I grew up poor but never knew just how I poor was until I hit middle school.
In elementary school, my day started with getting breakfast from the cafeteria window, where I got to choose a cereal box along with a small carton of milk from our cafeteria lady, Angie. She had short curly silver hair and always happily provided us our breakfast, along with a great smile.
For lunch, I lined up with the rest of my classmates to get lunch from Angie, too. Each of us carried a small envelope with our names on it.
I didn’t realize, though, that my envelope was different from the other students. While other students had money in their envelopes with cash to pay for the weekly price of school lunch, mine was empty. Instead, my envelope had my name on it along with five checked boxes for every day of the week – Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday –that I was able to receive free lunch.
We really weren’t planning to talk about Priyanka Chopra so soon after our last gchat conversation. That all changed when our Twitter friend Sharanya Manivannan (pre-order her book!) pointed us towards the controversy surrounding the actress’s photo shoot for the cover of Conde Nast Traveller India. It features Chopra in tank top that’s been described as “insensitive,” “xenophobic,” and “racist” against refugees and other immigrants and we immediately knew that we had to discuss it.
For this year’s AAPI Heritage Month, I will take each day to pull one of my favourite posts or pieces from the archives highlighting some aspect of AAPI history and heritage, and add to it a short commentary and reflection. I invite you to check back every day for this #ReappropriateRevisited month-long feature!
Yesterday, I revisited one of my most popular listicles regarding mental health and mental illness within the AAPI community (Mental Health Awareness Week: Top 10 Myths about Asian Americans and Mental Health). This listcle reflects how most of us popularly conceptualize the issue of AAPI mental health: through statistics about high rates of depression and suicide among women and on college campuses. Studies clearly support a focus on subpopulations of AAPI women and youth as particularly at-risk with regard to unaddressed mental illness. However, our persistent framing of the AAPI mental health issue only through these two lenses ignores two other particularly vulnerable AAPI populations: Southeast Asian American refugees and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders.
I remember attending an AAPI conference early in my career as an activist and blogger (which conference it was has long since left my memory) wherein I was first introduced to the need to disaggregate epidemiological data along ethnic lines to reveal ethnicity-specific disparities that specifically impact Southeast Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. At the time, all data for AAPI were lumped together, and the relatively small proportion of Southeast Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders within our community masked these patterns. At the time of the conference, disaggregated data were rare: now, studies have confirmed alarming public health issues for Southeast Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Only when I started writing on the topic of mental health — and therefore read a number of primary source material — did I learn about the scope of this issue.
With regard to depression and suicide, a shockingly high number of Southeast Asian American refugees live with symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, and depression. Rates of suicide ideation and attempts are significantly higher for Southeast Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders — particularly among youth and when compounded with queer identities — compared to the average rate for Asian Americans or the national average as a whole.
Yet, when we talk about AAPI mental health, we rarely ever include in our conversations meaningful discussion about Southeast Asian Americans or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders. Why is that? Is there a certain amount of reinforced privilege in focusing our conversation on AAPI mental health entirely to the exclusion of our Southeast Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander brethren?