I don’t claim to be dead. But I do feel a bit Ghost of Christmas Future, cropping up to show you your options -- because if you’re the person I’m trying to reach, then this future is an afterlife you don’t believe exists.
Not so many years ago, I spent a few long seconds on a railing of the Golden Gate Bridge, then a few long days in mandatory hold at the county hospital.
Here’s the thing: Unless you yourself were living the same puzzle, I doubt you’d have been able to tell. As a daughter of hardworking, upstanding Asian immigrants, I kept my nails clean and my shoes shined. Summa cum laude? Check. Top-ranked graduate program? Check. Fiscally responsible? Check. Smile and banter? Check.
This is not the profile of a suicide. Unless, that is, you are Asian American. Psychologists at University of California, Davis, are finding that -- unlike every other racial demographic -- Asian American college students suffering from severe depression and suicidal ideation don’t necessarily “present” with falling grades, sub-par performance. Instead, if there’s a correlation, it may be in the opposite direction. High-achievers, low resilience.
How to explain this? Utter the words "model minority" within earshot of a university and someone will trot out the usual suspects: i.e., white America makes room in its racial paradigms only for successful Asians; the rest of us might as well be invisible. Is this true? And does it make failure more unthinkable? Arguably. But did I try to step off a bridge because the only Asians I see on TV wear lab coats? Please.
Did I try to step off a bridge because the only Asians my family, my community see wear lab coats? Because no amount of effort, accomplishment, or good faith could shield me from being called worthless? Well, yes.
Better dream of nothing but prestige for the family; better want nothing but what’s practical; better be perfect because any mistake is disobedience; better not question because resistance is ingratitude; better get used to your permanent inadequacy. Clothes worn, meals eaten, air breathed -- all these were filial obligations to be repaid, in denominations of selfhood.
Mine is not a unique upbringing; not hardly. Which is why this column. Seeing no reason to believe that future outcomes would do anything but follow past performance, I left the psych hold unable to assure myself that I wouldn’t be back -- on a ledge, beside a bottle, in a tub someday.
Yet I’ve not been back since, and can say with awe that I no longer finger the brink of my life compulsively for comfort.
Had any shrink, friend, or fortune teller tried to console me then, that things would change, that this future -- my present -- would know such peace, I’d have slapped his hand away: Don’t palm off your cheap platitudes on me. But I think, if Dickens were to send me back now to visit my sixteen-year-old self, she might believe me.
So I’m here to help if I can, whether that means holding up my lightbulb moments for you to consider, or simply providing a safe place to compare notes. Here’s who I think you may be: second-generation Asian American, raised with sights set for Harvard, played the piano or violin, practiced math problems over summer breaks, and -- Why can’t you be like your cousin? What will people say? You make me ashamed to be your mother -- used to having things like that echo in your head.
Someone will yell at me here for generalizing or stereotyping or plain for making Asian immigrants look bad. Sure, every family surprises -- is more or less than Form -- in some way. Including mine. And if none of this rings true to the family that raised you or the families you’ve seen, congratulations. But if you find yourself here, asking questions of an Asian immigrants’ daughter because you, too, fondle the end of a rope, then I believe we have more, important things in common than not. Hum a few notes, and I may know your song.
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Comments, questions, or stories can be posted below -- or sent privately to Sam at aamms[at]hyphenmagazine[dot]com.