My Experience as an Asian American Woman
*Trigger Warning: Please read at your discretion. There is harassment, gaslighting, misogyny, and microaggressions involved in this story.
A few years ago, I got into a car accident as I dropped off a customer when I used to drive for Lyft. As I tried to complete my right turn, a car perpendicular to me hit my car as he was going straight. I parked my car, put my emergency blinkers on, and got out of my car feeling flustered. Several men got out of their car, all wearing suits and sunglasses. One of them, who seemed to be the leader, came up to me, cajoled me, and gaslit me by gently saying everything was my fault, but that he will be nice by forgiving me and forgetting it ever happened. He did this while caressing my back and softly calling me baby.
Scared and enraged at the same time, I froze. With a stoic facial expression and tone, I forced myself to self-advocate and said, “I think we should still exchange insurance information just in case.” His mood immediately shifted from sycophantic and manipulative, to volatile and temperamental. “I’m trying to be nice to you, but you’re being unreasonable! Something’s wrong with you! Forget it!” My body tensed up, feeling more afraid than I did before. I somehow mustered enough courage to take pictures of his car while the men carefully watched me. I ended up not exchanging insurance information because I was so scared, and begrudgingly agreed to his terms. They then waited for me to leave the site; I never saw them driving off. I turned off my Lyft app, drove home while I trembled in rage and fear, parked my car, and sobbed.
“If I was at least a guy, he wouldn’t have treated me that way. He would have treated me as an equal instead of infantilizing me and harassing me,” I thought. It didn’t help that I was Asian on top of being a young woman. I experienced ageism, sexism, and racism all in one incident that day. I felt deep injustice in my bones, and I still do to this day.
Dismissed and Invalidated
Unfortunately, my story isn’t uncommon among Asian American women. Navigating a patriarchal, white, cis male-gendered society is difficult for Asian American women, to say the least. Asian Americans have experienced anti-Asian hate crimes for several decades but these hate crimes have rarely been talked about or covered in the media. The 2021 Atlanta spa shootings finally brought attention to anti-Asian hate crimes that have been happening for many years. Six out of eight victims of the Atlanta shootings were Asian women. The intersectional identity of being Asian American and female has several generations of pain, dismissiveness, minimization, invalidation, condescension, abuse, gaslighting, and trauma. This is the burden most Asian American women carry on a day-to-day basis.
Stigma of Mental Health
So, where do we go to be seen, heard, and validated? Mental health has been stigmatized in Asian American communities, which makes it difficult for Asian Americans to seek help. According to a 2016 article from the Pulitzer Center, Asians/Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health support than their white counterparts. Over the years, mental health stigmas have decreased in the Asian American community, but we’re still far from fully acknowledging not only the benefits, but also the necessity of mental health support.
My mother, who has been regularly meeting with her therapist over the past year, still does not tell her therapist everything because she feels ashamed of the traumas she went through. As a result, she still uses me as her therapist. While my mother has made huge strides in accepting mental health support from a therapist, she has still not fully accepted the idea that therapy is a nonjudgmental, safe space for her due to the long history of mental health stigma in Asian communities. I acknowledge she has made immense progress in even accepting a therapist into her life, and I also recognize that my mother’s negative views on mental health are still not fully dismantled. I realize this is a slow, steady progress that cannot be rushed.
Asian American Family Dynamic
Furthermore, my mother relying on me to listen to her and carry her pain is a common dynamic among Asian families, especially between mothers and daughters. Mothers unveil a lot of their traumas for their daughters to carry such heaviness.
They don’t do this consciously or intentionally, but they believe their family issues must be kept within the family. Many Asian families keep their traumas, adversities, and pain to themselves and within the family rather than disclosing them to outsiders in order to save face and protect the family unit. “Saving face” is an important collectivistic concept in many Asian cultures–as the family is seen as a unit, any member of the family represents the whole family especially beyond the threshold of their home.
This concept can harm one’s mental health by perpetuating shame and disgrace, as well as continuing to carry this heavy burden from one generation to the next. The heaviness of having to carry our parents’ traumas transmits from generation to generation. When we don’t receive mental health support, intergenerational trauma is perpetuated. Especially for Asian American women who continue to encounter injustices in their everyday lives, the grief, sadness, and anger only continue the cycles of disempowerment and deep anger.
“Saving Face” and Model Minority Myth
The idea of “saving face” also perpetuates the model minority myth. The model minority myth has been utilized by white people to separate Asians from other people of color and continue racial systemic oppression. Asian Americans are often seen as hardworking, keeping our heads down, and as overachievers. In order to live up to these stereotypes, it discourages Asian Americans to seek help. Since the model minority myth has painted Asians to be the epitome of what is considered an ideal worker or student, Asian Americans have felt pressure to live up to these expectations in order to “save face.”
Circling back to the intersectional identity piece, Asian American women have had to quietly suffer without most people knowing in order to not inconvenience others with their emotions and traumas; they are taught to put everyone else’s needs first and theirs second, if at all. Asian American women are also stereotyped as docile and quiet, which perpetuates treatments of misogyny and racism against them.
So, What’s the Solution?
The first step is to become aware of the pain and injustices you’ve faced as an Asian American woman. We must muster up the courage to be open with ourselves about the painful feelings lying inside us. This itself is not easy.
Having gone through chronic trauma can keep us from feeling our feelings. We develop coping mechanisms in order to survive a continuous threat. Sometimes, this looks like running away from the problem, placating our perpetrators, or numbing ourselves. The pain can feel too much to feel all at once. Fortunately, therapists are trained to help our clients explore scary, new territories while making sure that our clients feel safe enough to do so.
Becoming aware of the injustices also means acknowledging how our cultural upbringings and the oppressive systems that Asian American women have negatively affected our mental health. Our collective traumas as Asian American women are multilayered, complex, and nuanced. It would be difficult to understand the deep injustices that have been perpetuated on one’s own.
The second step is to openly talk about mental health and challenge the status quo. Therapy helps us navigate the cultural upbringings that have potentially harmed our mental health. We must prioritize therapy as part of our lives, rather than something that “only crazy people” seek. This is one important way for Asian American women to advocate for themselves. Therapy helps Asian American women process their grief, sadness, and anger, and empowers them to advocate for themselves.
Especially if you decide to see an Asian/Asian American female-identifying therapist, you’ll not only feel seen and heard, but there will also be a sense of solidarity and healing. In therapy, you will learn tools to help you awaken your courage, stay firm in your values, and commit to behaviors that align with your values. This can look like setting boundaries with your family members, coworkers, or friends that perpetuate sexist or racist values. Furthermore, having a support group for Asian American women can be a meaningful part of your healing process.
This brings me to the third step, which is to have Asian American women support one another. Community healing has been shown to be more effective especially when it comes to collective traumas. We heal together in order to validate each other and lift each other up. The world has been so hard on us, so why not create a supportive space for Asian American women to empower one another?
Being seen, heard, and validated are vital to living a life worth living. Without it, we suffer from depression, anxiety, and other symptoms due to unprocessed and unhealed traumas. Navigating the world as an Asian American woman has unique challenges that others may not fully understand. With misogyny/sexism and racism against women, the journey towards healing can feel lonesome and an upward battle.
Despite these obstacles, I have hope. Even though my mother does not fully trust outsiders such as her therapist, I have hope that the continuous journey towards destigmatizing mental health will pave a smoother road towards mental health. I have hope that we, Asian American women, will acknowledge the cultural norms we grew up in, both as Asian American and women–and challenge the pervasive cultural norms that harm us.
I realize that we all have made choices whether we are conscious of it or not–and that we can make choices that support our mental and emotional well-being. Going to therapy is a necessary choice for Asian American women to process and heal from their traumas. In my personal experience, therapy has provided me a safe space to build my self-awareness towards oppressive systems, and empowered me to show up for other Asian American women.
The problems of sexism and racism will not go away, but we can at least work towards healing ourselves and using our stories to change these oppressive systems together.
Written by Connie Yang, AMFT
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