Learning to Persevere

My Experience with Mental Health as a Second Generation Chinese American By Sara Tieu

Story Contains

"Stop crying. This is nothing to cry about".

When I was young, I was often criticized for being too emotional. Being sensitive was a sign of vulnerability. Crying was for the weak.

As a young Chinese American girl, I grew up never seeing emotions and mental health acknowledged or validated. Talking about feelings and emotions was looked down upon. Family members with mental illnesses were described as "odd" or "crazy". News of celebrity suicide was scoffed at because those who took their own life, especially those with such good lives and fortune, were ungrateful and cowardly.

And how could you give up such a good life? My parents were refugees of the communist regime of Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Before immigrating, they experienced starvation, forced labor, and the death of countless family and loved ones. It's a classic example of Maslow's hierarchy of needs – they didn't have the headspace to think about mental health because they were preoccupied with basic survival.
So what if you feel sad? You could have it much worse, so pull yourself up by the bootstraps and keep going.

Upon immigrating to the U.S., they built a new life from the ground up without knowing English or a penny in their pocket, and the idea of survival became something new: career stability. Their vision of success became one of security and certainty. While my parents never necessarily pushed me towards being a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, they pushed me towards doing something that could make money. I began internalizing these expectations and pressure. My success-oriented inner talk became negative.

I should get good grades. I should go to a good college. I should get a job and become financially stable. I should.

In college, I found myself in a hyper-competitive and career-oriented major, where I began developing a negative relationship with productivity. I felt the urge to perform well, fueled by my expectations for myself, and my impostor syndrome that told me that I was never good enough. My relationship with myself and others deteriorated. I stopped taking care of my mind and body, and seeing my friends and family. I kept blindly pushing myself, working myself to the ground so I could achieve eventually reach the ideal of stability.

Design critique | Credit: Sara Tieu

But after meeting each deadline or hitting each accomplishment, I felt only temporary relief that was quickly replaced by the question of, "What's next?" Ridden by self-deprecation, being busy became my coping mechanism to numb the feeling of emptiness. Whenever the fog of 'productivity' lifted, I started questioning what my purpose and place in life was.

What am I doing here? Why am I doing what I'm doing? Is there more to life than this?

So I found solace in journaling. A friend of mine once said that journaling is like reaching out to yourself when you're not ready to reach out to someone else yet. Whenever I was feeling helpless or lost, I would write for hours and let my thoughts spill out onto the page. Looking back at my past journal entries, whether a week or a year had passed, I was able to see how far I had come. The challenges I face now, I can conquer, because I've been in worse places before and I'm still here. I was also able to find relief through creative writing, as you're seeing now in this story. I had never intended to share my writing with anyone until making this story – writing simply allowed me to express my negative emotions in a creative and deeply personal way.

I eventually felt true connection with others for the first time when I created a project about depression for a class, a little over a year ago. I conducted interviews with a few close friends to learn more about their experience with depression. During these interviews, I admired how they persevered through dark times and how openly and candidly they shared their stories with me, despite the fear and shame they might have felt. I felt honored to have been entrusted with such stories of courage, and inspired to share my own story.

Many of them thanked me after the interviews for listening to them and described the experience of sharing their entire story out loud as therapeutic. I thanked them back, because I too felt healed; I found myself able to relate to each of their struggles in one way or another. We bonded over shared hardship, and it was then that I experienced the power of storytelling for the first time.

Despite believing in storytelling so much, writing my own story for the first time was not easy. Thinking back to a time I'd rather not relive was difficult, but has served as an important point of reflection. I can see now how far I've come and where I don't ever want to return to. The journey to living a happier life may be a tough one, but it's one I'm willing to work hard towards – because if I learned anything from my parents, it's how to persevere in spite of adversity.

"Stop crying. This is nothing to cry about".

When I was young, I was often criticized for being too emotional. Being sensitive was a sign of vulnerability. Crying was for the weak.

As a young Chinese American girl, I grew up never seeing emotions and mental health acknowledged or validated. Talking about feelings and emotions was looked down upon. Family members with mental illnesses were described as "odd" or "crazy". News of celebrity suicide was scoffed at because those who took their own life, especially those with such good lives and fortune, were ungrateful and cowardly.

And how could you give up such a good life? My parents were refugees of the communist regime of Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Before immigrating, they experienced starvation, forced labor, and the death of countless family and loved ones. It's a classic example of Maslow's hierarchy of needs – they didn't have the headspace to think about mental health because they were preoccupied with basic survival.
So what if you feel sad? You could have it much worse, so pull yourself up by the bootstraps and keep going.

Upon immigrating to the U.S., they built a new life from the ground up without knowing English or a penny in their pocket, and the idea of survival became something new: career stability. Their vision of success became one of security and certainty. While my parents never necessarily pushed me towards being a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, they pushed me towards doing something that could make money. I began internalizing these expectations and pressure. My success-oriented inner talk became negative.

I should get good grades. I should go to a good college. I should get a job and become financially stable. I should.

In college, I found myself in a hyper-competitive and career-oriented major, where I began developing a negative relationship with productivity. I felt the urge to perform well, fueled by my expectations for myself, and my impostor syndrome that told me that I was never good enough. My relationship with myself and others deteriorated. I stopped taking care of my mind and body, and seeing my friends and family. I kept blindly pushing myself, working myself to the ground so I could achieve eventually reach the ideal of stability.

Design critique | Credit: Sara Tieu

But after meeting each deadline or hitting each accomplishment, I felt only temporary relief that was quickly replaced by the question of, "What's next?" Ridden by self-deprecation, being busy became my coping mechanism to numb the feeling of emptiness. Whenever the fog of 'productivity' lifted, I started questioning what my purpose and place in life was.

What am I doing here? Why am I doing what I'm doing? Is there more to life than this?

Sara Tieu

Interaction design student at UW passionate about mental health, has a weakness for matcha.

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