I would like to start by clarifying my stance. While this article is influenced by my experiences with judgment and stigmas surrounding mental health in the South Asian community in America, I recognize that not everything that I have witnessed applies to everyone in this community; there are always exceptions. Please understand that this article is not meant to criticize anyone, but rather, bring awareness to issues that I believe are prevalent to South Asians in my age group.
According to Pew Research Center, “income inequality in the U.S. is rising most rapidly among Asians” and “the gap in the standard of living between Asians near the top and the bottom of the income ladder [has] nearly doubled” (Kochhar). The Indian population in America is one of the highest salary-earning ethnic groups in the country according to the U.S Census Bureau, with a median household income of $135,705. Sometimes, being a part of this community exudes the feeling that “success,” is defined by how much money you make, is mandatory.
Most social issues begin with society’s treatment of children. The values and standards that society instills in them affect the way that they perceive the world, their attitude towards their peers, and their ability to adapt to different environments. As children, we spend majority of our time in school as students, and as students, it is our duty and responsibility to learn. While maintaining high grades is a crucial part of ensuring a successful future, sometimes this specific aspect of our journey to success is overemphasized; as a result, the expectation to achieve and maintain high grades unintentionally induces stress and anxiety on students in this community. A well-rounded education is a person’s most powerful tool; and it should be taken seriously, but students should also be able to enjoy working hard and develop a love for learning outside of the grades that they get. However, I have noticed several of my South Asian classmates burn themselves out, lose countless hours of sleep, and study with the intention of only getting good grades. Rather than trying to understand the information, school becomes a game of memorization.
Now, aiming to be the best at whatever you do is never wrong. This attitude can motivate people to reach their full potential and evolve as human beings. However, when we lose focus of the true meaning of why we are doing something, our goal of being number one morphs into an ego-run mindset that views life as a race. While it is important to always strive towards being the best self you can be, having the expectation to always be at your best is unrealistic and can tank self-confidence.
“Don’t victimize yourself. Others have it worse.”
“There is no such thing as anxiety. You need to toughen up. It’s all just your imagination.”
“Why are you so upset? You need to be more grateful for what you have.”
These are all statements that I have heard others in my South Asian-American community say or I have said to myself. Complaints about social anxiety or mental exhaustion are sometimes seen as signs of weakness, and any attempts to console oneself or “take mental health days” cause guilt trips that make us question why we aren’t working hard enough. Sometimes, it seems like if we aren’t burning ourselves out, we are not reaching our full mental potential. We live our life like it is a race, and we must always be number 1.
However, I really do ponder over why we see life as a race. Why is it that we are expected to achieve so much in the first three decades of our life? I understand that we must face reality — we must work hard to earn what we want and aim to be the best person we can be — but we must also be able to approach life with an optimistic and free-spirited attitude as well. I know that a lot of South Asian people, myself included, children or adults, struggle with pursuing what they want in fear of what their family or friends will think of them. To this I say, if life is seen as a ladder rather than as a race, where focus is placed on how much we can improve personally rather than whether we are #1 or not. We should be able to enjoy what we love and overcome the challenges we face. Life is a ladder, and we all climb up together; we exist for the purpose of witnessing our own self-growth. This analogy also symbolizes that we are able to recognize when we need help and have the courage to ask for it.
I am someone who blames myself for a lot of things that go wrong, and I know a lot of other South Asian-American teenagers in my generation who do the same. But it is so important that awareness about individualism, female empowerment, and self-love is better expressed in the South Asian community. When children are born into this community, they harshly blame themselves for making mistakes and not always being perfect, but these children don’t understand that they are part of a societal pattern that causes us to overlook one of the most important and precious parts of our life — our mental health. We can’t do anything if our bodies and minds are not taken care of first. For this reason, we shouldn’t force our expectations on others; success and happiness mean different things to everyone, and that should be respected. This is not to say that we should not offer our advice or that we should play a passive role in a loved one’s life; when we truly love and respect someone, we want what is best for them. However, as they get older, we must trust that they can find their path to happiness and success, whatever it may be, on their own. People will grow and realize things when they are ready to and trying to pressure them into living up to a standard that guarantees a certain result will not always ensure their happiness.
To the South Asian-American community that raised me, I am very grateful for everything that you have taught me and for all the experiences I have shared with you. I have become a much more calm, and balanced person because of you. However, there are still many children in our community who suffer from poor mental health, and they need our community’s support. If you know any child, South Asian or not, tell them that the judgment and the expectations of life are not things that they can control, but how they choose to face it and care for themselves when put in difficult situations is something that they can control. Help them understand that they should always take care of and value their mental health.