Balancing Eastern and Western cultural values for mental well-being

An Asian woman is sitting outside in the sun in deep thought thinking about balancing Eastern and Western cultural values for mental health.

To empower Asian American women to prioritize mental health, it's crucial to better understand the impact of language barriers on accessing mental health support in their community. | Photo Credit: ©AmpYang Images/Adobe Stock

Balancing Eastern and Western cultural values for mental well-being

A personal perspective on mental health as Asian Americans

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, we witnessed a surge of anti-Asian hate crimes and violence, as attackers unloaded a barrage of verbal or physical assaults on many members of our community, Asian elders in particular. It is no wonder that it is hard to make up space with an Asian body. Our bodies have made us targets from the beginning of our existence in the West”

Dr. Jenny Wang

Like many immigrants, my parents came into this country not knowing the language or the culture. This was not a place they would call home but a land of ventures. They wandered into unfamiliar terrain, the roads were unmarked, and the odds of success were sceptical. My father was not tempted by the promises of the American dream, for the taste of milk and honey came second to survival.

I must eat. I must feed my family of four. I must take care of my elderly parents. I must survive. Growing up, we spoke predominately Mandarin, and although my capabilities surpassed the linguistic competency needed to order food at a Chinese restaurant, I would only consider myself somewhat fluent. Despite our dialect flowing room to room through everyday conversations and family gatherings, filling empty spaces, the Mandarin word for “mental health” was almost non-existent.

Taboos surrounding mental health in the Asian American community

Within the Asian American community, the topic of mental health is taboo. Why do you need therapy? Are you crazy? I don’t want a stranger to know my business. Your body is just too hot (cold), and it’s affecting your mood. We are met with opposition, two of the same ends of the magnet repelling one another, a disconnect, when engagements are made to speak out on how we feel.

As a teen up until my early twenties, my loyalty to Eastern values was an act of sheer duty. Deep down, I was envious of Western rearing — their emphasis on individuality and independence, the egalitarian approach. I was taught to maintain harmony and, therefore, would rarely speak my mind. Making sacrifices at the expense of yourself was expected, for there was no honour in being open, only shame. I wish it didn’t take a global pandemic to fully embrace my identity as a Chinese American woman and to realize that it was never a competition between the West and the East. We control what boundaries we set and what values we adhere to outside of our cultural upbringing.

This article explores my journey to reconcile two conflicting dualities — the self as an individual and the self we give to others in a culture promoting the latter. It is not a cultural bashing but an analysis of how cultural teachings implanted in young minds can create a butterfly effect and influence future behaviours. It is an attempt at not existing in the margins, giving our strong emotions a breather, and providing a fresh take on what it means to be a woman that has adopted the Western culture while growing up under an Eastern framework.

A close up of an Asian woman wearing an Equity Shirt.
Original Equity Shirt by URevolution

Respecting elders,embracing individuality and mental health in Asian American culture

Within the Chinese culture, we hold our elders in the utmost regard, almost to a level of pious devotion. We celebrate our ancestors during major holidays, and they are never far, as indicated by the shrines we built in the home as a sign of our unfailing dedication.

In Permission to Come Home: Reclaiming Mental Health as Asian Americans by Jenny Wang, she shares a similar childhood experience where the notion of “respecting our elders” was deeply ingrained in her everyday interactions. She was expected to never question older people and divulged that she agreed to do so only out of respect to her parents.

Like her, I found value and appreciation for this specific virtue but wondered how it may have diminished my ability to speak up and raise my voice amid discomfort.

How did I respond? With Silence.

It is the reason behind when a “family friend uncle” who I had no recollection of meeting, who insists he knew me when I was just a baby began to inappropriately touch or make comments about my appearance that I remained silent. A well-respected male doctor commented how much he wanted to date me if I was just a little older (I was seven then). When a much older male supervisor looked me up and down in my new dress, I wished I could rush home and cover-up.

A teacher who made me feel small for asking questions or an immediate family member that provided unsolicited advice on my weight, and all I felt compelled to do was bite my tongue for they were older, so they must have some oracle-like knowledge beyond my underdeveloped brain.
I am the deciding factor of who deserves my respect, regardless of their age. Seniority does not earn my respect; being respectful does.

If an individual of a senior rank tells you, “I know what I am talking about because of all of my life experiences”, we should not default to a state of compliance, as with many things, we should use our best judgement and not take things at face value. What was their takeaway from those experiences? What lessons were learned? What actions have they put forth since learning from experiences?

Being nice is not an invitation for those to cross my boundaries. We should not be bullied into obedience. A two-year-old who wishes to run across the street with ongoing traffic should obey his or her parent’s instructions to stay put and watch for cars. To be obedient and simultaneously abandon one’s own aspirations, thoughts, and boundaries to appease a senior or older family member is no longer obedience but defeatism.

How "saving face" affects mental health in Asian American communities

In the Chinese culture, the phrase for “saving face” is 面子 or Miànzi in short “, creates a sense of deep responsibility over how we show up in our world and highly values how the world, in turn, sees us”.

If saving face is embedded as one of the values in your cultural education, it can be extremely difficult for one to live authentically. We prefer to keep our feelings to ourselves to avoid public embarrassment or shame. The “face” is the public persona that is not only a representation of the self but, more importantly, the family or community that the persona identifies with.

In “saving face”, we also uphold a code of privacy. We may struggle with uncomfortable emotions for “revealing how we feel about our family flaws, conflicts or problems can be viewed as being disloyal to our family” (33). The shame that comes with exposing one’s family secrets is almost unbearable. I was forbidden from speaking my deepest personal thoughts, even with close friends, and was told I would be “laughed at” if I did so. With this in mind, speaking to a mental health professional, which one would consider a stranger with no family ties, was entirely out of the question.

We are almost compelled to wear our family “face” as a badge of honour and feel it is our duty to continue building on this face. After all, our parents came into this country with nothing but the clothes on their backs and navigated through frequent occurrences of microaggressions or direct racism, the inhibition of expression due to language barriers, and ultimately adapting to a life that was so different from the one they experienced in their mother country.

My father always said, “I was a prince in Taiwan and a pauper in America.”

The job or college you attend is measured in rank, notability, and pay status, not for the sake of one’s own success but how much it enhances the overall “face” of the family. Deciding to go against the grain may be considered too self-seeking and can bring down the “face” of the family.

Before every family event, gathering or celebration, while my mother tidied up my dress and fixed my hair, she would look me dead in the eyes, asserting her authority, “When you step outside of this house, you represent me.” She expected perfection, and her child would not be the reason she lost face.

As these words rang in my ear, my inner child was told to grow up quicker, be less childish and less rambunctious. I sat quietly with my hands folded, always minding my manners, speaking only when spoken to. I became one of those still portraits you see hanging in the museums — pristine but intangible.

Every compliment about how well-behaved I was, a gold star, the opposite, a glare so intense it could cut glass.

Saving face comes at the expense of viewing uncomfortable emotions such as fear, anger, and sadness as inconveniences. The relationship between the parent and the child sets a precedence for future generations where the bond becomes transactional and less unconditional.

When our choices are based on the decisions of the collective, we can easily lose our motivation and become burnout, both physically and mentally. Who or what am I working for? Do I enjoy this job, or am I doing it because of how proud my parents appear when they tell an auntie, uncle, or friend that I work at x, y, and z and make this amount of money? How much longer can I deny my feelings and suppress my emotions to a point where I may react seismically? If vulnerability and honesty was prized above saving face, how may that benefit my mental health?

“How does denying your own experiences change your parents’ history or experiences? How does ignoring your own feelings of frustration or discontent somehow repay them for their suffering? The reality is that it cannot. Our denial of our emotional experiences has no tangible impact on our parents’ past histories” 

Reclaiming Asian names and identity for mental well-being

My given Chinese name is Wu Hong-Ting. As a child, I was called Ting Ting, a pet name that so many of us are gifted with at that age.

It would bring a shiver down my spine whenever I heard someone call me Ting Ting. I could feel my face turning bright red as soon as I was called by the latter. All the different iterations (ting a ling, ding a ling) I was named called by my elementary school peers didn’t help the ongoing feelings of embarrassment.

In private, I would ask that my parents inform a certain uncle or aunt to not call me by my Chinese name, for it was to me, not my name. Given but not received. I did not identify with Wu-Hong Ting.

This rejection of our Asian name further feeds into our struggle to live between two worlds. Our American names protected us from the shame we may experience with our Asian-ness in attempting to fit into Western standards.

All we’ve known is America. We watch Western cartoons, speak English 8–12 hours of the day, attend their schools, and wish we were packed PB&Js instead of dumplings for lunch.

When the people we watch on TV or we see those that look so different from us walking down a street, our natural bodily response is to integrate as a form of acceptance and belonging. We create rigid boundaries of only speaking English, eating American food, and watching American television, amidst others as coping responses, leaving behind our culture.

At the same time, we live under the custody of our cultural community. In doing so, we are chastised for being “too American” or “too unconventional”. It can be challenging to switch between two worlds, especially if they are pitted against each other for one to emerge dominant over the other.

By reclaiming our Asian name, we reclaim an identity loss in the shadows. My Western counterpart and my Asian identity no longer walk in opposite directions but in parallel paths of harmony. We do not have to forsake one for the other as “instead of being completely bound to one framework or way of living out of my culture, [we] can pick and choose cultural elements from [our] multicultural background to create a life that [we] want to live."

Works Cited in “Balancing Eastern and Western cultural values for mental well-being”: Wang, Jenny T. Permission to Come Home: Reclaiming Mental Health as Asian Americans. Balance, 2022.

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Article by
Tiffany Wu

Tiffany Wu, the author of "Balancing Eastern and Western Cultural Values for Mental Well-Being," sees writing as an essential part of her mental health healing journey. She is not an expert or a medical health professional but is an advocate for self-awareness and discovery. She writes as a means to process her thoughts and in hopes that someone else will read her work and feel a little less alone.