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Asian Shame

In some cases, suicide can look like homicide.

 Kevin Jesus Horacio/Unsplash
Source: Kevin Jesus Horacio/Unsplash

Asian suicide is often misunderstood in Western cultures and viewed from a narrow scope of mental health. Yet, what many don't recognize are cultural factors that can make someone of Asian ancestry not only susceptible to suicide but maintain the cultural belief that suicide is morally permissible.

Dating back at least 2,500 years, Confucius espoused his viewpoints about the need for Asian individuals to submit to the greater good of the collective group and doing so as a means of honoring yourself and others. This, in turn, would bring about stability and harmony. His viewpoints on this can be summed up in his Five Cardinal Rules, where you are to honor your superiors and strive towards unity and group cohesion. His beliefs started in China but spread throughout Japan, Korea and much of Asia. In addition to his beliefs, other philosophical, educational, political, and religious viewpoints coincided in reinforcing the need to preserve your cultural honor, even if it means killing yourself to do so.

Asian cultures are collectivist in nature, in which one's family, relatives, dead ancestors, hometown, province, region, and entire country are viewed to be impacted by one's actions. Bringing honor to yourself extends honor to all those connected to you (i.e. family, relatives, dead ancestors, hometown, etc.). Yet, to bring shame via any means (i.e. academic, professional, relational, behavioral, spiritual, emotional, etc.) means "losing face" and potentially dishonoring all those aspects of the collective—so much so that the Chinese have a saying that speaks to the depth of this belief, "So ashamed my ancestors of eight generations can even feel it." It's no wonder why Asians not only limit their emotional expression but also find ways to "suffer in silence" as dealing with internal pain would be preferred to disgracing your family and culture.

As a result, suicide is viewed very differently from Westerners as Confucius wrote in his Analects, "For gentlemen of purpose and men of ren while it is inconceivable that they should seek to stay alive at the expense of ren, it may happen that they have to accept death in order to have ren accomplished." In other words, death by suicide is the better option if done for the sake of upholding virtue or re-establishing one's honor.

In feudal Japan beginning in the 12th century, honor suicide became more pronounced and publicized with the samurai's code of "honor until death". Japanese Samurais would undergo what's known as Seppuku (ritualistic suicide by disembowelment with a sword), either to avoid capture by their enemies or a means to address one's shame: personal shame due to cowardice in battle, shame over a dishonest act, or any other disgraceful event. In the suicide, the belief is the samurai releases spirits that would regain their lost honor. But just as significant, if not more so, Seppuku was an important act to restore the samurai's entire family's honor and standing in society.

Present-day Asians, regardless of their differences in ethnicities, languages, and religions are still rooted in the shared values of collectivism, saving face, honor, and loyalty to one's family and culture.

All this to say, an Asian person who feels he or she has shamed the family tend to suffer in silence, develop mental health issues, or, in the most extreme instances, kill themselves with the belief that it will restore a sense of honor back to the family and extended cultural group. The cultural shame can be so pronounced that one could even kill themselves and stage it to appear like murder, to uphold cultural honor.

More recent examples include an Indian pharmacy intern in Georgia who was believed to have staged his own suicide to make it seem like he was murdered. Police say University of Georgia graduate Alvin Ahmed vanished July 16 after his shift at a local Publix and made it appear he was kidnapped as his car and groceries he’d bought for his mom were left in the parking lot. But police discovered a “Reminders” app that had notifications for Ahmed to turn off his watch and phone and discard them at a nearby restaurant and then walk to nearby lake. His body was found two days later at the lake with what was believed to a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head. No reason for the suicide was ever discovered. But because of his Indian background and the cultural need to suppress negative emotions or shameful incidents, cultural shame could have been the reasoning.

In 2011, a similar ruling occurred in San Diego with the bizarre death of 32-year-old Rebecca Zahaus, a Burmese woman dating millionaire Pharmaceuticals CEO, Jonah Shacknai. Zahaus was found hanging naked from an outside balcony. The San Diego Sheriff's Office determined it was a suicide as there was no DNA evidence to implicate Jonah Shacknai's brother, Adam Shacknai, who was staying at the nearby guest house. Adam Shacknai was also the one who discovered the body and called 911.

The death came with much scrutiny as family and friends of Zahaus believed she was murdered and was a devout Christian who would never kill herself. In addition, the timing of her death seemed very suspicious as it occurred two days after another tragedy at the mansion.

Zahaus was watching her boyfriend's 6-year-old son, Max Shacknai, when he somehow tripped and fell over an upstairs railing, plummeting to the ground below. The boy was hospitalized and by the night of Zahaus' death, Jonah Shacknai testified that he had left a voicemail for Zahaus indicating Max's precarious position (i.e. if he lived, he would never be able to walk and/or talk). The defense argued that the extreme feelings of guilt and remorse left Zahaus in an emotionally vulnerable state where suicide became her reality. But others disagreed and believe Adam played a role in her death.

And in April of 2018, a jury determined that Adam Shacknai, the brother of Zahau’s boyfriend, Jonah Shacknai, was legally responsible for her death. Consequently, the Sheriff's Department agreed to reopen the case. But one aspect that has received scant attention is the role of Zahaus' ethnic background and the impact of centuries of cultural shame undergirding her thought processes.

Zahaus was born in Burma (now Myanmar) and her family fled the country amid political and religious persecution where they moved to Nepal and Germany before resettling in the United States as an adult. Her Burmese background is one where the goal of saving face and maintaining honor is paramount. This was deeply triggered when Max died under her watch. Her sense of cultural shame for feeling overly responsible for Max's death would be in line with the Burmese and Asian tradition of shame (i.e. she has shamed herself, her family, and her culture for not being more vigilant).

Therefore, it would be conceivable for her to kill herself as a means to restore her sense of cultural honor. But due to her Christian beliefs, it would have to appear like murder as an explicit suicide would jeopardize her own spiritual conscience and just as importantly bring shame upon her Christian family. So a death that was staged to look like murder not only frees herself of cultural shame but preserves her conscience and her family's religious honor.

Related Stories:

Burmese Culture (Cultural Atlas)

Naked Suicide Abstract (Journal of American Academy of Psychiatry and Law)

Myanmar (Burmese) Collectivism

Indian Pharmacy student stages his suicide to look like Murder

San Diego Tribune


Sam also speaks on Asian cultural issues. Please learn more at his speaking website.