Leestijd: 6 minuten

Asians Speaking Up: the story OF Mei Woen

Growing up among different cultures and experiencing discrimination and racism has an impact on our mental health. Asian Raisins believes that more attention should be paid to this issue. For the Storytelling project ‘Asians Speaking Up: Mental Health,’ we asked people from East and South-East Asian communities about their experiences and how those affected their mental well-being.

Mei Woen

Mei Woen* (39) lives in Amsterdam with her husband and two daughters. As a family, they love going to Texel, but they also enjoy having dim sum in the city. Mei Woen herself likes going to the cinema or museums and enjoys a walk in the park.

Can you tell us about your childhood and where you grew up?

My parents were born in Hong Kong in the early ’50s and moved to the Netherlands with my sister in the ’70s. My second sister, my brother, and I were born in the Netherlands. During my childhood, I always felt a bit like an outsider. I attended a medium-sized school where cultural backgrounds were not very diverse. I think you could even count the people with a migration background on two hands.

Why did you feel like an outsider?

In my childhood, several things happened that just felt wrong, but at that time I couldn’t articulate what that was. I remember, for example, finding the birthday song “Hanky Panky Shanghai” really strange as a child, yet still participating. I think the other children believed it was Chinese, and the eye gestures they made were considered normal. Neither I nor the other children knew better; this song was part of the system and was seen as something ‘normal.’

As a child, you don’t really know how to deal with this kind of micro-racism. You know something feels off, but you still go along with it. Meanwhile, you go through such experiences repeatedly, and that uncomfortable feeling builds up throughout not only your childhood but your entire life. I tried to cope by conforming to the norm, but at the same time, I realised I could never meet the norm. Now, I’m almost forty, and I know better, but I did struggle with it.

How did the desire to conform to the norm affect your mental well-being?

I felt very ashamed of my own identity and wanted to be seen in a certain way. This sense of shame began when I grew up above my parents’ Chinese restaurant. I developed immense shame for the restaurant, my parents, my identity, and being ‘Chinese.’ For example, I preferred not to bring friends home because of negative experiences.   Although this feeling of shame started quite subtly in my youth, I later realised it had become much more significant. In the past, I used to be triggered when someone spoke English to me in my own city, because I wanted to conform to the norm, but it wasn’t recognized by others. I think it even reached the point where I unconsciously didn’t speak Cantonese to my children because I wanted people to know I could speak Dutch and was born here.
“My psychologist understands the complexity of my background and looks beyond just the norm.”

How did your desire to conform to the norm further manifest itself?

As a curvy woman, I’ve had lots of issues regarding my body throughout my life. I mainly linked these problems to my Chinese origin, as Chinese people tend to be very focused on appearance. When I was younger, I often received unpleasant comments about my appearance, not only from society but also from my own family, including my mother. It was really confronting when people in my circle suddenly said “You’ve become fat,” or “You’ve become thin,” even though I’ve maintained the same weight for the past ten to fifteen years. These kinds of comments, especially when they’re made while you’re young, affect your self-image. It affected me as a whole. Because Chinese people can be quite blunt with their comments, my body image was very negative and it had a very negative effect on my self-esteem. In my head, there was this idea that Chinese people are supposed to be thin, so I feel like I don’t belong.

What led you to seek psychological help?

The main reason I sought help was because I listened to a podcast about traumas. Although I initially thought it didn’t apply to me, I later realised I also needed help for my own traumas. I think all my problems originated from my youth. I come from a family where emotions were never discussed. And since I’ve been dealing with similar issues with my children in recent years, I realise that there are certain chapters from my childhood that I haven’t properly considered.

Additionally, I noticed things within my own family and with relatives that I wish were different. I saw a reflection of myself within my family; I saw that they needed help, but I realised that I also needed help at that moment. What happened in the past is not something that can be locked away. It is a part of me, and I can learn how to deal with that.

How did you experience the help you got? Were you able to express everything well to your therapist?

My psychologist is of Dutch origin, but she understands the complexity of my background and looks beyond just the norm. As a result, I immediately liked her at the beginning of our sessions. For example, she asked me how I felt: ‘Chinese-Dutch’ or ‘Dutch-Chinese.’ I had to think about it for a while. If you ask me whether I’m Chinese, I don’t really know. In the end, I chose the latter, ‘Dutch-Chinese,’ and I do think it can be different for everyone. For me, the Netherlands also feels like home. But there is a double feeling. You adopt some things from the culture that you like and what you don’t, you set aside. So, I’d say that makes me just myself, not necessarily someone who is defined by either their Chinese or Dutch roots.

“My parents weren’t able to provide us with that emotional security, but I am able to do so now for my children.”

You mentioned that there wasn't much room to talk about emotions at home. What influence do you think this had on seeking help for your mental issues?

On the one hand, I know that the lack of discussion about emotions in the past couldn’t have gone differently. My parents did everything to provide us with a good future, and that’s how they see it themselves. On the other hand, I do think this had negative consequences for me. My parents were never given the space to deal with their mental health in the past. But I do have that space now, and I’ll make sure to make use of it. Although they couldn’t provide us with that emotional safety back then, I know I can provide it to my children now. I want to make sure they know the importance of talking about their feelings.

Can you explain how your role as a mother influenced seeking help?

I’m doing it for my daughters too. I wanted to raise my children differently. I want to teach them that it’s okay to express emotions, that they can be angry and sad and that they don’t have to hide it.

If I continued as my parents did, we wouldn’t progress. But I do think my parents contributed to my ability to seek help now. What they had in mind during our upbringing was providing bread on the table and ensuring we could get a good education. We, my sisters, my brother, and I, definitely benefited from that. They managed to get that financial aspect in order for us, so now I’ve reached the point of looking further into mental health.

I want to convey to my children that they don’t have to be ashamed of their heritage and identity. And I see my efforts bearing fruit when I look at them. They came home one day and told me that there was a classroom assistant of Chinese origin, to which my daughter proudly said, “Hey, I’m also Chinese!” That made me very happy, that she can proudly talk about her roots and being Chinese.

As a parent, you try everything, but at the same time I know I will also make my own mistakes. We may progress a little bit with each generation, but at the same time, each generation will run into its own challenges.

“I want to make sure my kids won’t feel ashamed of their heritage and identity.’’

Has your attitude toward your body-image changed?

Yes, through parenthood, I became very aware that constantly speaking negatively about myself will pass on my negative self-image to my children. I decided then that I didn’t want this anymore. I don’t want to bring myself down. I choose to speak neutrally about my body so that my children don’t inherit negativity from me. I also try to convey to them the importance of being kind to our bodies. Throughout my two pregnancies, I realised the strength women possess, that my mother went through this too, and how resilient we truly are. That has tremendously helped me with my attitude towards my body.

Thank you for sharing your story! Is there anything you would like to say to those who are not yet ready to seek help?

I would like people to know that they don’t have to carry the pain alone and that seeking help is an option. If you feel like, ‘I need to do something about this,’ then know that there is always a way. Personally, I have now reached a point where I understand that allowing all the hardships and pain actually contributes to growth. Opening those dark pages provides space and air for the beautiful moments in life.

* Mei Woen is a pseudonym

Do you need more information about mental health? MIND Korrelatie provides advice, support, and information to people with (early-stage) psychological problems and to their loved ones.