Heritage, Hardship, and Healing: A Taiwanese American's Perspective

June 4, 2024

Guest Blog

Wendy Wang, MPP, Chief Public Policy and Advocacy Officer, Sycamores

Aswe celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month this May, I paused toreflect on what it means to me to be a 1.5 generation Taiwanese American femaleprofessional working in the public community mental health sector. Havingimmigrated to the United States with my parents when I was approximately 4years old, I grew up in a three-generation household. From an early age inpublic school, I knew that I was “different” from other kids because I had toattend ESL class to learn English. My earliest memories of first grade includedan instance of a first grader making fun of me (he ended up in the red “timeout” box outside the classroom after I told my grandmother). Growing up inFremont, California, there were a handful of other students of Asian Americandescent at my elementary school. Seeing language proficiency as a pathwaytowards academic success, my family pushed me to speak English and lessMandarin; however, when my English improved quickly, my family worried that I wasrapidly “forgetting” my Chinese heritage. The balance between English masteryand retention of Mandarin was one dimension of navigating the tension between being neither truly “American” or truly“Taiwanese.” This tension was more pronounced living in a three-generationhousehold where each generation had its own interpretation of expectations andwhat was acceptable within cultural norms and what was too “Americanized.” As Igrew older, I would slowly learn to be at peace with being neither fullyAmerican or fully Taiwanese but rather a fusion of both worlds and cultures.

When I consideredthe lessons instilled by my family during my childhood, the core principleswere: 1) Work hard; 2) Keep your head down; and 3) Do not complain. Thisdefault mantra was never explicit but lived out daily through the decades. Theseprinciples are ingrained in my psyche that even today, it is challenging tolend voice or articulate what is important to me without considering thecollective family or others. Another familial core value I inherited is thateducation is the pathway for advancement as both my mother and my maternalgrandmother never had the opportunity to attend a four-year college. This was arare occurrence for their generations in the context of gender expectations inTaiwan. Yet, this never deterred my mother and maternal grandmother from theirlove of learning and reading and instilling this love in me. This would propelme to get my four-year college education and go on to graduate school. As Ilook back now, I owe a debt of gratitude to my family, especially my mother andgrandmother who set the foundation for my lifelong pursuit of learning and mydrive towards great excellence.

Looking backon my childhood and young adult years, I do not recall my multi-generationalfamily explicitly talking about cultural norms and expectations, assimilation/acculturationor mental health and well-being. Tensions tended to lie dormant and neveremerged explicitly at the kitchen table. I can only recall 1-2 instances ofextended family members’ mental health challenges alluded to in whisperedconversations. This would be a distant, yet key memory when I struggled withmental health challenges right after my father’s devastating car accident andhe was hospitalized for 3-4 weeks. In the second half of my second semester ofmy last year in graduate school, my dad’s car accident compounded my own stressand pressures shouldered by my family. While pushed to my breaking point, Iwould finish the school year well and graduate, but at great expense to my ownmental well-being. The year and half following my father’s car accident wouldbe a defining period. The mental health symptoms that ensued brought me to oneof the darkest points in my life. Few people know about this season because upuntil this point, it was simply too embarrassing or too painful to speak andarticulate into words. During that time, I struggled to understand my mentalhealth symptoms and the implications, how mental health intersected with myfaith, and numerous questions about when this dark season would be over---all thistested my resolve. After this challenging season, I gained a deeper faith,greater resiliency, basic understanding about the importance of thepsycho-social-physical-spiritual model for mental wellness, and greater empathyfor others. Little did I know that this life altering season was the foundationfor the start of my career in advocacy in the community mental health sectoryears later. As the years have elapsed, culturally responsive andlinguistically appropriate care and the ongoing efforts to address stigma inhistorically underserved communities remain two of the issues that are very dearto my heart.

This May, ascommunities across the nation celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage andMental Health Awareness, it represents another opportunity to reflect on themental health disparities facing the Asian American Native Hawaiian PacificIslander communities, especially after COVID-19 and the increased anti-Asian sentiments.Nearly 50% of Asian American Pacific Islanders have encountered some aspect ofrace-based hate last year.[1]  Tragically, 20% of Asian American adults havebeen victimized by hate incident or hate crime.[2] Amongstthe Asian Americans who search for mental health support, approximately 42% ofNative Hawaiian Pacific Islanders and 31% of Asian Americans face challenges toaccess including cost and awareness of options.[3]While not comprehensive, the above data offers brief insight into the necessarylong term work ahead---a renewed commitment to address specific barriersencountered by Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islanders so that theycan receive timely access to mental health treatment and support.

[1] Stop AAPI Hate.(2024, May 1). Stop AAPI Hate Launches ‘Spread AAPI Love’ Storytelling Campaignand New Survey Data for AAPI Heritage Month [press release]. https://stopaapihate.org/2024/05/01/stop-aapi-hate-launches-spread-aapi-love/

[2] Tan, C., Lo, F.,Ocampo, C., Galán, M. & Ponce, N. A. 2024. Piecing the Puzzle of AANHPIMental Health: A Community Analysis of Mental Health Experiences of AsianAmericans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders in California. Los Angeles,CA: AAPI Data and UCLA Center for Health Policy Research

[3] Ibid.

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