By Nathan Reddy
Among higher education circles, it’s now commonplace to point out the significant mental health problems of Asian American students. The issue is oftentimes chalked up to the cultural barriers towards seeking help when experiencing the acute mental distress that oftentimes accompanies the college experiences.
Even many Asian American college students endorse this view, which means there is probably something to it. I have previously written about implicit racism in the view that culture is to blame for our woes.
From personal experience, I can testify to the outsized pressure of doing well in academics does a number on our mental health.
Like many Asian Americans, I immediately declared my intentions to go to medical school upon arriving at college. The declaration was not born out of any intrinsic desire to become a physician, but out of the pressure to conform to the career path that the children of my parents’ friends were choosing.
This was an unconscious choice for the most part. My parents dispute the point that they overtly forced me to be pre-med, and they would be right. I, however, find that it was an unstated requirement, the circumstances said much more than words could. So, I started taking pre-med courses and immediately fell into a life characterized by a death march.
That may seem dramatic, but it’s genuinely how I look at that first year when I was determined to become a doctor despite overriding internal resistance. Well, it was less resistance, and more numbness.
My body and mind felt like dead weight, and I had to actively contort both into postures of doing the obscene amount of work my classes assigned, as well as the unassigned work of studying for the intrepid exams. I can’t count the number of times I told myself to “just do it” despite the internal strife I felt, and I couldn’t pinpoint a reason why I was forcing myself to.
Several tumultuous years later, I am now on the road towards becoming teacher, and I recently read a piece in the Washington Post from 2000 which acknowledged that few Asian Americans were attracted to teaching. The same piece could be written now.
It pointed out that ironically, despite an overall emphasis on the importance of education within our immigrant communities, we did not value education enough to consider teaching a viable career option. This is because we largely view education as a means to an end, the end being the realization of the American Dream in its most superficial sense.
We do not see it as a process of giving meaning to life (which is how I view it now) and the political motive of forming citizens who are well-versed in democratic ways of life.
Many Asian American parents explicitly endorse education as a means to avoid political engagement, while I endorse it as the vehicle towards it. In effect, the project of being directly involved in democratic life and encouraging others to join you becomes antithetical to our conception of the American Dream.
That is ironic considering the popular conception of the American Dream includes a civic engagement ethos. We ignore that. Because of this, becoming a teacher is derided as an easy way out.
“Those who can’t do, teach.” To be clear, this isn’t a perception exclusive to the Asian American community; teachers are derided and disrespected in all quarters of the country, which is, again, an irony considering our purported national desire to uphold democracy.
I charge that other than the powerful social influences that breed mental health issues in college, the first and foremost factor leading Asian American college students to contemplate suicide is this ill-conceived conception of education.
It is what leaves young Asian Americans college students feeling so disempowered in their studies and in their lives. They know education is the means towards a “successful” life, but how successful can that life be if you are instructed to just enact the motions and not feel anything real besides numbness and pressure.
There is nothing inherently wrong with an emphasis on education, but the fault lies in an emphasis on a certain conception of education that negates its life-giving qualities. I am extremely empathetic to the struggles that were faced by Asian American parents, and exactly why they conceive of education in this way.
However, for Asian American college students to relieve their mental health issues, aside from getting counseling and seeking help from mental health professionals, we must diverge from our parents and re-conceive of education as one that the prominent educational philosopher John Dewey emphasized: as a vehicle that births profoundly democratic citizens imbued with a sense of purpose.
Take note that a pre-med student does not necessarily have to be dead inside, but they must understand that medical education is not to realize a “successful” life characterized by financial security and social prestige, but to find purpose in working with patients to heal their physical and mental traumas, and in so doing, alleviate an internal political and spiritual crisis that currently pervades the lives of Asian American college students.
If an intrinsic desire to pursue a line of career is absent, not only will we continue to produce mediocre professionals, but also encourage the personal crises among them.
I am glad that I finally redefined education to the extent that I would like to become a teacher and live that definition through my pedagogy, and I resent the fact that many young Asian Americans would never consider becoming a teacher, largely because of the toxic conception of education inherited from our parents.
Choosing a career that fulfills our needs as human beings may lead to tensions and even all-out fights with our parents who had dreams of their own for us.
Ultimately, if an Asian American parent loves their child, they will see the truth in letting them become who they were meant to be and letting them reach their full potential in terms of their potential contribution to the social good.
Through this process, Asian American parents can be transformed themselves, and maybe shift their own conceptions of education towards the one I hold and do their part in encouraging a cultural shift that will benefit future generations, as this new conception of education becomes the one that is passed down.
I hate to put even more pressure on already completely stressed out Asian American college students to become rebels within their own families, but it is the only way towards reclaiming our lives and the ultimate, true purpose of education: to live a liberating life in connection with others.
The deadened life is isolating, and that includes isolating ourselves from our inner selves that yearn for a life of purpose and meaning. Naturally, this will do wonders for our mental health, I can testify to that personally.
Although medication and therapy have helped, it was revamping my understanding of education that has helped the most, and I’m hopeful that same change can do the same for others.
Challenging Asian American youngsters to rethink their uncritical views on education is one reason why I want to become a teacher, and how I have established a great part of my purpose. More Asian American teachers is obviously something I advocate for, but I would take more young Asian Americans changing their perception of education over that any day, and when enough of them do it, hopefully it would result in a paradigm shift.
These two goals are not mutually exclusive, and in fact, more Asian American teachers are probably needed to challenge prevailing notions of education in the community. Despite my last piece detailing how I would like to cross racial boundaries as a teacher, doing the particular work I describe here is how I intend to retain my connection to the Indian American community I grew up in.
If I can convince one set of parents and their child or children to reconsider what education means to them, I will consider my mission a success. Hopefully, I will be successful in achieving it, and as a person who has become genuinely optimistic over the last few years, I think I will.
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