Taking up Space: Mental Health, Representation, and the Asian American Experience
INTERVIEW WITH DR. JENNY WANG BY KEVIN CHEN
This piece was published in the 33rd digital volume of the Asian American Policy Review. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
AAPR: Can you tell us a bit about your book Permission to Come Home and the inspiration behind it?
WANG: The inspiration for my work came from the realization, through the @asiansformentalhealth Instagram account, that people wanted to explore how their cultural backgrounds and family stories informed mental health. When I started the Instagram account in late 2019, there were many mental health related accounts, but none that focused specifically on the unique immigrant experiences, children of color, and Asian Americans. Initially, my goal was to simply build a directory of Asian American therapists, but as I was posting and sharing my own internal thoughts and experiences, I realized that people were craving and hoping for a mental health book that centers the experiences of the Asian diaspora.
I recognize that any singular book has its limits, as the Asian American community is diverse and comprises so many different cultural backgrounds. Yet, at the same time, there were themes across my clients and corporate speaking engagements that resonated with people from different backgrounds. I believe that by providing people with a tool to ask themselves questions and challenge their own frameworks, they can start to break free from the patterns that keep them stuck.
AAPR: One of my favorite chapters in the book is on the “Permission to Take Up Space”. I love how you connect the concept of taking up space with limited political representation for people of color and immigrants—can you speak more to this?
WANG: I think representation has many psychological effects on a person. When you see someone in a position or in a place that is well regarded, it can influence or inspire us to believe that we are capable of similar things. On the one hand, representation not only helps us dream about what’s possible in one’s life, but also suggests that the person representing us may be invested in elevating the experiences and voice of people who might look like them or identify similarly.
When I think about this idea of taking up space, I think about how it holds , in tension, fear and courage at the same time; I can try to take up space and still be scared about what that might cost me and how people might react, while also holding on to the courage and belief that I deserve to be seen and heard.
I think back to my own parents when they came to the United States, and I remember them feeling that sense of, “we don’t really belong here.” They had unique experiences that gave them that type of feedback—be it a racist remark or a discriminatory interaction at work. There were constant reminders that you were not safe, and that your environment was not invested in keeping you safe or protecting you. When we fail to see political representation at the higher levels, it makes us wonder: who will speak for us and who will take care of us and protect us? In response, when we feel psychologically unsafe, we will do what we can to protect and self-preserve—and one of those strategies is to stay under the radar.
I remember as a child, my parents saying, “Hey, don’t speak up. Don’t be too loud. Don’t make trouble. Exist under the radar so that you can get through schooling, get a job, and build stability.” With our parents’ experiences this made sense because some of our parents came [to America] with very little stability. So that was the goal: to be able to say, we perhaps own our home, and we perhaps have some financial resources that we can rely on. As the eldest daughter and child of immigrants, I internalized those messages as: stay small. Don’t take up too much space because people might react negatively to you in response. I think about the times where even my parents—in their anger—if they were discriminated against, couldn’t fight back because they didn’t have mastery of the English language. Their silence—even if it was not what they wanted it to be, in some ways, protected them. It allowed them to stay in the shadows, or in the margins. I think that was a trauma response: a need to self-protect by making invisible walls.
In some ways, I feel like it’s not a surprise that Asian Americans have sometimes been described as the “invisible race,” where we are seen as not having been through the same atrocious histories of black and brown communities. But we also do not hold the privileges and rights of white communities. We are seen as somewhere in the in-between, where our race doesn’t seem to matter to society as much. And yet, post pandemic, we’ve seen that it matters a lot. Our race became a target of potential threat and harm from others. When I think about taking up space, and as we begin to see more representation of Asian Americans in politics, in media, in leadership, and in corporate spheres, I think it gives us a little bit more courage to take up some of that space in the places that we might have influence over.
AAPR: I worry about my own parents and fear that as they age they will be more vulnerable to feelings of isolation and weakened connections. You talk a bit about the emotions of shame and the cultural value of saving face—and I think that’s what I’m grappling with when I think about my parents asking for help—this idea of stoicism when faced with inner turmoil—how have you navigated discussions around mental health around your own parents and what have you found to be the most helpful?
WANG: I think the work for our generation (those in their 20s, 30s, 40s) has a continuous journey in terms of relating to mental health and our parents, as it is still stigmatized within the older generation. I think it makes sense in the way that they frame mental health or how society has always framed mental health in their generation: as only the “extremes” such as schizophrenia or institutionalization. Mental health in their minds is not a normal human experience. They view mental health as something that only occurs on the edges of human experience. Sometimes, I’ve had to work even with my own parents, on reframing the idea of what mental health is, and I often say, mental health is in the decisions that you make, in how you see your world, how you speak to and relate to another human being. All those facets are informed by your mental health state at that moment. It takes a lot of consistent discussion and education to reframe the idea that mental health is something that we all have whether or not we recognize it, whether or not we protect it, and whether or not we whisper about it. If we can help our parents realize that they too have mental health—and that in certain moments and times in their lives, they can be doing really well and feel strong, empowered, connected—and in other times in their life—where their mental health is not doing well—they might feel alone, scared, anxious, sad or depressed. It’s this idea that mental health expands and contracts and moves over one’s lifetime. The hope is that it becomes something that they recognize they have, realize that they might have some sort of impact over, and that it’s something that they can build up or strengthen. One of the first steps is reworking the framework or idea of mental health.
The second thing I would say is that we forget that mental health is intimately related to physical health and relational health. Even asking your parents questions like, “how are you eating lately?” or “How are you sleeping?” or “Are you doing your hobbies?” or “Are you going on your walk that you love to have in the mornings?” or “Are you meeting with friends?” Those questions inform us about their mental health. Because if those things have changed for the worse, then we start to say, “Oh, why?” or “What could be contributing to that change?” We don’t have to jump into asking if they feel depressed or anxious right away, as that can be overwhelming and shut our parents down. So, could we start with something as simple as: “I noticed that you seem to have lost some weight recently, and you don’t seem to be eating a normal amount that you do. Could you share with me what’s been going on?” That can be the open door to these discussions.
Another thing we must keep in mind, especially when people are not comfortable sharing their inner world, which might be the case for some of our parents, is that our consistency matters. If we try to open the door and they don’t step through it that time—that attempt to connect still counts. The more we do it, the more we create a sense that their child cares about them and that their child is interested and might be a safe space in which they could explore. We build the scaffolding for our parents to connect with us regarding their mental health over time—and there is no rush. We don’t have to rush people into feeling comfortable with mental health, instead it can be something that we can build into our normal conversations day to day.
AAPR: In your chapter entitled, “Permission to Grieve”, you talk about your own experiences with the loss of your grandpa and a subsequent feeling of disconnection from your history and cultural lineage—and as a child of immigrants I often wonder how can we continue to build a shared sense of history, culture and lineage for the generations that come after us—what has that process been like for you and your own children?
WANG: I think about how I was born in Taiwan and moved to the United States when I was two. Already it feels as though Taiwan is kind of a homeland but not a home. As immigrants, there is this idea of a homeland in our mind, of where our people are from and where our ancestors built their lives. Depending on which generation your family immigrated to another country, your connections to that idea of homeland, which has the cultural, ancestral, and familial roots start to get stretched out further and further. For my own kids, who are ten and six, one of the things that we’ve been very deliberate about is building their sense of cultural pride and instilling this sense of pride in who they are, where they come from, and the people that they are descendants of. Pride in that facet of our identity was something that I never had growing up because coming to the United States meant that so much of my racial and ethnic framework was informed by white dominance and discrimination. In fact, my racial and ethnic identity was a deep source of shame for most of my childhood. It was a facet that I tried to hide and minimize in service of the systemic structural racism that inherently exists in the United States. When I became a parent and was working through my own racial identity and trauma, I realized that I could set the stage from which my kids could interpret their own identity. But I couldn’t do that unless I had a healthier sense of my own racial identity as well. We’ve been very deliberate at things like having a Taiwan booth at my child’s International Day Festival and about working with the school to set up a Lunar New Year display. Because there’s something about your parents showing you that this is a source of pride—not shame—that helps protect their children against the narratives about their identity informed by racism that they will invariably face in this world. Now, when we have conversations about their race or their identity, they’re coming from a place of knowing that their identity is a cherished part of themselves. It becomes much harder to let that be tarnished by comments like “go back to your country,” or the comments about “kung flu” because they can see those in the backdrop of systemic racism and say, “this is more about you than it is about me” and preserve that identity from being harmed by these discriminatory encounters.
So much of our culture is informed by the food, the celebrations, the rituals, and the things we bring forward to the next generation. And even still, I will have to admit that there can be a loss in this connection from one generation to the next. Over the pandemic, we stopped Chinese school for my daughter. It was such a loss for me—even though I didn’t enjoy Chinese school as a child myself—I can speak Mandarin and I can understand Taiwanese and have that semblance of connection to my culture that my kids will not have because we made the decision to stop Chinese school. There’s a sense of grief there. Because I feel like sometimes, we can feel as though we’re not doing enough to enhance their cultural identity. We think that we must do this—and it has to look this certain way. It’s important to realize that our kids are going to grow up to be multicultural and that there is no rule or requirement for speaking a language or knowing certain cultural elements that would make them more or less of a certain part of their identity. Letting go of those expectations—letting my child be curious and explore on their own—has been one of the most powerful ways to help them lead a path towards cultural development.
AAPR: In your book you also discuss the importance of safety, belonging, authenticity, and compassion—can you speak to why these concepts might be important for future policymakers to consider and how we might go about creating these spaces?
WANG: I see these four components as building upon each other. At the most basic level, if we don’t feel psychologically safe, it’s difficult to feel like we belong and can be authentic, and then exercise compassion for others. Future policymakers need to ask themselves if the people they serve feel psychologically safe from a needs and self-actualization perspective, and if they have the tools to build that safety for themselves. These are questions that I would love to explore, because policymakers are equipped with the systems and resources to build tools that people can then use for themselves—take safety for example. Do people have access to healthy foods, secure housing, and consistent jobs and transportation to get to those jobs? Those are those basic level needs that I think no amount of mental health treatment can replace. Humans have these basic needs that must be met in order for mental health to have a chance at flourishing.
Policymakers are also a part of creating a sense of belonging—in terms of the legislation that they enact and the types of laws and governing accountability that we place on the corporations and the larger systems that people live within. I think about legislation like the American Disabilities Act and how it was enacted to protect people living with disabilities. When you have safety and belonging, then that allows people to be authentic and truly show themselves. They might not feel the need to constantly code switch or wear a mask because they do not feel safe. How a policymaker models authenticity affects their constituents and the people that they serve. I truly believe that as policymakers, there needs to be compassion—a need to wonder if they are truly serving the people that they represent. Compassion is not the same as sympathy, which is a sense of feeling sorry that someone is going through this situation—and compassion is more than empathy because empathy is the sense that I am alongside you in your difficulties. Compassion is this idea that I see the difficulty and I may actually be inclined to carry some of that burden alongside you. I think there’s something powerful about that idea– if our future policymakers saw themselves as people who carry burdens alongside their constituents, how beautiful that would be in transforming the political landscape.
AAPR: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
WANG: One final thought that I’d love to leave to your readers is this: we all have the ability to destigmatize mental health. I think one of the most tangible ways that we can do that is by simply breaking the silence around it. So much of our society is built around this idea that we must look as if we have everything figured out and under control. I hear this a lot from young adults who are in college or graduate school or young professionals. In many ways, this generation of young adults have lived their entire lives, looking at curated images of what life is. And I think that only feeds the stigma. So, if I could ask your readership to do anything it would be to find spaces in which you could give others the gift of going second. And what I mean by that is, when you take on that courageous step of going first—of sharing your vulnerability or of sharing your struggle—you also give others the permission to do the same. You give them the gift of “going second” in that journey. I invite your readers to try that and to see how it feels—and to perhaps experience the beauty of that process and how it connects them with others.
DR. JENNY WANG is a Taiwanese American clinical psychologist and national speaker on the intersections of Asian American identity, mental health, and intergenerational and racial trauma. Her professional mission is to destigmatize mental health within the Asian community and empower Asian Americans to prioritize their own mental well-being. She spearheaded the Asians for Mental Health therapist directory (www.asiansformentalhealth.com) to connect individuals with culturally reverent mental health care for Asian American diasporas. She created the Instagram community Asians for Mental Health (@asiansformentalhealth), where she explores the unique ways in which Asian American identity impacts our mental health. Her first book, Permission to Come Home: Reclaiming Mental Health as Asian Americans was published by Grand Central Balance in May 2022. She is also a mental health advisory member of Wondermind and The Mental Health Coalition
KEVIN CHEN is a Master in Public Policy (MPP) candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and serves as a Co-Editor-in-Chief for the Asian American Policy Review. He served as a Teach for America teacher in Prince George’s County for 3 years teaching high school Algebra 1 and 2 at High Point High School before transitioning to consulting roles serving federal agencies with data analysis. Kevin graduated in 2014 from the University of Maryland, College Park with a double major in Finance and Accounting.