"Crazy Rich Asians" and the Asian American Psyche, Part II

A great movie and mental health booster for the Asian American psyche.

Posted Aug 18, 2018

 Warner Bros. Pictures
Source: Warner Bros. Pictures

Part II of a two part series. See Part I here.

Belonging remains elusive for many Asian Americans, yet is vital for mental health.

In both South Asians and East Asians, satisfaction with relationships is positively correlated with subjective well-being (Galinha et al, 2016). Thao found that family life stress outweighed acculturative stress in producing depressive symptoms in Vietnamese women who immigrated to South Korea for marriage (Thao, 2016). Low neuroticism is a better predictor of subjective well-being in the West, although satisfaction with relationships produces happiness for most of us. (Recall Grant Study director George Vaillant’s summary of its conclusions: “Happiness is love, full stop.”) Satisfaction with relationships typically includes friends, family and romantic relations. But I think dissatisfaction with cultural belonging also creates particular distress for Asian Americans. Asian Americans score consistently higher on collectivism and lower on individualism compared to other Americans (in Benet-Martínez et al, 2003), and thus relational concerns predominate. As psychologist Eunkook Suh writes, “the self becomes context sensitive in the service of the need to belong.” (Suh, 2007) And an overly context sensitive self (a self that adjusts itself to ‘fit in’ with a social context) is likely responsible for lower levels of happiness, mediated by excessive concern for others’ emotions and thoughts, and a less individualized and idiosyncratic means of evaluating the self. Conflicts might be suppressed or silenced in an effort to maintain face or not disturb relationships or status, and suppressed conflicts do not typically promote subjective well-being. I have seen this occur with mental health issues, addiction, gender orientation, and other relational conflicts in Asian American families, though silencing clearly occurs in the broader culture as well. Nothing shuts down affect in many Asian Americans faster than an identity/relational conflict, IMHO. My personal view is that our liberation as Asian Americans, and liberation of our feelings, including joy, depends both on comfort with our voices and a sense of belonging. Social media helps perhaps with the former, but less so with the latter.

I called our sense of collective suffering “Asian American han” in that previous blog post, but another related term from Korea, “jeong,” is quite relevant to the sense of communal identity and belonging. Jeong is “the emotional and psychological bond between Koreans…Akin to the lack of differentiation of the mind from the body, the self and others are also integrally related.” (Uhm, 2014) This feeling of interdependence and connection shapes many Asian American lives, and also leads to both the joys and distresses of belonging and not belonging.

Actual experiences of belonging and acceptance are antidotes for us – along with heaps and heaps of self-compassion, relationship and therapy, by the way – making Crazy Rich Asians medicine for our community. But because the kind of belonging and inclusion that many of us desire is such a transcendent goal and vision, there’s a lot of dissatisfaction along the way. Is this vision even attainable? Only time will tell – but it’s going to take a lot of effort and attention. Personally, I’m optimistic on the possibility, because I’ve seen it work, however imperfectly. And when it does work, it feels really, really good.

Asian Americans have also reported lower self-esteem and life satisfaction than Caucasian Americans, consistent with comparisons of collectivistic and individualistic cultures (Benet-Martínez et al, 2003). But Asian Americans and Caucasians share many similarities in the personality traits predicting subjective well-being. Agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and low neuroticism are all correlated with subjective well-being and satisfaction with friendships for both groups, for example. 

Asian American belonging concerns propel online anger at representation

There may be a common pathway to the dissatisfied streak that gets expressed online. In my experience, traumatized individuals are especially sensitive to relational/belonging concerns. There can be significant intergenerational trauma in Asian Americans, coupled with experiences of discriminatory trauma. Many families have experienced war, revolution, and refugee experiences, as well as immigration, economic hardship, and discrimination — on top of the challenges of physical and mental health, and relational trauma within families. Even if personally unaffected by these traumas, members of these groups can be concerned and bear emotional weight and concern for the traumatized. Trauma can shatter the self, and demands relational healing – so belonging concerns are elevated. Traumatic experiences can also forge group identity, similarly elevating belonging concerns.

Asians and Asian Americans tend to be more concerned with relationship maintenance, and tend to lean collectivistic rather than individualistic, also underscoring the relational component of identity (the “social being” as I put it in my book Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks). In the individualistic American context, many people complain of disconnection and loneliness. Our previous Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, declared an “epidemic of loneliness.” Dissatisfaction with relationship, belonging and acceptance, combined with identities especially dependent on relationship, can escalate dissatisfaction online. As I’ve written, though, it’s questionable if the online experience can satisfy either the needs for belonging and acceptance, or propel significant personal and societal change.

Asian American Perfectionism

It’s been noted many of us have a perfectionistic streak. Witness the Tiger Mother phenomenon of high levels of critique of children. While according to research, it’s not the most prominent parenting strategy, it produces significant negative effects such as depression and loneliness. (“Battle Hymn of the Teddy Bear Psychiatrist”) When you have been imprinted with self-critique and been made to feel dissatisfied with yourself, you might be primed to react with criticism of the external world as well, and simultaneously press for the relational experiences that were lacking for you in youth.

Asian American Pessimism

Asian Americans have been found to be more pessimistic than Whites, while also sharing similar levels of optimism with Whites (Chang, 1996). This pessimism is postulated to have some positive adaptive effects, in motivating pessimists to work harder to achieve their goals. But pessimism colors expectations and reactions, again priming some Asian Americans to place a negative filter on the world, and fueling critique. Pessimism can also lower expectations, keeping one grounded and attuned to the work that needs to be done to deliver success. Suh writes, echoing matriarch Eleanor’s views on the American pursuit of happiness, “(b)eing exceptionally happy, therefore, could be perceived as being overly preoccupied with the self while ignoring the central cultural mandates of self-improvement and adjustments to obligations and relationships.” Yup, stereotypically, we might always feel like we have to do our “homework” to “get it right.” (Chang’s paper is 20 years old, though, so may be dated in its observations, though it matches many of my observations.)

There is certainly a great deal of diversity in Asian America, so none of these ideas should be considered representative or stereotypical. I’m glad that social media allows us to hear many voices, and break the silence around so many issues, including mental health and racism. But it’s important that when we make the music of our souls, we’re guided by the knowledge that despite our differences of class, race, ethnicity, culture or gender, we share a common humanity, in our vulnerability and everyday physical, emotional, cultural and spiritual struggles. Also, our needs for relationship, love, knowledge and wisdom. The more we can give these to each other, the better off we will all be.

A movie like Crazy Rich Asians is a great place to continue forging those understandings and bonds across cultures. But speaking personally, I won’t be fully happy until a Hmong or Laotian American love story gets Hollywood backing!

See you at the movies!

(c) 2018, Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.

You might also like: 8Asians review of Crazy Rich Asians

WHAT WAS REALLY HAPPENING IN CRAZY RICH ASIANS’ PIVOTAL MAHJONG SCENE by Jeff Yang

New Yorker: Jiayang Fan's "How to watch Crazy Rich Asians like an Asian American"

And just for kicks: 36 Views of San Francisco, a poetry and photography project about San Francisco and the artist in times of change

References

Galinha IC, Garcia-Martin MA, Oishi S, Wirtz D, Esteves F. (2016) Cross-cultural comparison of personality traits, attachment security, and satisfaction with relationships as predictors of subjective well-being in India, Sweden, and the United States. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 47(8) 1033-1052

Thao NTP. (2016) Different effects of acculturative stress and family life stress on depressive symptoms among married Vietnamese immigrant women in South Korea. Asian Social Work and Policy Review 10:225-236

Benet-Martínez V, Karakitapoglu-Aygün Z. (2003) The interplay of cultural syndromes and personality in predicting life satisfaction: comparing Asian Americans and European Americans. J Cross-Cultural Psychology 34(1):38-60

Suh EM. (2007) Downsides of an overlycontext-sensitive self: implications from the culture and subjective well-being research. J Personality 75:6, 1321-1343

Uhm, SU (2014) Mental illness from an Asian American perspective. In Neuropsychology of Asians and Asian Americans, eds. Davis JM D’Amato RC. Springer, 2014.

Chang EC. (1996) Evidence for the cultural specificity of pessimism in Asians vs Caucasians: a test of a general negativity hypothesis. Person. Individ. Diff 21(5):819-822