This article is part of a series of articles commemorating Mental Health Awareness Month, in partnership with National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF). We recognize that the stigma around mental health care — in Asian American communities, in particular — often keeps people from seeking help or having transparent conversations about the importance of mental health care. Mochi believes that caring for our mental health is an essential piece of caring for our overall health and well-being. We hope this series will shed light on how mental health care positively impacted these writers.
Seventeen missed calls from Mom. 10:47 p.m. She must have found out that I snuck out.
What do I say to her? Do I make something up? No, I can’t lie to her. But she’s not going to understand anything. And you have been lying to her for so long, about so many things already! I don’t want to lie anymore. I want to be honest.
I raced home to discover a fire alarm had gone off in our apartment. My mom jumped in the passenger seat and started yelling as if her inner tiger mom had come out all at once. Is this what a real Chinese fire drill is like?
I had snuck out because I was not allowed to go out like normal American teenagers.
“Look what you have become! You are so American, but you are Chinese! Do you even know who you are supposed to be?” she shouted in Mandarin.
I was born and raised in Beijing, China. I used chopsticks to eat my favorite home-cooked meal: mushroom dumplings dipped in vinegar. I drank freshly steamed tea on Saturday mornings made by my grandpa. I played the guzheng, a traditional Chinese instrument, in my free time. I could recite poems from the Tang Dynasty on cue. When my family and I immigrated to the United States when I was twelve, I became more than just Chinese — I also became American. I learned to speak English. I listened to Taylor Swift with my friends after school. I measured my height in inches.
But as I was immersing myself deeper into American culture, I was forbidden to do so at the same time. I wasn’t allowed to go to any sleepovers, date, or even wear skirts, which my mom claimed were “too American.” Although I respected my mom’s traditional values, I couldn’t be my truest self. My life became double-sided; I had my own “secret life of an American teenager” outside of her knowledge. I bought skirts and changed into them in the car after I left my house. I had a boyfriend for two years that she is still unaware of to this day.
At the same time, I still regretted making her worry and being untruthful to her. The strain between wanting to be myself and feeling guilty about crossing my mom led me to fall into a depressive state. I saw in her eyes that I was not the perfect Chinese daughter she had always wanted me to be, and her disappointment led me to question my own self-understanding. Was I really too American? Would I ever be who my parents wanted me to be?
After I snuck out of my house that night, my mother imposed strict boundaries. She stood outside the balcony and waited for me to come home right after school. My phone was taken away at 8 p.m. every night. She threw out all my clothes that she didn’t approve of. She translated my diary into Chinese and read through thoughts that I wished I could keep to myself. While I resented her, I also resented the fact that I resented her. She is my mother. Why couldn’t she understand why I wanted freedom? Did she know that I cried because I knew I couldn’t reach her expectations, or that I analyzed every one of her looks because I was afraid of her judgment and disappointment? Could she tell that I’d bite the inside of my mouth when she would tell me, “You have nothing to be angry and sad about. I am doing everything because I love you”?
How could she say she loved me when it hurt me so much? I fought myself. Wanting my own identity, yet guilty about the generational and cultural differences within our mother-daughter relationship.
It came to a point where I could no longer sit with these negative thoughts. After years of internal conflict and being untrue to myself and my mom, realization and clarity came along when I learned to self-validate and use empathy to understand our generational conflict. It came down to a balance between taking care of my own emotions and at the same time understanding hers.
The generational and cultural barrier had torn my mom and I apart. It wasn’t my mom’s fault, nor mine. She didn’t understand who I was, but it wasn’t her fault. Because I realized that while I blamed her for not understanding me, I failed to understand her. I failed to consider that she grew up in a city right outside of Beijing for most of her life, and that she left her friends, job, family, and her entire life to come to the United States without knowing any English so that she could be close to me and fill the role of the perfect mother. And she did all that for me.
She was scared in America. She didn’t know English. She didn’t know the ins-and-outs of the culture like I did. She didn’t know anyone other than my father and me. She was struggling too.
When she felt like she didn’t understand me anymore because I was becoming “Americanized,” her fear of losing me had trapped me physically and mentally. People are scared of the things they are unfamiliar with — and I was becoming less and less the daughter from Beijing and more and more the American girl she didn’t recognize.
She didn’t know any other way to love. I know now that I can’t change who I am, and she can’t change who she is. My way of loving her back is to understand her, to understand that there are generational differences between us, and to know that I can change my thoughts and actions when it comes to approaching our relationship.
Understanding how this cultural barrier has affected me is not at all a linear journey. Today, I am 21 years old and legally an adult. Yet when I return home from college, I pace back and forth around my room, preparing a speech to ask for her permission to hang out with my friends. Recovering from past anxiety isn’t linear. I’ve taught myself that it’s okay to be angry and sad about something I thought I had healed from. Moving on is hard because we tend to remember traumatic experiences better than positive ones. I have to constantly remind myself that self-validation is the only validation I ever need.
My obligation isn’t to be the perfect Chinese daughter, but the perfectly imperfect daughter who is capable of continuing to love and heal despite the generational misunderstandings. I am fortunate to see the world from more than one lens, and I am fortunate to have the choice to do so. A choice of my identity, and a choice to understand and love someone with an empathy that releases me from my own pain. Without this, I would never have gained resilience, but more importantly, I would have never found myself: I am not just Chinese, and I’m not just American. I am someone who is able to speak Chinese and English whenever and wherever needed. I am someone who drinks iced coffee one morning, but hot tea the next. I believe in freedom and following passions like a true American, but I also believe in simplicity, endurance and diligence like a true Chinese. Being open and vulnerable about who I truly am liberates me from all those years of struggling in silence. I recognized that it’s okay to not prioritize your family’s hopes and dreams over everything, especially not before my own boundaries or emotional needs. This understanding gave me strength. Once I found peace and stability within myself and my identity, I could then find peace in loving someone despite past hurts, misunderstandings and everything else.
NAPAWF is the only organization focused on building power with AAPI women and girls to influence critical decisions that affect our lives, our families and our communities. Using a reproductive justice framework, NAPAWF elevates AAPI women and girls to impact policy and drive systemic change in the United States.
This article is part of Mochi’s Amplify, Align, Activate initiative. At Mochi, we are partnering with local and national nonprofits that serve our community of AAPI women and non-binary individuals to uplift and promote causes that matter to us and affect our everyday lives. For more information, see the Amplify, Align, Activate homepage. If you are interested in partnering with us, please email Giannina Ong (Activism Editor) at email@example.com.
Photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez//Unsplash
Last modified: May 23, 2021