I am a (Southeast) Asian American Woman

By Guest Contributor: Mandy Diec

Trigger warning: this blog post discusses sexual harassment and assault.

It has been over three months since the series of mass shootings in Atlanta, Georgia that killed eight people, six of whom were Asian American women. I am still tired, I am still processing, and I am still in pain.

The systemic racism and misogyny that fuel acts of violence and discrimination against Asian Americans, especially Asian American women, is nothing new.

At the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), we honored Asian Pacific American Heritage and Mental Health Awareness Month by uplifting the diversity and strength of our communities and demonstrating how for Southeast Asian Americans, mental health needs have long existed before, and continue to be exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. This July, as we celebrate Minority Mental Health Month, we must recognize that anti-Asian racism takes an emotional, physical, and sometimes deadly toll on our communities; we must also recognize the unique refugee experiences and resilience of our Southeast Asian American community. The systemic racism and misogyny that fuel acts of violence and discrimination against Asian Americans, especially Asian American women, is nothing new. The mental health challenges for SEAAs, including disproportionate rates of major depression, PTSD, and other anxiety disorders, are nothing new. Our pain and trauma persist and must be addressed. Our healthcare system needs to account for the needs of our communities and include culturally and linguistically appropriate mental health access and services that are necessary for us to heal from the complex wounds of violence and displacement.

I am an Asian American woman and racialization and gendering have always been an intertwined part of my identity. Sometimes people say to me, “you don’t seem like an extrovert” — a seemingly harmless statement that actually gnaws at the exhaustion, fear, and agony of navigating a world that often sees me as submissive and meek while fetishizing and dehumanizing my being and body. I know that the threshold to seem outgoing and expressive is different if the starting assumption is that I am quiet and soft spoken. I know that if I overshare or come off too friendly, my demeanor may be mistaken as romantic or sexual interest or worse, an invitation to be harassed, assaulted, and disrespected. In truth, my experiences have taught me to be a careful extrovert, because I’ve learned to pause, stay quiet, and assess my surroundings first. This is my boundary, my survival instinct, my need for self-protection.

When I was a child, I was left alone in a car with a teenage boy who was the son of a family friend. In brief flashbacks, I remember that he unzipped his pants and pleasured himself in front of me. When I was an adolescent, I took the bus to school and while walking home one day was followed and attacked by a man who tried to solicit sexual favors. In my adult life, I spent a lot of time abroad and experienced sexual harassment and physical assault on repeated occasions, some experiences more traumatic and repressed than others, and often times in unfamiliar places. One of my first jobs out of college was as an administrative assistant for a woman who verbally abused me and expected me to clean the office, wash the dishes, and other tasks outside of my job description. In jobs that followed, I have had to stand up in meeting rooms to make sure my voice was heard and have been called “aggressive” for speaking openly about career growth and asking for adequate pay. Experiences of racism and sexism exist on a large and nuanced spectrum. Sometimes it is loud and glaring, like when a man forces himself onto you after a slew of racial slurs, and sometimes it’s quiet and microaggressive, like when a colleague or supervisor assumes that you never had an opinion in the first place.

I am an Asian American woman and oftentimes I do not feel safe or understood.

I am an Asian American woman and oftentimes I do not feel safe or understood. Now over a year into the pandemic, we know that most of the anti-Asian hate incidents reported have been directed at women and those numbers are almost certainly undercounted. Our country has a history of discriminatory policies against Asian women, our politicians reinforce racial and gendered stereotypes while law enforcement is quick to dismiss racial motives for violence, and our media is still rampant with cliché portrayals of the model minority, the tiger mom, the hypersexualized, the exoticized, the foreigner, the ‘other.’ Existing studies show that Asian Americans have the second highest suicide rate among young women of all races, where suicidal ideation is correlated with family conflict, perceived discrimination, and racial and ethnic identity. Asian American women also have high rates of anxiety and depression among other mental health challenges, but often underreport symptoms and suffer alone. Needless to say, Asian women also endure discrimination and violence in more intersectional ways, where sexual orientation, class, age, education, and other factors tie to different forms and levels of inequality. More funding and research need to go into better understanding the mental health needs and barriers to care for the diversity of Asian American women.

I am an Asian American woman, specifically a Southeast Asian American (SEAA) woman. My family and I came to this country as refugees and our lives are deeply affected by my family’s exposure to war, violence, and displacement. But because of cultural stigma and other social, linguistic, and systemic barriers, my family may never be able to address the trauma of those experiences and memories. Intergenerational trauma, where unaddressed trauma gets passed on through generations within families and communities, can affect parent-child relationships; lead to greater vulnerability to post-trauma stress disorder, depression, and anxiety; and create low self-esteem and difficulty sustaining healthy interpersonal relationships among younger generations. SEARAC’s latest mental health report, The Right to Heal, notes how SEAA refugees and their children can fail to comprehend their experiences and are left to make sense of their grief and loss in silence. Children of refugees may also be more likely to have experiences with violence and face more difficulty coping with challenges and stressors in life. For many of us, anti-Asian racism and misogyny is compounded by additional layers of trauma from our own experiences and/or our families’ experiences with war and violence.

For many of us, anti-Asian racism and misogyny is compounded by additional layers of trauma from our own experiences and/or our families’ experiences with war and violence.

I am a Southeast Asian American woman and this is my truth: I am still working to understand how intergenerational trauma, repeated sexual abuse, and other childhood and adolescent experiences have affected my mental health, self-esteem, relationships, and so many other parts of my life. Each day, I try to find the strength, courage, and persistence to face mental illness, seek care, and fight the stigma. Like my SEAA community, I am resilient. Culturally and linguistically appropriate mental health care is deeply important and the single most important factor affecting whether or not SEAA respondents in our report sought and continued to seek further care. I am fortunate enough to access mental health care in a space and with a support system that understands my cultural values, community history, and the intersections of my identity. I will overcome and learn to better cope with my experiences to be stronger than before, because mental health is health. I am worthy and I am deserving, and so is my community.

If you have a mental health crisis, immediate help is available. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to reach a 24-hour crisis center, text MHA to 741741, or go to the nearest emergency room.

If you have experienced sexual harassment or assault and/or looking for support, information, advice, or a referral, call the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), or access a live chat at www.rainn.org for 24/7 confidential crisis support.

For general information on mental health and to locate treatment services in your area, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Treatment Referral Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Find AANHPI mental health providers through the Asian Mental Health Collective and National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association.

Please consider supporting the following SEAA-serving community organizations in California that provide culturally and linguistically considerate mental health support and services, health education, and wellness programs:

Mandy Diec is SEARAC Director of California.

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