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  • Vanessa Nguyen

What It Means To Be Asian in America: Recognizing and breaking the cycle of trauma

The rise in hate crimes against the AAPI community has left many of us questioning not just our identity as Asian-Americans, but how we can move forward from the cycles of trauma in a society that has conditioned us to minimize our experiences. What does it mean to be Asian-American in the 21st century? If you’re a part of the Asian diaspora, it means simultaneously navigating the trauma of the current climate while also trying to understand and address the intergenerational trauma that is so heavily tied into our identities as children of immigrants and refugees. It means having our identities rooted in the dichotomous nature of collectivistic values and western individuality. It means living in that void between our proximity to whiteness and the perpetual foreigner stereotype. It means having to play catch-up with the transmission of trauma passed down to us by our parents and relatives, understanding our own personal trauma, and coming together in solidarity against the collective trauma caused by senseless attacks on our communities. For those of you who are feeling burnt out, ignored, and misunderstood; you are not alone. Many of us are navigating issues of race, gender, and class in a modern world that seems to repeat the same cycles of oppression and violence. The question we’re all left with now, is how we can simultaneously recognize and break these cycles of trauma when so many of us, including our parents, are still afraid to admit that we are suffering.

Some decades ago, our parents and relatives migrated to the states to escape oppressive and violent conditions that plagued their countries during historically tragic events such as the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge. Facing war, genocide, and the loss of their home countries; many of our relatives arrived in the States carrying with them the trauma of witnessing large-scale deaths, poverty, and displacement. Alongside PTSD, they also brought over the resilient nature of their determination to survive, socioeconomic struggles, maladaptive coping patterns, acculturation and assimilation stress, and the traditional and collectivistic values of their era. “Why can’t you be more like me when I was your age?” is a common question that many of us have heard growing up through moments of navigating between our collectivistic cultures and our individual identities. Our methods of self-identifying have always included our sense of belonging in the communities and families that we represent, a common characteristic of collectivistic Asian cultures. Because of this, our experiences and perspectives are often so interdependently intertwined with those of our families.

Photo: Ann

Our current generation may not have lived through the severity of war-related events of our parents’ and ancestors’ eras, but we have felt the multitude of trauma transmission through factors such as harsh parenting styles, dysfunctional communication patterns, domestic and family violence, and parental withdrawal growing up. Our parents’ and ancestors’ struggles are a large part of us whether we accept it or not. Over the course of history, millions of our ancestors have suffered from being forcibly displaced from their homes, experiencing gross humans’ rights violations, and witnessing violence and destruction brought on by oppressive systems. Existing literature and research on intergenerational trauma suggest that horrific events such as the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, and the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia have long-term traumatic effects not just on the mental health and well-being of the victims, but on the descendants as well. These considerable studies call our attention to the topic of intergenerational transmission of trauma and how the lives, mental health, and experiences of victims and their descendants are interdependent and reciprocally impacted by trauma. On the one hand, our individualistic tendencies are craving to be our own person through the independence and uniqueness that is so common of western cultures. On the other hand, however, we can’t ignore that all our experiences are interconnected with other members of our AAPI communities. That is the dichotomous nature of being Asian in America.

It is up to us, now, to find healthy ways of honoring our parents’ and ancestors’ pasts while also addressing and unlearning so many of the maladaptive coping patterns that have been conditioned and ingrained in us. We can simultaneously respect and appreciate the hardships that our parents have gone through, while also rejecting some of the values and perspectives that they have brought with them which no longer resonate with us. If we want to break the cycle of trauma and PTSD, it is important to encourage healthy conversations around topics that have been traditionally considered taboo by Asian cultures such as mental health and sexuality. We need to be able to openly discuss how our elders are being violently targeted while our women are constantly being sexualized and fetishized. Breaking the cycle of trauma means being able to recognize and address the areas where trauma arises. It also means being able to recognize where feelings of shame and embarrassment arise around these topics and giving ourselves permission to change the traditional narratives that surround mental health and trauma. We can advocate for the healing and recovery of our parents’ generations and ours, while also unlearning harmful and outdated worldviews that cause us to minimize ourselves and our experiences. A study done by the Asian American Psychological Association found that due to the COVID-19 pandemic and current climate of anti-Asian racism, the population of Asian-American young adults with depressive and anxiety symptoms have risen to 41%. Those of us who have been discriminated against are more than twice as likely to report with depression and anxiety.

Today’s generations of Asian Americans must navigate the collective trauma of the current climate while also dealing with the intergenerational trauma from our parents’ and grandparents’ eras. It is not easy being Asian in America in the 21st century, but we are fortunate to have so many resources and organizations that are committed to elevating our voices and experiences. We can continue this important work by elevating the voices of our parents, our relatives, and ourselves. The first step is recognizing some of the common symptoms of trauma which may include:

  1. dissociation

  2. feelings of shame and guilt

  3. feelings of helplessness and worthlessness

  4. isolation and withdrawal

  5. difficulty regulating our moods and emotions

  6. nightmares

  7. feelings of depression

  8. feelings of anxiety

Secondly, to give ourselves permission to seek help by confiding in our loved ones and reaching out to organizations that are committed to helping AAPI communities such as:


Cover photo: Jason Leung


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