy reading and writing, listening to podcasts, finding new local businesses to support, and playing Pokémon Go.
@hellohaupia is a student in the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys various artistic hobbies including drawing, crocheting, and graphic design, and is an avid horror movie fan.