Asian American stereotypes are no secret: successful white collar professionals, like doctors and engineers, who are also quiet, hardworking, and dedicated to their families. It all sounds good, right?
Even though these may seem positive, Dr. Jenny Wang explains how these stereotypes limit the options of people in these communities and exert unnecessary pressure on them. When you add the history of trauma that can come with immigration, the picture becomes ever more complicated — with ripples that affect everything from parenting styles to the intensity of emotions and overall mental health.
Dr. Jenny Wang is a Taiwanese American clinical psychologist and national speaker on mental health and racial trauma in Asian American, BIPOC, and immigrant communities. Her work focuses on the intersection of Asian American identity, mental health, and social justice. She is the founder of the @asiansformentalhealth Instagram community, in which she discusses the unique experiences of Asian diaspora and immigrant communities. She spearheaded the Asian, Pacific Islander, and South Asian American Therapist Directory and its companion Canadian directory to help Asians seek culturally reverent mental health providers.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hey, everyone, I’m your host Gabe Howard and calling into the show today we have Dr. Jenny Wang. Dr. Wang is a Taiwanese-American clinical psychologist and national speaker. Her work focuses on the intersection of Asian-American identity, mental health and social justice. Dr. Wang, welcome to the show.
Dr. Jenny Wang: Thank you so much for having me, Gabe. I’m super excited about this conversation.
Gabe Howard: You know, even though I’m a person who lives with bipolar disorder and I’m also a prominent mental health advocate, my point of view, Dr. Wang, it’s always going to be colored by my personal experiences and culture. Right. So I appreciate that you are here to help me and the listeners better understand the challenges of the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, or AAPI for short, community. And I hope that folks can understand that the current one size fits all mental health conversation that that America seems to be having is not really in our best interest. What are your feelings on that?
Dr. Jenny Wang: You know, when we think about mental health as a whole, it’s often informed through a Eurocentric kind of lens. What I really appreciate is that the mental health field is starting to open up their scope of what are the best ways that we can support the diverse clients that we are now working with. The more we are aware of our blind spots within mental health work, the more we’re aware of our biases, whether they’re explicit or implicit. I think that truly helps mental health providers move forward in offering what I would call cultural humility in their work, especially when we’re working with people who have very different cultural backgrounds or lived experiences.
Gabe Howard: One of the things that you said there was whether your bias is implicit or explicit, and I want to touch on that for a moment, because I think so many people believe that bias has to be malice. It’s something that you did intentionally.
Dr. Jenny Wang: Mm-hmm.
Gabe Howard: To hurt another person. And if you did it, you are therefore a bad person.
Dr. Jenny Wang: I think that when we think about here in the United States where kind of the hierarchy of even race or hierarchy of class, those elements were heavily embedded into kind of our social structures. So, whether or not we are even aware of it, it plays out in many different ways. When we’re saying implicit biases, we’re not saying that somebody is purposefully or intentionally trying to discriminate or harm another. Great quote by Ibram Kendi where he talks about something to the effect of that racism is so insidious and permeates our lives in such a way that it’s almost like the air we breathe. And so this, I feel like, is such a great way to talk about the implicit racism or implicit bias that we might hold. It’s like so embedded into the way that we think about our lives and our structure of our lives that we are not even aware. And until we can bring that into our conscious awareness that we are being biased in these certain behaviors or thought patterns, then we are totally unable to intentionally and consciously act upon those biases and actually change them or shift them.
Gabe Howard: There’s a famous quote that is often attributed to Albert Einstein, but I want to debunk that he never said it. I’m honestly not sure who did, but it says if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid. That’s sort of what it reminds me of a little bit here, because if, you know, to maybe to me, hey, I want to see if you can climb a tree. And that seems very, very reasonable. But if I don’t understand the fish’s culture, the, the, you know, the fish has limitations, abilities, etc., and I judge the fish based on its inability to climb a tree. I’m doing a great disservice not only to the fish, but arguably to myself. Is that sort of what’s happening here, that we just believe because this culture isn’t following in line, that they’re somehow defective versus their life experiences, challenges and understanding of mental health is just vastly different from our own. And I even hate to say our own because it really sounds like I’m saying our own, like from the white standpoint, but it does seem to often be from the from the white standpoint.
Dr. Jenny Wang: I would agree with you in that. Yes, mental health for much of the work that is quote unquote called scientific or published does come from research that predominantly researches white Americans or white people. And to your kind of analogy about judging the fish and for the longest time, I think individuals of color have been viewed from a deficit model as if there is something wrong with this culture or the way that these people choose to engage. That then perhaps leads to mental health deficits. And the thing is people often are trying their best to adapt to the pressures and the environmental kind of situations that they’re in. And so sometimes these situations are traumatic and very, very difficult to kind of navigate through. And so when a group of people is responding to certain situations in a certain way, we often say, Oh, well, that’s a reflection of their culture. But perhaps these are more survivable adaptations that a group of people had to undergo in order to face the adversity that they had. Right, perhaps in immigrating to this country or having to endure decades of slavery. You think about these aspects of people’s lives and they have to adapt in order to survive and move forward to the next generation. So when we think about culture, we have to be very careful. Is this culture or is this actually trauma that’s been decontextualized from a people group that looks like cultural traits, but actually are remnants and shadows of traumatic experiences that this group of people have been through?
Gabe Howard: Dr. Wang, one of the things that you touch on in your book is the trauma that first generation immigrants carry and how it affects the subsequent generations. Can you explain that and expound on it a little more?
Dr. Jenny Wang: This is a very important topic, I think, for second, third and further generations, because in many ways we are sometimes carrying kind of these legacy burdens of our parents. And when I say that, what I mean is that when we go through migration, especially migration under duress, you know, we think about the Southeast Asian community, where they came as refugees. They’re often carrying the trauma of what occurred in their home countries. And when we think about trauma and its kind of most basic form, it’s a false sense that I’m not safe. And so when we think about what that does to a person’s psyche, it creates a sense of hypervigilance, anxiety, fearfulness, difficulty even just relaxing or feeling grounded. It might also create a sense of emotional exhaustion because, you know, people might be experiencing flashbacks or might be having difficulty sleeping at night because of nightmares. And so when you think about our earlier generations coming and carrying that trauma in their minds and bodies, it disrupts so many aspects in terms of how perhaps they’ve showed up as parents and how they interacted with their kids. And so when we think about that trauma and the intergenerational effects, there are kind of disruptions in how a parent might be emotionally attuned with their children or how emotionally available they are with their kids. It might come out in terms of the trauma being projected onto other people through intense emotions like rage, intense anxiety, intense sense of betrayal or lack of trust.
Dr. Jenny Wang: It might manifest in behaviors such as physical, emotional abuse or in addictions. Right? And so all of these effects then can impact future generations because now the second and third generation might be growing up in the context of their parents reliving or unable to heal and move through their own trauma.
Gabe Howard: Is there a stigma against mental health treatment or discussion or even just mental health at all in the AAPI community? That is different from what we see in other communities.
Dr. Jenny Wang: I don’t know that it is necessarily so distinct that it could not cross cultural lines into, let’s say, the Latin community or perhaps the black community or even just communities in which mental health is not something that is perhaps recognized or discussed openly. However, I think that there are certain cultural values that perhaps the Asian-American community still holds on to from our kind of homeland, from our cultural roots that do impact how we frame mental health. So, for example, there’s this idea of saving face, which it doesn’t have a perfect translation, but it’s this idea in which we as individuals are representations of our families, our parents, their parenting, and the success of their parenting, as well as our communities and even our cultural or ethnic group. So when I’m successful, not only am I kind of preserving or saving the face, the outward persona or reputation of myself, but I’m also doing so for my parents. And I’m upholding kind of a sense of honor for my grandparents and my culture. And so when we do things that might be perceived as shameful or we make mistakes or we fail, not only is a failure for myself, but it’s viewed as a failure of my parents and everybody that came before me. And so there is a very strong pressure in some ways to, quote unquote, save face, meaning we are kind of encouraged to show up in these kind of perfect, very successful ways to kind of project a sense that, yeah, everything’s fine, we are doing just fine, we are super successful or we’re resilient. And I think this also interfaces with, especially in America, the model minority myth in which Asian Americans are viewed as these compliant and passive and docile but hard working individuals who are super successful, financially independent, they earn high degrees.
Dr. Jenny Wang: And so this idea in which Asian-Americans are now put on a pedestal amongst kind of the marginalized groups in the United States, we now have to kind of double binds. Right. We have the internal saving face that comes from our cultural kind of value set. And then we have the model minority, which comes from an outward facing perspective, where people outside our community are saying, oh, well, you’re Asian American, surely, you’re good in school, surely, you’re good at math, surely, you’re a doctor or you’re a lawyer and you’re very financially successful. And all of these things, these frameworks result in many Asian Americans feeling as though they cannot be vulnerable. They cannot admit when they are struggling, they cannot share with others that they’re not doing well in terms of their mental health. It becomes very difficult because the vulnerability piece is almost taken off the table. We don’t necessarily have spaces in which we can say, Hey, I’m really struggling and my anxiety is just through the roof right now and I am terrified. And people start to struggle in isolation. And that stigma becomes so strong because we value a sense of what I call emotional stoicism, right? This idea that even if internally we are feeling chaotic and we’re feeling overwhelmed and terrified on the outside, we’re encouraged to seem as though we have everything under control. That makes it extremely hard for Asian Americans to say, I need help.
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Gabe Howard: And we’re back discussing the intersection of Asian American identity and mental health with Dr. Jenny Wang.You gave a lot of examples of why the model minority myth hurts Asian-Americans seeking help for mental health challenges. But it it’s also racist, right? There’s a racism component there that’s got to hurt your mental health as well. It’s not just about not wanting to seek mental health treatment, although that’s certainly a factor. But there’s a bigger factor in there that there’s an entire country that expects you to be a certain way. So if you’re not that certain way, loneliness is the only option left. Plus, there’s got to be a skosh of anger in there to realize that your entire culture is stereotyped anyway. How does that all factor in?
Dr. Jenny Wang: I agree with you in the sense that we’re seen as a two dimensional person. When we’re stereotyped, we’re viewed as a certain set of traits and qualities. And anything outside of that becomes unusual or unexpected or in some cases, retaliated against. One example is that this this myth or this stereotype that Asian Americans are more passive and docile. Well, this harms us in many ways when we think about Asian Americans trying to move up in leadership within corporate settings or within their work spheres. When you’re seen as passive or not leadership material, that will start to shape your advancement opportunities. There’s something that has been called the bamboo ceiling for Asian Americans in which they are prized as hard workers and individuals who are very dedicated and committed to their work. And at the same time, they’re very rarely promoted to places of leadership. There are very few Asian Americans who are in these C-suite positions. And so, yeah, when we think about these stereotypes, they’re in many ways limiting factors. There are ways in which society says, Oh, no, you’re not allowed to go there. No, these doors are not available or open to you. And so it constricts what’s possible for a group of people. When you said it’s racist, I’ve heard people say, but wait, the stereotype, the model minority myth for Asian Americans, isn’t that a good thing? Don’t you want to be seen as hardworking? Isn’t that positive that people think you’re successful and that you have advanced degrees? Yes.
Dr. Jenny Wang: On the one hand, it is positive. However, it also means that when you don’t fall within those lines, you’re now seen as not as valuable. And so in many ways, this stereotype tokenize Asian Americans, is seeing them as, oh, look at how successful this person is. And that is what brings them value in our community or in our space versus saying, let’s look at the whole person. Let’s look at Asian Americans who are making movies, who are producing music, who are in the creative arts, in fields in which they’re not typically seen in or thought to be successful in. I’ve had many people look at me and say, oh, I don’t know that you can I don’t know that you’ll get into a Ph.D. program in psychology. And I remember at the time thinking to myself, why not? Why do you think that this is not possible for me? And I think it takes a community of people. It takes individuals who can stand behind you and say, no, these limitations are constructed. They’re not there. There are other people’s projections onto you and they’re limiting you. Let’s open up the scope of what we can imagine for a community of people versus saying, this is just all that you are. And so I think it’s a tricky space because people will say, well, these stereotypes are so positive for your people. But at the same time, it fuels a lot of difficult kind of traits like perfectionism, imposter syndrome, fears of failure, right feel, fears of messing up when you’re touted as being this kind of like model of a citizen and a worker and an individual. There’s very little margin for mistake. There’s very little margin for risk. And those things also limit our community and the group of people.
Gabe Howard: Dr. Wang over the past few years, we’ve seen a rise in hate crimes against the AAPI community. Now I know that our listeners understand that if you’ve been the victim of a hate crime or any crime, that that’s not going to be a good mental health day and it’s going to cause you trauma. But let’s talk about the rest of the community that are you’re witnessing this, you’re seeing this happen. And you’re how I can’t imagine how that would make somebody feel. What’s the collective trauma or the collective mental health issues that members of your community are experiencing because of this?
Dr. Jenny Wang: I think collectively there is a sense of terror. There is a sense of anxiety because not only are we concerned about our own physical bodies when we leave our homes, perhaps, but we’re also worried about our kids going to school. In this post-pandemic world, we’re also worried about our parents going to the grocery store, going for walks in their neighborhoods. What has been so jarring about the rise in these hate crimes is that many of them are unprovoked. They’re random. There are people walking in their college campuses and then being assaulted. And so in many ways, there is a sense of the unpredictability and uncertainty that every time I leave my home, am I exposing myself to danger or risk? And so what is an add layer now is that we live in a world of constant media and we’re watching videos of these attacks almost, almost like they’re happening in real time. And so when we’re constantly being exposed to this visual imagery, it activates our bodies. It reminds us of perhaps past traumatic experiences, in which maybe we were bullied when we were kids or there was racist graffiti painted all over our parents’ doors. It is activating parts of our history that maybe we haven’t thought about in a very long time. And somebody I was talking about recently said, you know, on the one hand, our community is developing a sense of solidarity. We’re speaking out. We’re trying to mobilize collective care and protection within our communities. And this is great to see our community come together in this way and become more visible in our activism and our work in this space. And yet this visibility at the same time is terrifying because it might make us potentially attacked more.
Dr. Jenny Wang: It might make us target this person said. It feels almost like we’re being hunted. And that is a terrifying idea to think that in your home country, in your country that you’ve lived in for decades or your family has been here for decades, that you could potentially be hunted just for looking a certain way. And we know and we can name the black and brown and indigenous communities have felt this at the surface for centuries. But for the Asian American community, when we came here, our goal that was kind of taught by our parents was assimilation. Make sure you speak English with perfect intonation, without any accent. Make sure you dress like your peers. Make sure you speak and communicate like your peers. What was once thought protection in assimilation, we now realize that that actually does not offer us any protection because we still at times look different from the dominant community and we can be singled out in a whim. And so there’s now research that’s talking about how there are higher rates of anxiety and depression for individuals in the Asian American community in the context of racism. And that people’s coping strategies around racism have maybe been underdeveloped because for the longest time, maybe our parents didn’t equip us with the skills and the language to even talk about our racism experiences. Many of us are having to learn the skills and to work through those emotions now, which is a very difficult space to be in as a community.
Gabe Howard: Dr. Wang, thank you so much for being here and for helping our listeners understand. I know that you have a book out which is available on Amazon. I know you have a very active Instagram community. Can you tell our listeners about both of those things, please?
Dr. Jenny Wang: The name of my book is “Permission to Come Home: Reclaiming Mental Health as Asian Americans. And it is one of the first books of this kind in which it is talking about mental health from the lens of Asian diaspora communities or Asian Americans. The Instagram page is @asiansformentalhealth and the website is www.jennywangphd.com. And on the Instagram account, there’s also a link to a directory which we develop which has a comprehensive list of Asian-American identifying therapists across the United States. So this is to help our community members access mental health care that is more culturally reverent and culturally competent.
Gabe Howard: Dr. Wang, thank you so much for being here.
Dr. Jenny Wang: It has been a pleasure to chat with you. Thank you so much for opening up a space for our community and for being able to allow us to really vocalize the things that we have been going through lately.
Gabe Howard: Well, you are very welcome, Dr. Wang, and thank you to all of our listeners. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations.” I’m also an award-winning public speaker who could be available for your next event. The book is on Amazon, or you can grab a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me over at gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It’s absolutely free. And hey, can you do me a favor? Recommend the show to your friends, family or colleagues, whether it’s social media, text message or good old-fashioned word of mouth. Referring the show is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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