- Ashley Chen
Stories I Tell Myself to Sleep
Updated: May 14, 2021
TW: depression, suicide
Many Asian-Americans struggle with their mental health for a multitude of reasons. They can be similar for some yet totally different for others. I’m only able to speak about my own mental health, but I’ve always hoped that what I’ve gone through can help others come out through their struggles. Forgive me if I come off a bit awkward. A trip down memory lane isn’t easy.
When I was in fourth grade, I was made aware of this phrase: “Asian parenting.” At the time, I had no idea what this referred to. The rumors and the narratives that came from my classmates were that “Asian parenting” referred to how parents required that their kids go to extra math classes, forced them to do robotics clubs, sat in on their piano classes, and whatnot. I told myself, my parents aren’t like this, but they weren’t perfect.
My parents made me painfully aware of their expectations when my first trimester report card had not one, but two “2” marks in the writing section. When I saw my report card, I wasn’t scared of showing my parents I got a “2.” My teacher said, “it just means you have room for improvement.” My Asian parents thought otherwise. It meant that I was not “meeting expectations.”
From that day forward, I would remind myself that “there’s no such thing as perfect parents,” which my fourth grade self contorted into, “my parents are perfect people because they have imperfections.” It was a spontaneous thought one day when I was walking back to the classroom from recess, a thought that I reminded myself of everyday. I would also contemplate what expression was on my face. I attempted to smile every second of everyday, at least in my head. I double-checked my face muscles to make sure they weren’t being pulled down. Nothing made me sad, and I wanted my face to reflect that.
My thoughts were fairly toxically positive back then. Every time my dad yelled at me, I believed it was well-intentioned. “It’s for my own good,” I recited. Unfortunately, my dad is a hurtful person and gnawed away at my lasting smile. However, I pinpointed this event as the inception of my lasting contempt for my dad.
He took it upon himself to improve my writing skills, a proposal which I actively rejected time and time again. Teachers always make academic honesty crystal clear. I took pride in my work and never accepted help from someone who was disappointed in it. Nevertheless, my dad intertwined himself into half of the book reports I wrote in elementary school. Eventually, he stopped caring because my mom got me a writing tutor instead.
Fast-forward three years to seventh grade, or as I liked to call it, “the one real year of middle school.” Sixth grade was a transition year from elementary to middle school, while eighth grade was the transition from middle school to high school. Out of all three terrible years, seventh grade was by far the worst.
Coming out of sixth grade, I was in a place of social isolation. During the beginning of the year, I sat by myself at a table. Occasionally, a wanderer would join me, until this table was filled with a ton of guys playing video games. I sat there and ate in silence, offering one or two lines during the whole lunch session, without really getting to know ten other guys sitting at the table.
It wasn’t like I had anywhere better to sit. My alternative was sitting with a group of girls that seemed to cover up my presence with their gossip. Though I never actively participated in conversations about Brawl Stars or League, it was a powerful enough distraction from all the other noise in my head that would bother me about how superficial all these people were. Their worries were about their rankings in a video game or how they only scored a 93% on the most recent test.
Sooner or later, I relieved myself of the task of making friends. I needed someone who I could spill all my thoughts to, someone who would accept me for having a pessimistic outlook on life and offer me solace whenever I needed it.
There were people like that. A vast majority of them could relate one way or another. My social anxiety might have gotten the better of me. What I didn’t want was for anyone to find me bothersome. I didn’t want other people to feel like I was a burden. I needed someone who would be willing to open their arms and warmly welcome me to spill my emotions. No one did that for me, but I don’t blame them. I removed traces of my loneliness by surrounding myself with people that were strangers to me.
I have many qualms with the things I heard from people I had classes with and shared similar experiences with. One thing that bothered me every time I heard it was people saying “I want to die” because they received a “below expectation” grade on a test. Or maybe something else was happening in their lives. No matter what, I could hear it from more than two tables away as if it was just a part of their normal lingo. We refer to it as “gaslighting” now. Making “I want to die” a part of our normal slang detracts from productive conversations of people who actually might be considering suicide.
The more hateful thing I heard and saw was “kys,” or in its not acronymic form, “kill yourself.” Rarely no one says it, for a very obvious reason. Whoever thought saying “kys” was funny seriously needs an education. Sometimes we will make vile “jokes” like this without realizing the gravity of our words. After a couple minutes of registering what just happened, I came to two conclusions. First, what if I actually decided to kill myself? Would I be making this person’s life better by committing suicide? At least then I would stop living hopelessly for myself and doing some good with myself. Second, this person is not funny and just hateful.
However, this experience did give me some self-validation. No matter how lonely I was at school, no matter how horrible my parents treated me, at least the very little words I would speak in a day wouldn’t hurt others. Perhaps social isolation allowed me to not follow this awful trend. Or maybe it was that I had become so careful about what other people would think of me that I just shut up entirely.
I did find my people after middle school, as I told myself I would. I will spend hours on Messenger chatting with them about all the sensical and nonsensical stuff, all the good things, the bad, and everything in-between.
Jump another three years, and we end up in 2020. A lot happened last year. I went from having hope that there was fixing of my dad’s haughtiness, arrogance, pride, unrelenting, abhorrent nature to having the worst episode of my depression, with mountains and valleys in between. Before my AP Physics test, my dad made it his sacred duty to tie down every single formula and concept to the point of complete understanding in my head before taking the exam. It also happens that making mistakes is against his sacred law, so I had to listen to a perfect specimen of a high-expectation, angry, uncontrollable, Asian parent demean me for hours each day.
There was one day I decided to talk back at him, though. That day, I was sitting on a white sofa staring at a TV with a OneNote page open, listening to my dad ramble about how come I didn’t know how to do such a “simple” problem on a lecture powerpoint. My tears started falling because I was frustrated but had to come up with the right answer. I would offer up a wrong answer and receive a mouthful for how unintelligent I am while my dad would backtrack to the very beginning of how physics works to tutor me to the right answer. And I still didn’t come up with the right answer. My dad eventually ended up with, “you don’t know any physics,” and I fired back at him.
I’ve forgotten that sensation already. I don’t remember what it’s like to yell halfway across the living room to tell my dad what he said was both inaccurate and hurtful. There were many things that crossed my threshold of inaccurate and hurtful but not his. I could only tell him off if he was yelling where everyone in the whole house could hear. Or maybe if he had said something extreme, like “you’ve learned nothing at all this year,” then I would have some basis to argue against him.
I don’t know when I became so powerless against him. And I’m not so sure anymore if it’s because I’m powerless or that I want to avoid conflict. When I’m emotionally overwhelmed and drowning in tears, I don’t really have the capability of coming up with a formulated argument to support myself against someone who keeps making me feel like a worthless being. I’ve cried in front of my parents many times though. Through those insurmountable number of times I’ve lost myself in front of them, I have been able to have a semi-clear mind a few times in the recent years.
It took quite a number of years to realize that my doesn’t deserve a second shred of my respect simply because he barely treats me with any. The one shred of respect I do give him is simply disengaging myself from his hostility. Arguing back is complicated because there’s always a chance I’ll lose the argument and feel even more helpless. I’m very bad at arguing, despite doing policy debate for two years. Perhaps I’ve developed instant pre-debate round prep all in my head, but the logical outcome was always “don’t talk back.”
My parents kept telling me to verbally communicate what I wanted to be changed in this family. I’ve always been highly skeptical of this line. I’ve done it a couple times when my parents have yelled at my sister, only because I still garnered some confidence to stand up for my sister. Most times, my parents would say I don’t know what’s going on and should just stop interrupting them. One time, I pulled a powerful line out of a magic hat: “a discussion is never about who’s right or wrong; rather, it’s allowing your ideas to be heard.” That was the one time my parents listened to me, not that they actually took it to heart because what credibility does an eighth grader have?
The one time I did change, the one time I talked back at my dad, was the only time. There weren’t many opportunities to build up courage and confidence to stand-up. I made mistakes in-between. Possibly it was the egregious mistakes such as not wanting to take another physics lesson from him ever again especially when he would say “you’ve learned absolutely nothing this year. You don’t know how to do anything.” Having just a bit of confidence was taking one step forward but making mistakes and having my dad capitalize on those mistakes was just taking two steps back.
I don’t believe I’ve found the surefire method to counteract my dad’s pettiness. I’m silent because I don’t believe they support my voice, even if my problems slowly tear me apart. I’ve proven relentless, though I’m not quite sure how long it will last. Being stuck at home with my mom all day isn’t exactly helping. At the end of the day, I’m not sure what I should do to improve my relationship with my parents and what my parents should do to improve their relationship with me. I’m really stuck in a stalemate.
All I know is that now I have friends by my side to help me through my hardships. And that’s all I need.