Sometimes, I wish we were all more open and honest about our intentions and our thoughts because there are things that need to be spoken about.
While I can’t say for other ethnicities, I can say for a fact that as an Chinese Asian American we don’t talk much (if at all) about what we think, what we feel, and especially when something is wrong. It’s a deep seated problem that goes back to “saving face” in the Asian culture. You don’t speak of it because you don’t want to shame your family and your lineage. It’s a very important concept. Face-management is much more than just impression management (or “protecting and enhancing your ego”) in the Western sense. Of course, no one — regardless of culture—wants to look bad or have their ego bruised. But the Chinese concept goes beyond the narrow Western concept of face (and is perhaps closer to the Arab concept of “honor”).
What of the results of this holy save face tradition? Disastrous and deafening silence on important issues. Especially when it came down to talking about serious topics like coming out about one’s sexuality, mental illness, suicide, and sexual assault of the like. These are taboo topics that one never brings to light in fear of dishonor and shame on the family reputation of how they are viewed from the public. Because “面子” is important enough that is goes beyond money, love, friendship, and even the lives of children. It’s worth lying and risking everything for.
I thought I might have been above all that, that I had hardened my heart from things like that. Yet at the end, witnessing true shame and anger on my father’s face was more wounding than I would’ve imagined.
High school was a cacophony of emotions, but mine took a hit going into my third year. Things went south harrowingly fast and I hit rock bottom come spring of my junior year. My relationship with my parents were strained to their capacity and school was unbearable. I can not even begin to express the feelings of true depression only that it felt like being stuck in a hole I couldn’t climb out of and I was slowly drowning to death: Suffocating in my own misery. The constricting fingers of hate, exhaustion, and doubt would cling to my neck strangling me until I lost my will to fight. I started self-harming and thoughts of suicide evaded my mind like a disease. I wanted it to end. I didn’t want to feel so miserable every time I woke up, I was so tired of life. I was 17.
School eventually intervened and brought my parents in. It was mortifying. When the events and details of my unraveled life were brought to light, my mother’s heart broke and my father could only frown in deep shame while shaking his head. I had never seen him look so betrayed before. I thought ‘it was my fault’. He of course denied that anything was wrong and I was perfectly fine, there was no way I was doing such distasteful stuff like self-harming because it simply doesn’t happen to families like ours. I wondered how he could be ashamed of something I couldn’t control?
We weren’t raised to talk about our feelings, instead we were taught to keep our heads down and bottle up our emotions. Don’t become a burden or else your family will lose face. How many times have I heard “你真的很丟臉…” you’ve lost face, child… and as a result disrespected my family when all I needed was someone to talk to? Someone to open up to.
Even years after this incident my parents and I still never talk about this pretending it never happened and I often find myself thinking was all of this grief worth protecting this intangible and abstract Asian standard we call “face”?