A friend recently linked me some statistics on suicide rates across different races. The conversation was completely random but the discussion that followed was pretty interesting. We found that Asian Americans’ suicide rate is about half of the national rate. In fact, it is American Indian and Alaskan Native women that have the highest suicide rate. It is just a myth that Asian Americans have the highest suicide rate. In reality, Asian American college students only had the higher rate of suicidal thoughts, but there is no data to support the claim that Asian Americans have the highest suicidal rate amongst other race or ethnic groups. I will argue that this occurrence is possible due to the fact that Asian culture focuses more on community rather than individuals, and touch on other consequences this has.
In a study titled “Cultural factors influencing the mental health of Asia Americans”, the authors, Elizabeth Kramer, Kenny Kwong, Evelyn Lee, and Henry Chung, explain that traditional Asians put an emphasis on family as a unit. They write, “Each individual has a clearly defined role and position in the family hierarchy and is expected to function within that role, submitting to the larger needs of the family.” When someone betrays the role they are given, they are typically stigmatized. Gender roles and sexualities that are not the norm are stigmatized for the same reason, and one may be shamed for putting their individual-ness above the communities’. Saving face is also a reason Asians and Asian Americans may not seek mental health.
In class, we talked about the theme of betrayal and its appearance in literature as well in the films we watched. In the film The Motel, someone mentioned that part of the climax, in which Ernest yells at his mother, was due to the fact that the mother had betrayed her gender role. In Ernest’s eyes, it was the mother’s fault as to why his father left. The film does not explain why Ernest’s father left, but in the time the film is taking place the mother is playing both the house-keeper, typical of women, and bread-winner, typical of men. Ernest believed that his mother played both roles even before the father left and in turn ruined the family. These two roles being played by the mother affects the men left in the family, Ernest and his grandfather. Ernest has no role model, and outsiders say he’ll turn out gay. Meanwhile, Ernest’s grandfather has no control and is silent throughout the movie. All in all, the family is “unconventional” and “ruined” because no one abided by their norm-family roles. In the film Saving Face, Wil betrays her family by being lesbian, and Wil’s mother for getting pregnant without being married. The plot revolved around the inability to accept these character’s individual-ness, their wants and personalities because it was not the norm and betrayed the rest of the community. Although both of these films had their own type of happy ending, one of my Chinese-American friends did comment on the fact that the ending was “Americanized”. I was going to ask for a follow-up, but I think what she was getting at is the fact that a big part of Asian culture is this importance of community, and how that doesn’t really allow for gender roles and sexualities that aren’t the norm.
Just focusing on a community rather than one’s self can be very detrimental to mental health, but also disallows non-normative gender roles and sexualities in a community. Asian culture tends to do just that, in which any role that isn’t the norm is basically wrong. When I told my friend, Kelvin, that Asian Americans only have a higher rate of suicidal thoughts he joked “It’s because they’re too pussy to actually commit suicide, obviously,” but then went on to explain that committing suicide is considered shameful in the fact that the individual who does so are basically ending the family line, making it smaller. Acts of betrayal depend on this focus on family rather than individual, and it is why an Asian American’s mentality can be so fragile and an Asian American’s identity so complex.