Asians Speaking Up: The Story of Stefan
Growing up between different cultures and experiencing discrimination and racism have an impact on our mental health. Asian Raisins believes that this deserves more attention. For the Storytelling project ‘Asians Speaking Up: Mental Health,’ we asked people from East and Southeast Asian communities about their experiences and how those experiences affected their mental well-being.
Stefan (31) lives in Rotterdam, works in the HR department of a large international technology company and loves Asian food and travelling. In his spare time, he often goes to the gym for a Rocycle workout.
Can you tell us a bit about your personal background and where you grew up?My grandfather came to Europe with my father from the Chinese mountains near Wenzhou, a city in Zhejiang province below Shanghai. My parents were in an arranged marriage and at some point settled down in Leersum, a village in the province of Utrecht. Leersum was quite a white environment. In the beginning, we were the only Chinese people in the entire village. I really felt I had to familiarise myself with Dutch culture and its customs. What also played a big role was that my parents made no effort at all to integrate in the Netherlands. They had solely come to the Netherlands for ‘Chinese luck’, or in other words: to earn money. They were always busy running their restaurant and had little time for their children. For us, this meant that the babysitter was with us a lot of the time. She put us to bed, fed us and took care of us.
What was it like for you growing up in such a white environment?
At home, I was brought up in a very Chinese way, while everything outside the house was obviously very Dutch, especially since we lived in a farming village. I wanted to stand out as little as possible, so I tried to be as Dutch as possible. For example, I preferred hanging out with non-Chinese people rather than Chinese people, so I mostly had Dutch friends. I was also very worried of being shouted at on the street. I remember that when I was on my bicycle on the way to secondary school, I often encountered groups of schoolchildren who would sneer at me and call me names. At one point, a girl cycled towards me very fast, spat at me and then called me names. That incident really affected me. Later, when I went to therapy, I realised that I had never been able to process these kinds of experiences properly.
Why weren’t you able to process this before?
At the time I couldn’t express my emotions very well, especially with my parents. Since my parents were in an arranged marriage, there had never been any love between them. They were often angry with each other and fought a lot. My mother passed away 10 years ago and had cancer for 6 years before that. Even during that period my parents argued a lot. They were always busy with their restaurant and could not take good care of us. I also experienced a language barrier. My parents don’t speak fluent Dutch and I don’t speak fluent Wenzhounese, so we could never communicate with each other on an adult level. I could never burst into tears and share my deepest feelings with them, because we literally (and metaphorically) do not speak each other’s language.
Why did you feel the urgency to talk to a psychologist?
It may sound like a cliché, but it was for love. I was still with my ex at the time, who grew up in a very different family structure in Brabant. His parents never argued in front of the children, so he could not deal with arguments or conflict at all. Unlike him, I grew up in a house with lots of arguments and, as a child, I was always taught that anger was a guiding emotion. I also think that within Chinese culture, anger is the easiest emotion to express. I copied my parents’ behaviour in my own relationship: when I disagreed with something, I became angry quickly and threw tantrums. At one point, my ex couldn’t take that anymore. He said: “You are going to talk to someone about this now, or this is the end of our relationship”.
Besides saving your relationship, did you have other reasons to go to therapy?
Yes, I also wanted to go to therapy to reconcile with my family and deal with my father’s needs and expectations in a proper way. Before I started therapy, I had not had contact with him for three years. I forgave my mother for what happened at home because she was ill, but I always remained very angry with my father. I really wanted to reconnect with him, but there was still too much pain, suffering, sadness and anger. I also found it difficult to deal with my dual identity. I found it hard to accept that I am both Chinese and Dutch. Besides, I am also Asian and queer at the same time, while queerness is a topic that is still not easily talked about within East and Southeast Asian communities.
Were you able to share with your family that you were going to therapy?
I did tell my younger brother and sister, but seeing a psychologist is not normalised within East and Southeast Asian communities. Therapy itself is not even a taboo, but within Chinese culture, ignorance is bliss. Everything is supposed to be solved with sleep, Chinese herbs or healthy eating. Therapy was thus not something I did for my family, because they wouldn’t understand. It is really something I allowed myself to do to feel more comfortable in my own skin.
What was the role of your experiences with racism in the treatment?
It was during therapy that I realised that my past experiences with racism had affected me so deeply and caused me to struggle with social anxiety day in and day out. As I used to be bullied because of my Asian appearance, I always feel wary and dare to express myself less as a queer person in public spaces. For example, when I see a group of young people on the street, I automatically feel unsafe. I am afraid that at some point they will see me and that they will approach me or attack me verbally or physically. During my treatment, the psychologist gave me tools to deal with this. For every person who calls me names, there are also tens of thousands of other people who will never feel this inclination. There will always be bad apples among them.
How has therapy helped you to reconcile with your family?
During my treatment, I paid a lot of attention to understanding where I came from. By systematically looking at relationships between my family members, I realised that a lot of the anger towards my father should actually be directed at my grandparents. Because of their culture, they have always been concerned about maintaining our family name and reputation. I also learned to better understand my parents’ struggles. They had to go through a lot because of their parents’ expectations and this was further projected downwards toward me and my siblings. My parents were sent to the Netherlands, instructed to open a restaurant, have children and work hard. Therapy helped me to realise this and since then I have had some basic contact with my father again. I am also more at peace with the fact that my grandparents, through their preoccupation with reputation and the family name, want to preserve their culture. I try to have more respect for that.
How do you deal with the differences in norms and values between Dutch and Chinese culture now?
In therapy, I also learned that I can embrace being both Chinese and Dutch. I try to stick to my own values, even if they are very Dutch. At the same time, I also try to respect my family’s culture. For example, it is slowly becoming known in my family that I have a new boyfriend and it has been known for some time now that I am gay. However, it is not something that is talked about amongst the older generations. In the past, I would not have been able to accept this difference and would have said to my family: ”Either you accept that I have a boyfriend who goes everywhere with me, or I will cut off all contact”. Now, I am a bit more cautious. When my family asks me if I already have a girlfriend, I say, “No, I don’t, but I am dating”. I have learnt that I am no longer going to change what my family is like, but that I can adapt to their needs and expectations without crossing my own boundaries.
Thanks for sharing your story! How do you look back at your treatment and what would you like to pass on to others?
In general, I wish everyone could go to therapy to better understand themselves, their behaviour and the influence of their (bi)cultural background. Furthermore, I advise people to be selective with their psychologist. Initially, I preferred an Asian person who had experience with LGBTQ+ communities, but that didn’t work out. I ended up with a white, straight man and, at the beginning of the process, I asked him critically if he was willing to open up to Chinese culture. His answer was a clear ‘yes’. He was able to help me very well. Finally, find someone who is close to you who will hold you accountable. Share with this person that you are considering therapy and hopefully that person will be able to guide you. Personally, I only dared to go to therapy when I had a loving partner who could push me to make an appointment with the psychologist. Despite going there for my relationship, my question was mainly how to reconnect with my family. In that respect, I achieved my goal: it has been about two years and I still regularly see my father.
Do you need more information regarding mental health? MIND Korrelatie provides advice, support and information to people with (early-stage) psychological issues and their loved ones.