Wrestling with body positivity has been an important struggle for me throughout my life. Growing up as an Asian-American male has often made me a target for mockery; in particular, people have often insulted me for my size. Family, friends, and complete strangers have all told me that I’m “so skinny,” and seeing popular media reinforce the idea that I am small because I am Asian, and therefore have significantly less value than the average person, has often thrown me into a vicious cycle of self-loathing, internalized racism, and mental health struggles. However, for better or worse, my experiences have deeply shaped my character today, and they have forced me to develop a stronger connection with my own mental health.
From the moment I was born, I was checked by others for my size; doctors had to monitor me closely for hours, as they were concerned about how small I was. Thankfully, I grew up healthily and started running cross country in high school. Unfortunately, I stopped in college as running began to take a toll on my body; I was underweight, had bad runner’s knee, and went to the hospital once for running in the rain, as my body physically could not keep me warm enough. At the time, I got told a lot that I was really skinny, but that never bothered me much since I was focused on my performance as a runner, not my appearance. When I stopped running, I turned to dance as a source of body positivity. However, my parents told me to stop dancing in college, and being too scared to push back against them at the time, I was left with nothing to make me feel good about how I looked. At the same time, the comments about my size continued and got meaner. People would mockingly try to wrap their hands around my biceps, or comment that they could “snap me in half” if they wanted to.
In addition, unrelated racist remarks and actions directed towards myself and others compounded my reaction to jokes about my size; I began to quickly solidify the idea in my head that being Asian made me small and weak, and therefore made me worthless. Eventually, I fell into a very dark mental state for months; I barely ate or got out of bed during that time. At some point, I finally decided I would change myself regardless of what people said or did to me, but that wasn’t easy starting out. I would go to the gym and, like most people who start weight training with no prior experience, had no clue what I was doing. I became discouraged by my lack of progress and continued to yo-yo between hating myself and feeling good about working out. That was two years ago.
Fast forward to now, I’m an NASM Certified Personal Trainer, am a healthy body weight for the first time in my life, and my friends and family look up to me as somebody who knows not just how to alter their physical appearance, but more importantly, as somebody who knows how to make sustainable, realistic, and healthy change for themselves and not for the approval of others. I am currently starting my own training business, aimed at helping thinner people like myself build muscle and develop strength and confidence.
I would be lying if I said that mental health and internalized racism are not still struggles for me today, especially when it comes to my looks. Those experiences I had growing up and through college did irreparable damage, and negative comments about my race and appearance will always sting a little bit. It’s not that the pain itself that I’ve felt has made me stronger, but rather that it has given me opportunities to discover and develop myself more fully, which is perhaps a blessing in disguise. I still get made fun of sometimes; I sometimes still fear other people’s judgement and criticism; I’ll never be the biggest or strongest person in the room, but all of that is okay. I do what I do so I can live life the way I want to, and even though it took a long time to get here, that’s all that matters now.
My Asian Mental Health is an ongoing project that aims to share the mental health journeys and experiences of members of the Asian Diaspora. No matter where we are on our path of discovering and understanding our mental health, it always helps to know that we are never alone. We hope that people will be inspired, emboldened, and feel empowered to face their own mental health challenges through these stories. If you would also like to share your story with us you can do so by filling out this form.
My name is Coby. I was born and raised in Hong Kong. My parents are both Chinese and working class. They tried their best to provide for me and my siblings; they paid for our school fees and tuition fees outside of school. Even though they had financial limitations, they paid for my university fees in Australia. Growing up in an Asian family was tough, as my parents always had high expectations. At school, I sometimes got over 90 percent, but they would ask “what happened to the other 10 marks”. It felt like they never appreciated my hard work.
In Hong Kong, people always have high expectations – this is the culture. For instance, if you are dating someone and in a serious relationship, they will expect you to be married within 7 years. If not, it is said that you will have bad luck in your relationship, or even break up. Luckily, I was married just before my 7 year anniversary. People then expect you to have a baby immediately after marriage. It can really be stressful.
The work environment in Hong Kong is also highly competitive. People like to compare themselves with others and compete at everything, no matter what. As I worked in a majority female company, my colleagues liked to not only compete on work performance, but also compare and comment on the size and brand of engagement rings! They even compared how gentle and sweet our pets are. I think these kinds of behaviours can be harmful to our mental health and wellbeing.
In Hong Kong, we barely talk about mental health – in Asian culture this is the norm. I had never even heard about mental health until I started struggling with my mental health. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2018. Some of the contributing stressors were my stressful and competitive work environment and wedding planning. At the time, I did not realise the impact the stress was having on me and my emotional wellbeing. I did not know how to manage the stress. I thought I could handle everything.
I would say thank you god for giving me this diagnosis. It made me realise how powerful stress can be and gave me a good lesson on how to manage it. With professional support, and personal reflection and awareness, I am living in recovery. These days I have a stronger and more positive mindset. I know how to deal with stress. I have strong self-awareness. I notice that I often have physical symptoms, such as acid reflux or heartburn, when I feel stressed. When this happens, I do exercise and meditation to release my tension.
I share my story as a Mind HK ambassador because I want others facing a mental health condition, especially those of Asian culture and locals in Hong Kong, to know they are not alone.
My Asian identity has shaped every corner of my mental health. As I get older, my awareness of my prejudices against my own flesh has turned what I thought was tough skin to a tenderness that has unraveled me. Being raised a certain way by parents with a certain trauma has created for me a certain glorification of survival and always wanting to NOT be “other.” After the shootings in Atlanta, I experienced a grief that felt so personal, overwhelming and unexplainable. It was not like I knew these people, but it felt as if I could have lost my family just as easily.
I decided soon after the tragedy that I had to seek help from an Asian female therapist. I had been seeing someone who was a male and white (he helped in other ways for a time!), but I felt instantly that my mental health became freer and stronger BECAUSE I am learning to love my whole self in ways I never had even though I had only been seeing her for a tiny amount of time. They understood when I did not understand what I was feeling.
So being an Asian woman, I have context, tools, and a community that give me clarity and peace (not all the time) around the anxiety, fears and longings that circle my heart and which I have never suspected or am tired of always carrying. But I am filled with pride more than ever. It seems as if my identity—my heart, home, the soul—is well. My mental health is well.
My mother immigrated to the US from Vietnam almost 40 years ago. When she got married, she opted to keep her last name; when my brother and I were born, we were given my father’s last name. But shortly after I turned 2 years old, my parents got divorced and my mom raised me from that point onwards by herself. Looking back, I admire my mother for her strength and resilience during my childhood years. She was a single mother of two, an immigrant, and had dropped out of college to raise us — but she still managed to show us love, celebrated our achievements, and encouraged us to chase our dreams. So the year before I graduated from my university, I legally changed my name from “Nguyen” to “Quach” so that my diploma would reflect her name! As a first generation graduate, I hoped that this would also let my mom feel like my accomplishment was also hers. She knew the day I went into court to change my name and cried super hard when I showed her the court-approved documents. While I didn’t actually get to walk the stage for graduation due to the pandemic, I still was able to get some great grad photos with her to commemorate the moment! (We’re wearing ao dais, which are traditional Vietnamese outfits. I’m wearing white for graduation, but they can come in many different colors and patterns, as you can see with my Mom in her gold variation.) So here we are 🙂 Mother and daughter, always Quach and finally Quach.
The major event that has influenced my mental health journey was my father’s passing from lung cancer in 2019. His 15 years of fighting it have truly solidified my identity as Filipino-American and affected my coping skills and how I viewed grief/bereavement. It has also influenced my career path as an art therapist and counselor.
My dad’s fight with cancer for so long proves his resiliency, especially since it’s a value in my culture. I struggled a lot with my identity. Seeing up close the Filipino values of resiliency and being with my family has helped me ground myself and my values – if anything, it has solidified something I’ve always questioned or was unsure about. I’ve learned to be more patient and to never really make set plans as life can throw things a lot at you. It’s better not to have expectations but to be adaptable to the ebbs and flows of life. This has dramatically helped with my anxiety and needs for control to protect my feelings.
While my dad was going through chemo, dance was my main outlet to distract myself. I hadn’t danced in 10 years and just went back to it in 2017. With some excellent teachers and choreographers, I went into dance classes learning how to be much more expressive with my movement. It greatly influenced how I approached my art therapy practices – the freeness of expression without judgment. Moving around helped me with my stress, and my dad was always an advocate of dance for me, so him seeing me go to classes made him happy.
His journey also influenced how I connected with the community, specifically the running community. In 2017, I ran twelve 5k charity races, one race each month. I ran my first one with Lungevity – a lung cancer organization – and raised money and awareness for them in honor of my dad, who was still alive at the time. The race was very emotional for me, I even had my ankle injury, but I always pushed through thinking about how my dad continued to fight and didn’t give up. In 2018, I ran two half marathons, and then in 2019, I decided to run the Chicago Marathon in honor of my dad. I kept raising money for Lungevity, and he was so excited to know I was running it. Unfortunately, he passed before the actual race, but I continued training and had a lot of support in raising funds from my boxing gym, art groups, classmates, and so forth. The marathon experience is probably something I won’t ever forget, and I’m continuing onto the NYC marathon and raising more awareness and research funds for lung cancer.
Outside of these physical coping skills, I challenged myself to talk openly about my dad’s experiences deteriorating and grieving his death. The summer after he passed away, I committed to seeing a therapist. She helped me in developing my path and understanding of grieving and acceptance. Now more than ever, I feel a strong tie to mental health, and this experience has helped me in my path as a counseling/art therapists working with cancer patients and their caregivers.
I now work with oncology and stroke/rehabilitation patients in my clinical practicum. Because of this experience, I’ve become interested in researching how grief/bereavement is viewed in different cultures to be a multiculturally competent therapist working with families from all different backgrounds.
GROWING UP, I WAS TERRIBLE AT EXPRESSING MYSELF. Especially the uncomfortable things like my emotions. I followed the Model Minority myth, got the good grades, kept my head down, respected authority, but avoided conflict at all costs. As you can tell, that didn’t help me gain trust as a leader in the workplace, and it wasn’t attractive in dating when I couldn’t stand behind my beliefs and opinions. Admittedly, I’ve hurt quite a few women because I wasn’t able to communicate myself properly and take ownership of my emotions. And it ESPECIALLY wasn’t fulfilling for me to leave behind my child-like joy for writing, singing, and creating videos. I had so many voices in my head from my immigrant parents, and the rest of society, that I wasn’t good enough, man enough, creative enough, smart enough. On top it all, I didn’t have any close relationships or role models of Asian men around me. I love my dad and am grateful for so much he’s provided for me, but I rarely ever felt comfortable expressing my honest self around him without getting judgment or bias towards what he thought I should do. Being raised to then avoid conflict in the name of harmony and humility, I took the safe route and went into technology. And enjoyed my role, but started burning out when I was no longer feeling connected to the meaning and impact behind my work. I was drinking almost every other day. I ate terribly. I woke up late all the time. I didn’t care to reach out to friends. I was irritable and apathetic about my passions. I used to smoke weed to get present and connected, but during my quarter-life crisis, I was using to numb and it made me even more paranoid and anxious. I was also single for over 3 years at that point and felt many bouts of loneliness. I never made a plan, but I did think about how much easier it would be to just end my life. Then I found myself joining a local men’s group, after hearing a popular podcast where the guest talked about men’s emotional work. Everything they said in the interview resonated with my core. It gave me the language to feel what I had been feeling, which then gave me a new perspective on everything. With that new perspective, the way I was looking at the world and at myself changed. I realized that my life was a miracle in itself, coming from a father and mother who both risked their lives coming to America. And I have the unique opportunity to do something meaningful with the privilege that I have. After chasing comfort for most of my life, not only in the tangible world, but within the emotions I felt, I understood that I had to take more physical and emotional risks in my life if I wanted to get out of this debilitating state of apathy.
AFTER MONTHS OF OVERTHINKING. I finally quit my comfy job in 2018 and started writing and producing a podcast. Since then, I’ve been published in the Good Men Project, ThriveGlobal, as well as many Medium publications and have received so many inspiring comments from how my words have created new insights for people in their own journey. My podcast has accumulated thousands of downloads since its launch in 2019 now and I even spoke to 1000+ people on stage to share how I’m (currently) navigating my quarter-life crisis by improving my own emotional intelligence. Many, many, many thanks to the beautiful humans in JRNI to help me through it all. Doing both the inner work and entrepreneurial work made me realize that many of my Asian brothers are missing the space that allows us to feel SAFE talking about feelings without feeling less of a man. Especially those with immigrant parents, who use a lot of shame and authority to tell us what to do, rather than providing the space to explore for ourselves.
BUT THIS ISN’T EVEN ABOUT ME. It’s about the commonalities I’ve found within my community and brothers around these struggles. But the huge gap of safe spaces for Asian men to exercise our emotions, both the positive and negative. I’ve been attending a couple men’s groups over the past couple years, but in both of them, I was the only Asian dude. I’ve developed such meaningful relationships with these men, but none I could connect over my cultural identity. So I decided to start my own. And I’ve called it, the Emotion Dojo. This is the official Asian men’s group and coaching program under the 1200+ Facebook group that I co-run, the Badass Asian Dudes (BAD). Together, the BAD and Emotion Dojo is a support group that aims to empower self-identifying Asian men with emotional intelligence. Many of us are high-achievers, but lack the soft skills to create deeper relationships and take risks within ourselves. I know because I was one of them. And this community, to me, was the big brother I never had. We run a podcast under the same name and bring on other badass Asian dudes to share their wisdom in how they got to where they are.
MY FRIENDS HAVE ALREADY COMPLIMENTED ON MY GROWTH I’ve received a lot of unsolicited feedback from my friends in the past couple years about the change they’ve seen in me. From being that shy, unassertive kid to someone who owns up to his sense of joy, power, and vulnerabilities. I feel honored and grateful (and of course, so much humility to the point of rejection) that my friends even pay attention to me so deeply. And it validates for me that whatever I’m doing, I’m doing it right. And I’m so excited to keep it going.
My name is Jade; I am a 30 year old actress and model. I grew up financially “poor.” I put that in quotations because I never felt poor. However, with working immigrant parents, my diet was largely made up of not the healthiest options – things like frozen TV dinners, Lunchables, and fast food. This led to excess weight, and over the years, I’ve had to go through my own health/fitness journey. I experienced a lot of bullying for my body, as I am more of a slim thiccc Asian gal, which wasn’t “in” back in the day. It deeply affected me and led to eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and abusive relationships for many years. I eventually left my childhood dream of becoming a violinist to pursue acting in college, as I found it to be an escape from my life to have someone else’s momentarily. After graduating with a theater degree, I began to go into TV/Film. Modeling fell into my lap by accident.
A lot of people told me I couldn’t get far – not pretty enough, not skinny enough, not tall enough, not enough representation in Hollywood anyway, etc. I pushed myself to grow as a creative. As a petite lady (5’3”), I’ve walked the runway. I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with the director as a stand-in for Olympian gold medalist Chloe Kim in a Nike x Finish Line commercial. I’ve been published in 7 magazines with full spreads. I’ve had the honor of working closely with the lead designer for a Marvel movie. I’ve been a lead model for Besame Cosmetics. This year, I was asked by Savage X Fenty to do a collab and be an ambassador. All these opportunities helped me grow confidence in myself and my skills as a creative storyteller.
Using my past, I am always pushing for self love, self care, and positivity on my social media platforms. When I valued myself enough to stop self abuse (thinking negatively, judging my body, etc) and to leave abusive relationships, the universe responded with gifts. It’s been 10 years of being in the entertainment industry. My process has been slow but I’ve been so blessed to have the opportunities that I’ve had while staying true to who I am.
Lately I’ve been reflecting a lot on culture and mental health.
There are definitely things stemmed in culture and tradition that caused me to struggle when I was a teenager all the way to when I was in University. I watched my parents work hard, physical labour jobs. I watched one come home at 10 p.m. while the other would leave for work at 10 p.m. for many years. As a result, I felt a lot of pressure early on in my life to become someone that could take care of my siblings and my family back home.
That’s what Filipinos do. We work hard for our family. It’s not necessarily a negative thing, but I did grow up thinking that I’d never get to be like my other friends at school. They planned on pursuing their dreams, travelling the world, and leaving this small city behind. Meanwhile, I felt trapped. And I was scared. What if I couldn’t become someone who could take care of my family?
I also suffered in high school and my undergraduate degree because of crippling self-doubt and self-esteem issues. This was a result of many things, including experiencing bullying and toxic relationships in junior high and high school. I had been insulted and gaslighted and abandoned by people I loved. I hated myself and struggled with suicide ideation. Yet I wasn’t able to speak up because I didn’t know how to. I didn’t know how to ask for help because I never had to — help with homework, help with university admissions, help with getting a part-time job, help with getting a scholarship — I handled it all on my own.
I handled learning about mental health and accessing therapy on my own too. I realized in order to become someone who is a good daughter, sister, and person — I have to take care of myself too. Pursuing my dreams and travelling the world is not selfish. It will help me be happy, and if I am happy, then I will have the capacity to help others be happy. I will be able to take care of the people I love.
I wanted the world to know this too. I started to speak out about my experiences with bullying, self-esteem, and depression as a youth mental health advocate. I spoke at fundraising events, I spoke to high school and university classes, and eventually I spoke on TV. And I spoke to my family about mental health.
I can definitely say that we didn’t handle the mental health talk perfectly right off the bat. We’ve all made mistakes. We’ve experienced crisis after crisis. We’ve all said things we regret. But, we are talking. We are looking out for each other. We support each other more and more each day. We’re educating ourselves. We are changing for the better.
This doesn’t apply to all Asian families or even all Filipino families. I know this. But change can happen. I am experiencing it with my family everyday. Culture is created by humans. We made it. We can change it. Try and define things in their language, in their terms. Take time, and take care.
have you ever had someone
look at you and
not even see you?
look right through you
like nothing is there—
too much a waste of space.
I start to notice
that it’s not just me
who’s invisible. other
people who look like me
are sometimes invisible, too.
I have been in a crowded room
of White Americans,
and the only people they talk to
are people who look like them.
maybe I’m wrong.
I don’t want to believe the
sad truth that it’s related to my race
but when the other Asian person
gets ignored too,
what am I supposed to think?
– Excerpt from Origins by Thy Nguyen © 2020
Above is a poem I wrote during one of my darkest times, and also during a time when I started focusing on my mental health. For many years, I’ve felt inferior and invisible among White people. I went to a mostly White high school, and in college, I joined a mostly White sorority which I now have left to focus on my mental health. In my life, I have never truly felt like I belonged. I was born in Vietnam and spent my elementary school years there, and then moved to Texas in middle school. I’ve always felt like I was stuck in limbo; too Asian for the Americans here, but too American for my Vietnamese family back in Vietnam. This caused me to be very insecure with my identity, leading to feelings of alienation, feeling unsure of myself, and self-isolation.
So, when did I start to focus on my mental health?
In college, I finally felt like I found my place and started to become surer of myself with the help of friends who made me feel very accepted, and mental health counselors at the college. However, I still faced challenges that led me to spiral, become depressed and anxious.
During my sophomore year of college, I was denied an opportunity to an organization because one of its members mistook me for another girl who had bullied her. I was falsely berated, only then to later find out that they had the wrong person.
And during my junior year, I did a study abroad program. I applied for the program alone, with none of my other friends applying. I knew it was something that I wanted to do and I was willing to face any obstacles for the program. My worst fears came true in the few weeks. I had a hard time adjusting. I was lonely. I was not okay. I had left my whole life back at Babson–my friends, community, clubs and orgs, boyfriend–to go on this program, and now, I was miserable.
This was when I started taking my mental health very seriously. Over those few months, I found a local therapist who helped me through the transition period, and I started to self-reflect and build up my self worth a lot more. I started writing a lot. I wrote poetry, I journaled, I wrote all my thoughts and emotions down.
One day, I realized that I had so much writing material. I wanted to do something that would be bigger than me and be a big accomplishment that I could be proud of. The next step of my mental health journey: I started compiling all my stories into a book. I found an independent publisher, and together over the course of a year, we worked together to compile and polish up all the writing that I had done about my experiences as an Asian, woman, immigrant in the United States.
When my book finally published, I would say I was mentally healthy. I had kept up regularly going to therapy and also kept working on the thing that I loved and had passion for. So, this is the story of how I focused on my mental health :).
TW: r*pe, emotional abuse, grief
A major catalyst for both my life’s work and my own mental health journey was being r*ped twice within one year both abroad in Hong Kong and in Illinois. Two different people within the Asian diasporic community had harmed me; these two events within months of each other affected my everyday life still to this day. For months on end, I felt numb when it came to my own emotions. I was in a very deep, dark fog for a while because of the emotional abuse that my abuser put me through. For a while, certain Facebook groups didn’t feel safe because this person was there. I thought I had deserved this; goodness felt odd, well to be honest holding goodness still feels strange to me. I felt shame around the fact that others had harmed me twice. I blamed myself for months on end; I even had trouble telling my college best friend about both instances where I was violated. I self-sabotaged myself and my connections till I got help last July. Last July, I had clicked with a queer East Asian American woman therapist, who has been by my side since.
Within the two cultures I live between, silence remains a commonality. From unpacking my own survivorhood, I realize our families not only tend to have silence around mental health, but also sexual violence. From these experiences, I also understood how intra-community harm creates silence especially as I didn’t want to hold these people accountable at first because they’re part of my community. I was afraid to hold them accountable because of the stigma of coming out as survivor, the shame of the harm itself, and not being believed. This complicated feelings around my own community for such a long period of time, but I think in the long run transformative justice work will hold our community accountable.
I live with CPTSD, anxiety, and depression; quarantine has been far from easy for me as a survivor. I still have shame around how my abuser manipulated me, how my unchecked trauma spilled out into other meaningful connections I have, and affected the ones I hold close to my heart. Honestly, I grieve the parts of myself that are now transforming into something that serves me best. Lately, I’ve been addressing my own internalized ableism, the shame I still hold in regards to my own unchecked trauma, and internalized messages of “not being good enough” that I had grown up with. The silver lining in the harm that happened to me is that now I get to empower other Asian American Pacific Islander women and femme survivors to take space for themselves, voice the harms they’ve been through, and move forward in ways that serve them best. I envision API women and femmes no longer biting their lips if they wish to disclose who harmed them, transformative justice work for survivors if they choose to engage, and trauma-informed folks. By transforming ourselves, we transform our homes and communities.