I Thought Being Miserable Was Just Part Of Being Chinese American

I was a funny person. I laughed a lot. I was just unhappy a lot of the time.
Publish date:
May 15, 2014
depression, mental health, Asian American women, Chinese American

When I told my white friend about how my grandmother’s TV remote control is mummified in plastic wrap and that she’s superstitious about food passing through certain doors in the house, he asked, “Does she have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?”

I laughed, “Haha! No way! She’s just Chinese!”

I’m a third generation Chinese American. In my 20s, I was tested for Attention Deficit Disorder. Some of the criteria indicating that I was a candidate for ADD made me immediately suspicious of how any mental illness is gauged and how culturally competent the test makers are.

Does crying for weeks on end that I didn’t get into UC Berkeley make me prone to depression or was I just a high school drama queen? Does being a disorganized overachiever constitute Attention Deficit Disorder or was I just somebody with a lot of goals? Does screaming at my guests to take their shoes off in my house mean I have OCD or that I’m just Chinese?

I believed for many years, and even now, that the misery of my life was not a diagnosable medical disorder, but was just about being a Chinese American navigating life in the Western World whilst being held to unrealistically high expectations (bilingual concert pianist brain surgeon anyone?).

I was never raised to be happy as much as I was raised to be successful. And that success usually came in specific quantifiable terms like having a well-paying job, a medical degree from a reputable school, or marrying a Chinese bilingual doctor husband. It was inferred that once I had all those successes, I’d be secure in life, and that security was going to make me happy.

I won’t lie. Getting good grades, winning trophies, and stacking a long list of accomplishments on my college application made me feel good because it meant I had avoided my parents’ idea of a failure. But most of the time, the road to the seemingly unattainable, chasing a dream that wasn't really mine, felt so totally miserable and pointless.

I also believed life was supposed to be miserable -- because hard work is miserable. Had my parents and immigrant grandparents not worked through their misery, I wouldn’t have the opportunities that I do today. Passing that legacy of misery onto your kids -- that guilt we carry is what makes us work harder. Bucking up and moving forward through that misery without complaining -- this is the Chinese way. Isn’t it?

But I always knew something was off. The misery was often beyond bearable. By the time I finished college, I witnessed and experienced violence that I didn't think I could speak against (bear through the misery, remember?). I could go into detail about the specifics of these violent moments, but as much of an over-sharer as I am, still can't bring myself to describe them in detail on the Internet. Every “failure” carried with it the fate of my life. Every time I detracted from the path towards “success,” I felt so incredibly alone.

I did confide in some friends about the agony of living, because I didn't want it to be agonizing any longer. My non-Asian friends would tell me: “F**k how you were raised. Do your own thing.” To me, choosing a different path meant flunking out of school and disowning my parents. My Asian friends listened but gave no tangible answers. Perhaps they were quietly navigating their own misery.

I didn't identify with pop culture images of “depressed people.” Rock stars with public platforms to lash out publicly, and a stable of emo fans wanting to emulate them. Celebrities addicted to painkillers enabled by paparazzi cameras, or psychology brochures featuring stock images of white women looking forlorn against rain-specked windows. None of those images were me -- I was a silly, smiley, jokey person. I was a funny person. I laughed a lot. I was just unhappy a lot of the time.

Chinese people didn't see therapists. Spend $100 to tell a stranger your problems? Are you crazy? Why, yes, maybe I am. But I don’t know because my mom won’t give me the money to see a shrink. Western psychology and “seeing a therapist” (especially one that you have to pay megabucks by the hour to tell your secrets to) is still a completely foreign concept to people of my parents’ generation who believed seeing a therapist would prevent you from getting a job. And mind you, my parents were born in America.

I ran across a statistic in 2004 that reported Asian American women as having some of the highest rates of suicide in this country. I decided I would make a theater show about it and call it "Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." When I received major arts grant funding to make it, my mother said, “I’m so proud of you. Just don’t talk about me or the family in your show.”

Doing a show about Asian American depression without mentioning your mother is like making a porno movie without sex. A curious thing happened when I announced in 2005 that I was “working on a show about depression and suicide.” A lot of women came out of nowhere to tell me that they had been depressed and contemplated suicide. These were total strangers who found me by email -- college professors and women I had known as professionals, all telling me things I had not imagined could be shared.

Every time a woman shares her story with me, I think the same: Where were you when I was younger? How would have things been different if we were there for each other?

I’ve toured "Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest" for seven years now. That’s way too long to tour a funny show about something so depressing. It’s been an amazing ride, but I would never wish for anybody to take on what I did. I was not ready for it and what I had to face to make it. For many years I was known as “Kristina Wong who does that depression show.”

My parents have still convinced themselves the show is an elaborate work of fiction drawn completely from my imagination and created out of the pure selfless desire to help others. That’s how deep the denial around the issue of depression runs in my family. But I have also learned that denial is an amazing coping mechanism, until it doesn’t work anymore.

Very few people will tell you the step-by-step ways to be brave in your own body. For me, it comes every time I step on a stage in front of people and tell them what they don’t expect to hear.