“We have this saying in Chinese: If you don’t gamble, you don’t know how lucky you are.” — Anonymous Chinese gambler
This strong belief in luck, fate, or fortune is part of the driving force behind Asians and gambling. It’s no coincidence there is such a high proportion of Asians gambling. Deep cultural factors not only encourage gambling but discourage seeking help when it becomes compulsive or addictive.
Research shows Asians in the U.S. have a disproportionate number of pathological gamblers (i.e. addicted) as compared to the general American population. According to Dr. Timothy Fong, an associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA and co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program, the rate of gambling addiction ranges from 6 percent to nearly 60 percent, depending on the specific Asian ethnicity (Southeast Asian refugees scoring highest) as opposed to the national rate of 1 to 2 percent.
There are a number of cultural factors that influence gambling among Asians here in the U.S. When we trace the roots back to Asia, you can see Asian cultures view gambling much more as a social activity than mainstream American society does.
- “...people in China... they do not [have] problem gambling even if they play Mahjong. You know, it seems like a gambling activity but there is more social activity involved. Social activity element in the whole activity.”
- “When I was 14 or 15 years old, I was in India. There is a festival called 'Diwali.' [On that festival] people come to our house to play cards. It is [part of] our culture. During that time all my family members meet in one place and they enjoy together playing cards and other games and that's when I became aware of it. That time I played only cards and I played for money.”
- “I think Koreans are more exposed to risk of gambling. We have big annual events twice a year. New Year’s Holiday and Thanksgiving Day when all our family members gather for big meals and holiday. We often tend to play some card games. We sometimes end up putting some money into the games as well. That increases the chance of having a motivation to start gambling.”
Another significant role is the emphasis and high regard Asian cultures place on superstition, numerology, and the notion of “luck” compared to Western culture. As a result, winning or losing carries a much heavier sense of identification as it can be perceived as a reflection on self. “Asians also promote themes of good fortune, are superstitious, and feel that fate is predetermined by the ancestors, i.e., a person who is ‘lucky’ in gambling is considered to be blessed from the gods," says Fong.
Because gambling is a form of socialization for Asians, casinos in the U.S. have capitalized on this by marketing aggressively to Asians — especially Asian immigrants — by offering Asian entertainers, ethnic food, free transportation, and even card dealers who speak Asian languages. At the Commerce Casino outside Los Angeles, Asians make up an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the clientele. In Connecticut, the Foxwoods Casino has a version of its website written in both Chinese and Vietnamese.
"With gambling, there's no language barrier," said Chien-Chi Huang, Asian Community Program Specialist for the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling. In addition, experts say casinos specifically give immigrants a sense of solidarity from the hardships of acculturating to a new country by filling a deep psychological and social void.
“For Asian immigrants, it is often difficult to find a place where they fit in, but casinos and card clubs can provide the sense of community they need,” says Michael Liao, whose Taiwanese stepfather accumulated $40,000 in gambling debt before seeking help.
Fong adds the immigrant mentality of risk-taking and fearlessness may also make them more vulnerable to pathological gambling, “Folks who come here to take a chance and come to America are more likely to gamble because immigrating to America from your homeland is a huge gamble in and of itself. We can’t prove this but most likely they have some kind of biological predisposition to gambling in general, in life. It makes it very easy for them to go to the casino when they get here even though they may be very poor.”
While gambling may be socially acceptable among Asians, losing control and having a problem with it is not. In addition to cultural shame, the gambling addict also stands to lose his integrity within the community.
“If people know he is a serious gambler and lost lots of money, that’s not good. People won’t trust him and don’t want to do business together. So although they won’t say anything in front of him, people get to know he is a gambler and won’t work with him. Also, the gambler won’t tell others how much he has lost and how badly he was addicted.”
To overcome this stigma and ameliorate the shame associated with gambling addiction, Asian advocates are trying to change the perception that this is not a moral issue but one of mental health. In addition, as therapists, we also have to change the relationship that Asian gamblers place on the significance of money.
Bill Lee, a recovering Chinese gambling addict, sums this up best in his book, Born to Lose: Memoirs of a Compulsive Gambler: “I grew up validating myself through money, and like my parents who argued day and night over the lack of it, I placed too much emphasis on it.”
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Sobrun-Maharaj, Amritha, Ph.D., Rossen, Fiona, Ph.D., Wong, Anita Shiu Kei Wong, The Impact of Gambling and Problem Gambling on Asian Families and Communities in New Zealand.
Kushigemachi, Todd, Asian Americans Combating the Gambling Addiction.
Wong, Bill, Born to Lose: Memoirs of a Compulsive Gambler.