This piece was written by Nirali Thakkar, a member of the Contributors Circle at the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health and an awardee of the New Voices Showcase. The post was submitted in observance of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. The views expressed in this post do not represent those of the Hogg Foundation.
Our Context Creates Us
To an extent, our context creates us. Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) mental health is different for each one of us because it relies on many factors: a family’s immigration timeline, levels of acculturation, and connection to the community. And yet, there’s still a thread of experience that connects us. As part of this post, I interviewed three people with different AAPI identities. Here is a little about them:
- Jim Struyk is a high school band director. He is a mixed-race son of a Thai mom and a Caucasian dad. He is married and has two children.
- Ankith Pokkuluri is a second-generation immigrant who returned to India at a young age and came back for education. He currently lives in Texas as he pursues his master’s degree.
- Arya Patel is a high school senior. She is the child of immigrant parents that came from India. She describes herself as an Indian that participates in American culture heavily.
I was curious to know how three individuals of AAPI identity could come together and discuss mental health from their unique positionalities and generations. What connected them and where could they seek to understand each other further? For us members of the AAPI diaspora, the universal emphasis on community in our cultures means that we’re often talking about things for the first time within our communities. However, the communication lines can feel bound and rigid, especially across generations, which leads many to gaps in understanding themselves and each other. When it comes to mental health, our communities struggle to engage in this difficult, daunting dialogue, despite its benefits. And so I asked, “What would you want to tell someone from a different generation than yours about AAPI mental health?”
When I was younger, I was homeless for a little bit with my family, living in a tent. My parents still did everything to let me pursue things. My mom was a housekeeper. She’d tell me, “This trombone of yours cost 400 toilets I had to clean.” She always put these things in perspective. She wanted to make sure I knew she was doing things. I didn’t want to complain to her because I knew she was working hard to provide for me.
Now, speaking from a parent perspective, my needs have changed because I am focused more on my child’s needs like my own parents were. I want to give them as much as I can. My well-being is trumped by what I want to give my kids. I think a lot of parents in Asian American culture resonate with that. It’s about getting the money to live the American Dream, so that you can give your children a better life than you had. We’re all trying to be the best for our children, at the sacrifice of our own mental stability or mental health.
We don’t talk about our feelings. Having younger generations talk to their parents and just ask about their day, it breaks down that wall. We don’t know how exactly to have those conversations because the generations above us didn’t have them. Sometimes it’s just hard to put words to my emotions.
Hearing this, I asked Arya and Ankith to respond back to Jim. What did they want to convey to this father, from the perspective of being sons and daughters?
Growing up, money was on my mind. I wouldn’t get much time with my parents unless it was before school. I have the memory of my dad feeding me S’mores cereal and saving the marshmallows for last. It’s my only core memory of us doing something together as a family because they were always working. The strain of them chasing after the American ideal affected our mental health. They always chased this perfection to make us happy, but in turn they gave up time. I would have appreciated time with them. Otherwise, you’re just playing catch up.
Hearing about how parents can’t go to their children about their stressors, I think about how as a child, you see your parents as these perfect beings. You idolize them as superheroes. As you grow up, you see the mortality in them. They’re human. Part of it is coming to terms with that. It’s also about them accepting that they need help as well. There’s a point where you are grateful for everything that they have done, and it’s time for them to start thinking about themselves. Because if not, it strains your relationship. No kid wants to see their parents struggle. More often than not, it’s visible, especially with how much they provide for us. I just want them to be happy and healthy. That’s more important to me than anything you are providing for me materialistically or for my career. Every child I think reaches that point with their parents, but it’s hard to convey.
A Bridge to AAPI Mental Health
Hearing this conversation back, I saw the paradigm shift ever so slightly, allowing for a bridge between these three unique individuals. In truth, a true generational change to embrace mental health will take countless iterations. But the beauty of collectivist values in mental health is that we can do it together. As we look to celebrate AAPI Heritage Month, let us consider how collectivism can replace barriers with bridges, including in mental health.
I thank Ankith, Arya, and Jim for their vulnerability, time, and contributions.