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Laura Zhang poses of her graduation photos at the University of Texas at Austin. Photo courtesy of Anna Wang

Laura Zhang poses of her graduation photos at the University of Texas at Austin. Photo courtesy of Anna Wang

  • Sacrifice and Stigma: Mental Health in Chinese America

    On a humid day in the summer of 1996, a man is in the airport with his wife. She holds their one-month-old daughter. Bao Bao, a nickname meaning “treasure” in Chinese, has become their world.

    He looks at his wife. Her dark brown hair, which barely reaches past her ears, shapes her pronounced cheekbones. Her eyes confess pain and a hint of excitement at the unknown. She straightens his collar with her one free hand—he was always so bad at making sure his clothes were well polished. She begins to walk him to his gate as his baby daughter stares, her face full of curiosity. Bao Bao reaches for him with her tiny hands. His heart shatters.

    It’s the final call for boarding. The man kisses his wife and daughter, hands the boarding pass to the attendant, and walks through the gates. There’s no going back now. Still, he can’t help but turn around one last time. This man—my dad—sees exactly the home he is leaving behind.

    ***

    Born in Shanxi, a province in rural western China, my father grew up the youngest of six brothers and sisters. In a village of roughly one thousand people, his family consisted of farmers. The kids wore hand-me-downs so by the time the clothes got to my dad, they had almost disintegrated into rags. For dinner, they ate corn, vegetables, and—if they were really lucky that day—pork. 

    During Lunar New Year, everything was different. It was a time to sweep away ill fortunes from the home, quite literally, and welcome prosperity, wealth, and longevity into the New Year with festivities.

    For my dad, it meant long-awaited luxuries were imminent. His parents used the little spending money they had on new clothes and special New Year’s food: deluxe meats like lamb and pork, seafood, and handmade dumplings. The kids scrambled from door to door in their new clothes, soliciting neighbors for hong bao. These red envelopes were a tradition of giving money to children as a symbol of prosperity for their future. As the youngest child, my dad quite often got more than his fair share.

    Because Lunar New Year always took place around late January or early February, heavy coats of snow covered the rivers and unpaved trails. Every year, my dad would venture to the nearby river that had frozen over and scoop up chunks of ice. He would run back to the village and wait for the chunks to melt to create porridge broth. My dad remembers those times during Lunar New Year as some of the best memories of his childhood.

    ***

    When I am first brought to the hospital, the nurses seize my backpack, my phone, and my journal. They remove my necklace. It feels as if they are extracting pieces of myself. Lastly, they force me to take off my shoes and hand me hospital socks, the color of expired mustard, to wear instead. I hate them. I have been involuntarily admitted to a psychiatric institution, one I have passed many times in Austin but had never noticed before. The facility is only fifteen minutes from The University of Texas campus where I go to school.

    I am the youngest person on our floor. Our level is stocked with patients who suffer from non-violent depression and/or anxiety. It is quite an assortment of people. I meet a burned-out single mother and entrepreneur, a woman who lives out of her car, a veteran and devout Catholic, a loyal father who loves quoting The Big Bang Theory, a kind woman with a passion for Brussels sprouts, and my hospital roommate Marilyn, a petite elderly woman who immediately looks out for me as a grandmother would.

    My hospital room is one of ten on our floor. When I walk in, I realize it almost looks like a dorm room. The only distinction is that the bathroom does not have a door, only a thick beige plastic sheet reminiscent of those in retail store fitting rooms.

    Two twin-sized beds are placed adjacently. Tousled sheets decorate the left bed, but the bed on the right, which I assume is mine, is eerily organized.

    Entering this room has removed me from any sense of time. It is only when I look out a small window by my bed and see all the cars on the highway that I remember time has not paused for anyone else. At this very moment, my professor is probably on a physics tirade of some sort, my boyfriend is trying to figure out how to teach circuits to his high schoolers, and my mom is working, walking into the restaurant kitchen to grab soup dumplings for her table.

    My mother hates her cheekbones. I love them. She has a magnetic pull to her, a modest elegance that does not go unnoticed in an age of flashiness. Even at a young age, my mother retained a strength and fierceness of standing up for herself. I like to think I got that from her.

    The second oldest of four children, my mom grew up in a middle-class family in Fuzhou, a Chinese city in Fujian Province with a population of slightly more than seven million people. Her street consisted of nine wooden houses. All the kids knew each other. A vast grassy lawn spanned an area close to them, where often at night the older kids told ghost stories. My mother tuned out the sound of her mother calling her name, choosing instead to listen to these stories.

    When my mom turned eight, she began helping her mother make rice cakes, a staple of their family’s holiday meal. About two days prior to Lunar New Year, my grandmother soaked the rice, waited for it to condense by putting it into a machine, and then began to roll the dough. Once the cake began to take form, it expanded to twice the size of the pot. My mom’s main job was heating up the dough, which took roughly two hours.

    Every time my mom told me these stories, I cherished the ability to vicariously live through these traditions, to experience something I knew was a part of my heritage but one I felt so distant from. My mom’s mom passed away from cancer five years before I was born, but I have never heard my mom talk about it. Her dad, my grandfather, passed away in August of last year, but I never saw her grieve. In my family, hearts are to be shielded, pain is meant to be felt but not shown, and wounds are meant to tear apart in private.

    ***

    When my dad was twenty-five, he witnessed the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. These protests were student-led demonstrations in Beijing, national movements that reflected anxieties about the economy and politics in a post-Mao China. The demonstrations touted democracy and resulted in a massacre in Tiananmen Square, a popular gathering spot in the city’s center. Troops with assault rifles and tanks killed at least several hundred demonstrators trying to block the military’s advancement towards the Square. My dad tells me that moment was when he knew he wanted to leave China. 

    Photo courtesy of Laura Zhang
    Laura Zhang with her parents after recently immigrating to America.
    Photo courtesy of Laura Zhang

    When I immigrated to America with my mother, I was three and a half years old. My dad was already in school working toward his master’s degree, so earning a steady income fell on my mom. Trained as a nurse in China, she did not have the English capabilities to transfer those skills to this new country in a practical timeline, a common theme for many immigrants. So instead, she waited on tables for many years.

    After school, I would do homework in the Chinese restaurant my mom worked in, a buffet-style restaurant run by a family from Fuzhou. Occasionally, I would sneak a chicken kabob and hide in the back of the restaurant to devour it. As the smell of fried salmon and oily green beans overwhelmed the building, I would help my mom get water for the customers and fold silverware into napkins after I was done with my homework. For most of my childhood, my mom worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week, relying on tips to pay our rent and buy me gifts.

    For my parents, the so-called “American Dream” was our own house in the suburbs. A house was something many of my friends took for granted, but as my family and I apartment-hopped, I grew more and more desperate to create a home. Their dream was to make financial ends meet, send me off to the best college and best opportunities possible, and get green cards, a legal declaration of United States residence. They wanted to prove that we deserved to be here.

    I was too young to know I came from anything that wasn’t “American.” Every time I heard my parents speaking Chinese in public, I despised how “Asian” they were. I hated how Chinese I looked when a white boy in fourth grade made fun of my “small eyes and yellow skin.” I grew up embarrassed of my mom’s broken English and frustrated every time my dad asked me for the meaning of an idiom. Each step toward assimilation of American culture broke me away from an appreciation of where my family came from.

    ***

    Walking a cultural tightrope was difficult. Despite the alienation and embarrassment I often felt, I eventually grew nostalgic for my parents’ childhood. I longed for extravagant Lunar New Year’s celebrations and greater fluency in my own ability to speak Chinese. With every sentence of broken English or phone call made back home, I never forgot how much my parents gave up, how these were all just reminders of what they had left behind.

    During high school, I fumed helplessly as I heard people make fun of my parents’ accents. I tried to ignore the catcalls that objectified and fetishized me as an Asian American woman. To a country that I called home, a country that was my only home, I was simply another yellow face; to some, my family and I should have gone back to “where we were really from.” A society who didn’t even know me screamed at me—and other immigrants—that we did not belong here. 

    The one thing that remained constant was guilt. I always felt guilty living in the shadow of my parents’ sacrifices. Because of their hard work, I had the privilege of an incredible education and complete fulfillment of basic needs. I never went to bed hungry, always knowing I would sleep in a warm bed at night. I easily fell into the safe, yet dull, rhythm of a comfortable suburban life. 

    When I went off to university, I was ready for a change of pace—and I certainly found it. I discovered friends who became my emotional anchor and women who challenged the status quo by being so unapologetically themselves. I didn’t like being in the lab as much I thought I would, but my niche of neuroscience and writing fueled an excitement to work in improving healthcare policy. I fell in love, with people and words and experiences.

    But I was running from the fears chasing me down. Thoughts about my own personal identity, the uncertainty of my future, and insecurities in my relationship at the time paralyzed me. As I increasingly became more engaged with national and global issues, I felt more and more weighed down. The bleak November 2016 election, mass shootings, police violence, criminal system injustices, obstacles to women’s reproductive health autonomy, racism and discrimination, and the list goes on and on, brought on a heavy emotional burden. Beyond the external factors, the very biology of my brain had shifted to a chronic imbalance.

    During my junior year, the thoughts caught up to me. I began noticing a dramatic withdrawal from my normal routine. In a frightening regression, my insecurities increased in frequency, exploded, and overwhelmed my every thought. I spent days hidden in my room, paralyzed and anxious. When I was on campus, I spent countless times in a bathroom trying to hide my panic attacks.

    ***

    According to the American Psychological Association, roughly 14.8 million Americans, or 6.7 percent, are afflicted with major depressive disorder. A study by the National Alliance of Mental Health found that over 75 percent of all mental health conditions start by age twenty-four, making college an integral part in a student’s formative years.

    Roughly one in five counseling directors report that the availability of psychiatric services on campus is inadequate. Even at my own university, our Counseling and Mental Health Center receives limited funding. The subsequent limits on care deter many students from even setting foot in the center.

    ***

    I remained in the hospital for three days. During which, my journal was returned to me, though my pencil was not. I was allowed a marker to write with. Time moved slowly. On the last day, my psychiatrist, an Indian man with a serious demeanor and bushy mustache, sat me down in one of the group rooms. He looked me in the eyes and diagnosed me with major depressive disorder and severe anxiety.

    ***

    A 2015 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study reports that suicide was the second leading cause of death among people between the ages of fifteen and thirty-four. Even so, anxiety and depression are still stigmatized. Particularly for immigrants, xenophobia, racism, and legal obstacles present additional challenges to what many others take for granted.

    According to a UCLA study, many immigrant students undergo acculturative stress, the tension of resolving two or more disparate cultural differences. This notion of the fragmented self takes its toll on immigrant students.

    ***

    In Chinese culture, depression is simply a “mood” to get over, a feeling that will go away soon. It is a widespread belief that mental illness results from ancestors’ punishment on the current generation. The reason why someone has a mental illness is a misdeed, which tarnishes the family name and reputation.

    Even though I was a child of science and suspected what was happening, I was too scared to tell my parents. The more I avoided help, the more depression transformed into my monster, one that worked every day to strip me of myself. It tainted every thought I had and threatened to uproot every foundation I had worked so hard to cultivate. Slowly, without me even realizing it, I became a stranger in my body.

    I will never forget the fear I saw in my boyfriend’s eyes when I told him I no longer wanted to live. Or the frustration I felt when I was forcefully detained in a psychiatric institution to confront something I knew I had but was scared of admitting.

    ***

    This past year, I’ve had conversations with people close to me about their own mental health struggles. We have an obligation to reaffirm the importance of mental health in our professional, academic, and personal lives. We owe a particular responsibility to our marginalized communities, to remind them of their inherent value in a system that constantly whispers to them that that their lives mean less.

    When my parents left China, they sacrificed home. I lived my life with a small voice in my head saying I have to prove that their sacrifice was worth it. When I left the hospital, the hospital staff returned my necklace, my journal, and my backpack. As I walked out of the automatic doors with my parents, I began to understand that my responsibility was first and foremost to myself. 

    Photo courtesy of Laura Zhang
    Laura Zhang poses with her parents at her Orange Jackets initiation in April 2017. Orange Jackets is the oldest honorary women’s service organization at UT Austin. She had recently raised money for childhood cancer research through the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, then shaved her head and donated her hair to Wigs For Kids.
    Photo courtesy of Laura Zhang

    If you are in crisis, the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) is available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The service is available to anyone, and all the calls are confidential.

    Laura Zhang graduated this spring with degrees in neuroscience and Plan II Honors from The University of Texas at Austin. She is a former intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.


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