23 years ago I was born in Lansdale, Pennsylvania to two Filipino immigrants. I was their first born child in completely new territory. As a first generation Filipino-American, I grew up in two, conflicting cultures: Eastern culture and Western culture. As a young child, I begged for and used whitening soap because I absolutely despised how dark I was, especially in the summer. No one else in my school was tan like me. I got made fun of for bringing rice in for lunch and one time a kid even threw my tupperware of rice on the floor. I only wanted sandwiches, Lunchables, and anything “normal” really (normal was the actual word I used) for lunch after that, all the way through high school. All the other girls in my classes would go on sleepovers, but I was never allowed to. I didn’t learn how to use a tampon until I got to college.
Now, those scenarios weren’t meant to establish a pity party. I can only speak for myself, but they are scenarios that other first generation Asian-Americans similarly experience; possibly even other cultures as well. Point is…I grew up being in the middle of a never ending tug of war, where I was the rope and the cultures were the ones tugging at me from opposite ends. It was conflicting.
Mental health and suicide are taboo in the Philippines. My parents didn’t grow up talking about this stuff. You were “happy” because there were other people in the Philippines who were homeless and starving, and you had a roof over your head and food on the table. The simple things were enough, and if you were ever in any turmoil or upset in general, look to and pray to God. You were happy because you got to see another day and had the opportunity to go to school. You listened to your parents and never even thought about disobeying them.
My family was never one for intimate conversations about emotions or deep and serious topics. Conflict was uncomfortable and attempts to talk about some things were awkward. Don’t get me wrong, my parents were caring and nurturing and were never ill intentioned in how they raised my siblings and me. However I grew up in an environment where my feelings were constantly invalidated or ignored. As mentioned above, mental health was taboo and simply not talked about. Sometimes I tried bringing stuff up with my parents, even aunts and uncles, and I would literally be ignored right in front of my face and glanced over. For example, I would muster up the courage to ask my parents something, and they would pretend I never said anything and move on, or would get visually upset that I brought it up in the first place. Other times, I simply sometimes felt bad about how I was feeling. One time I came home crying from school, and my parents go: “What are you crying about this time?”
When I was officially diagnosed and seeking therapy in college, I was too ashamed to tell my family about it. I didn’t say anything about it for years even though I was advised many times to say something to them. Eventually I listened and decided to get it over with. I called my parents not really knowing what to expect; turns out, my mother had found an empty prescription bottle with the label “Prozac” on it a number of months before I called her. I was scared and I cried, and in turn my mother commended me for seeking out help and talking about it in the first place. She told me she experienced some similar symptoms as I when she was younger and in the Philippines, but never spoke up about it.
Like I said, my parents and family members never had ill intentioned motives. Growing up in two conflicting cultures is just challenging because the two sometimes don’t align in certain areas. And because of that, I don’t really align with one or the other and I’m still figuring it out as I go. That’s okay. Being a first generation Filipino-American isn’t supposed to be easy or make sense, and I’m deciding what that identity means to my mental health.