Since conceiving WRTB, I have wanted to talk to a psychotherapist working within the Asian community to reveal insight into the truth behind the model minority mythos. I expected the interview to revolve around Don and his practice. But as it turned out, our talk was much more personally insightful and cringe inducing than I had imagined. After the conversation, I felt like I had been punched in the gut. In short, it felt like a session of therapy.
Don practices psychotherapy for both individuals and groups. This past year, he participated in a group where Asian Americans gathered to share their deepest struggles and vulnerabilities. Sitting together and talking, roles broke down. Over and over during our conversation, the word “narrative” came up. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all have stories handed down to us which we either accept or challenge – of the past, of who we are, and who we aspire to be. Some accept and live out these narratives. Others cut them off. Don did both: becoming an ideal elder son working in a traditional career; then dropping out of his career to do missionary work. According to Don, neither choice freed him.
Don: So that’s my narrative. When I was growing up, everyone said, “See. He’s going to Cal Poly. He’s going to be an Architect. See! Be like Don.” And that’s the story I’m trying to come back to, because I abandoned it early on. That plus we are model minorities. We are the engine of the whole consumptionist-ic machine. So that’s a powerful place. If they can keep us fairly decent and legitimate that’s the way the whole thing works.
Elliott: In a way we’re the ideal consumers. We make a lot of money, we work very hard, we spend it, we don’t talk about our issues, we don’t rock the boat. I feel like our community is at a crossroads. Either we’re going to be these perfect consumers or we’re going to begin dealing with what’s going on inside. Is this kind of narrowly defined success what we really want?
Don: Yeah and in the group I was with, everybody was at this crossroads. And at very intimate levels. It wasn’t just the cliche, “Am I gonna be an engineer or am I going to be an artist?” A lot of the stories were around love. Am I ever going to be legitimate enough to secure the love of a woman? Or as a woman, the only way they could be legitimate was if they secured a certain kind of man. But there were certain parts within, that if they followed them, would destroy the whole thing, because they wouldn’t be able to attract that kind of man or this kind of woman because they would be too far out of the box.
Elliott: Is it a shame thing? Is it because of a lack of love for oneself?
Don: Well for myself that narrative growing up “Be like Don”, really had whiplash to it. When I fulfilled the legitimate milestones of graduating college, getting a respectable job, then I was venerated, but when you begin to go into your 30s and begin to fail at some of those things. [switches to Filipino accent] “No wife yet?… Nothing?” Then I would get words like “Wala.” (Tagalog: empty; nothing)
Elliott: They would say that to you?
Don: My grandparents, not my parents. It was internalized in the culture. We understood what those looks meant. At the time I was living with all these heroin addicts and I was using my construction skills to help men to recover. All these homeless men working together, with tool belts, building patios together…It was probably one of the most profound experiences of my life just in terms of doing something different. But there was no money in it.
And when the woman I thought I would marry broke up with me, the female voices in my family and my father essentially said, “Well, you can’t blame her. You have nothing to offer.” What they meant was that I hadn’t consolidated my career. And they were right. But what I internalized is that sexually — and this is where it gets intimate — what makes you sexual and a legitimate choice as a husband is your ability to provide. That’s a woman’s bottom line.
Elliott: How much of that is culture or just a male/female gender role?
Don: I don’t know. It’s not just limited to Filipinos. It’s definitely strong in Filipino culture. The message was clear, all these things..blogs etc. you’re doing are really just a waste of time.
Elliott: I definitely feel that too. Because I started my own business, it’s doing ok. It pays the bills. But I feel a deep seated insecurity. I don’t have the fancy car, and all these nice things that show I’m successful. I don’t know if it’s an Asian thing where it’s actually ingrained in me that I have to have a certain level of income before I deserve a woman.
Don: I don’t think it’s just Asian. The whole culture says that. But it’s definitely amplified in my culture. It’s very concrete. I go to a Mennonite church and I notice a lot of the men there haven’t consolidated a career and have two children and they’re fine. But for me, when I started raising support to live and work with homeless men, my Dad literally said “I’d rather you not have children and not marry than live in that kind of shame and dependency.” For me it went straight to the core of sexuality and masculinity. And as you get older it becomes a real struggle. Now I’m almost 50 and I’m still not married and have no children. In Filipino culture, a man my age with no wife and children is thought of as either gay or crazy. I would be what you consider “Sayang” (a waste; wasted investment) because there is no fruit.
Elliott: That notion is something very core to traditional Asian cultures. That you are defined by your family relationships.
Don: Yeah, the “fruit” is so concretized in heterosexual marriage, the children, and the home, the second home, going on cruises, whatever. But a lot of my friends who are in their mid 40s are just beginning to wake up; to buck the narrative and try to make a left turn , but not many people do it. It’s hard because it’s too scary because you’re facing the possibility of being alone for the rest of your life. So that narrative is deep, it’s pervasive, it comes down to whether I will be loved and touched; and, “what do I need to do to earn that love and trust?” But then the sacrifices are horrendous. And as a therapist I see everyday people who made that choice and how much it cost them.
Elliott: I feel like I’m at that crossroads. And it’s terrifying because I see my friends taking the traditional routes, the model minorities. They’re continuing to follow the narrative, which my mind knows has it’s own problems, which does not lead to happiness automatically…but deep in my soul…I still believe it! I still want it! [mutual laughter]
Don: Most people can hold on to an alternative path till about 38 or 40. And then it’s just too much and then they begin to feel they either have to grab this partner and settle down or be like one of those people the family talks about who never got married.
Elliott: Oh I feel you’re talking about my life. This is terrible. [groans]
Don: With my clients I can feel the pull, it’s real, terrifying. You’re talking about our deepest existential soil. Will I be secure? Will I be alone? Or will I have love at the end of my life?
Elliott: What feels Asian about all this is that idealized narrative of immigration. We are the perfect immigrants. We aspire to get stable jobs, buy houses, settle down into the American dream. We never had the 60s counter culture, the hippie movement.
Don: Our narrative — me and you Elliott — we were supposed to redeem the sacrifices of our parents. So that narrative was not just to be successful, but to validate the older generations’ existence. That’s huge. That is like adding a thousand pounds to the ship. It’s more than just being successful in general. There’s a whole redemptive sacrificial piece to it. For me it was overwhelming. I went through depression. Some of my cousins struggled quietly with addiction, meth, or jail but kept quiet about it. At least I had the ability to get through school. Not everyone can get through school.
Elliott: Yeah that’s another narrative. Not all of us are meant to succeed in school.
Don: Few of us are actually.
Elliott: Not everyone is built like that. Our culture doesn’t have a tolerance for that.
Don: Later on I realized I wasn’t either but I had enough to get through. But some of my cousins didn’t. My cousins started to find their own narratives and for some, it was dangerous. Without any elders or any containment you are very vulnerable to a quick alternative narrative that tells you who you are and what to do. For me the Christian thing filled that void.
It served me for awhile. It gave me an identity of who I was and gave me another father who listened to me who cared for me, cared about qualities of my soul that my biological father didn’t. But it eventually led to this horrible split in myself. It took me 15 years to work through. I felt existentially disintegrated in my late 30s. The narrative blew up on me.
Elliott: Yeah that’s what I’m feeling in the last 5 years. As my self concepts begin to dissolve and reality hits, I find myself grasping for things. I am basically Buddhist even though I was raised a Christian. My truth is that we have to examine and work on ourselves one by one before collective change, and that’s why Buddhism and therapy makes sense to me. But Buddhism’s truths are very difficult to accept because we all want to grasp onto something to make us feel safe. But when you find that one person, or job, it just slips as reality is just shaky ground to begin with.
Don: Yeah for me the narrative got twisted around my sexuality, and spirituality. And only in the last 5 years have I been able to push some of that thicket away. Conscious-wise, this narrative it operates at the basic level of love and God.
Don: You can’t just paste over your narrative. You must struggle with your narrative to transform it. Christianity served me at the time in that it gave me another narrative that was inclusive of more parts of me than my Asian American one that basically said I was just a successful professional….but at the same time, it wasn’t my narrative.
Elliott: So was that when you hit the depression?
Don: It was progressive. In my 30s and 40s I swung back and forth. I would work for 3 years or so being a legitimate professional. I was a Facilities Manager for Nissan Corporation in North America. My Dad and I would then have great conversations. I had this veneer of confidence. I had the glossy card, construction manager etc. But then I would leave my cubicle and this emptiness, this molasses of depression would fill me. I would then swing in the other direction. I would quit those jobs without any plan and throw myself inappropriately by overidentifying with kids in juvenile hall, homeless men…I was trying to touch my own shame, but I couldn’t do it directly, so I was trying to touch their shame first. Almost to get a feel of what I felt on the inside. I was just very unconscious of my own shame; how abandoned I felt, like those kids in juvenile hall. The only role I could enter in was through the hero role.
So that was my 30s. In my 40s, I pulled back. I couldn’t sustain it. And so I began to go to therapy. And I think I called my therapist a few choice words in the beginning because I was so pissed off I had to pay to talk to somebody. I went to all these Asian American therapists but it didn’t click and I finally met this white Germanic guy and he totally got me. I never experienced this kind of power in a man. I saw him for almost 4 years. That experience gave me the basis for saying “Ok maybe I want to try being a therapist.”
Elliott: So you started again at 40?!
Don: I was going to PCC (a local community college) with freshmen. I was older than the teachers! I was taking statistics with 18 year olds going “What’s your major?”
Elliott: [groan] Aww. Man that would trigger so much stuff in me. The first born son, going to PCC at 40. Kudos to you!
Don: [laughter] But that’s the path. Or you just stay with what you got and you continue doing the paste over and you suffer. One of the things that I always had, I’m very relational and creative. It’s my best stuff. I had to carve a place in the world vocationally in order for me to exist.
It was terrifying to start over. I was at the top of my career in Construction Management. But I knew I wanted to do something meaningful and relational. It took me so long because I was stuck. I applied 3 or 4 times from age 30 on, but you just have to get to the point where you have nothing to lose… it’s too late, nothing else is working out. What held me back was fear of not making enough money. Fear of not owning a home. I remember thinking “If I make this choice, I probably will never own a home.”
Elliott: That a very valid, real, terrifying fear. That narrative thing…home, Asian American dream. What reasonable Asian American woman is going to want to date you if you’re renting? At least be aspiring to be a home owner.
Don: But what I want to say is that it’s so worth it. It is so worth it. You know probably deeper than most of us that you can’t manufacture intimacy itself, in marriage, with children. And it can get really painful in there if we’re not honest with ourselves.
Elliott: But the process of getting there is just so difficult ,painful, and lonely isn’t it? To dissect these narratives it takes a level of strength. You have to be really willing to go to some places that are not fun, and question really terrifying things. Am I making enough money? Will I be alone for the rest of my life? What will people think of me? What am I doing with my life?
Don: All that shame, all the self loathing. That’s the grist. But for the Asian American culture it’s also this revolution in consciousness where we stare at the shame. Many of us will end up alone; all of those dreams of having children will not happen. And yet to be able to go through that; to see through the model picture, that there’s lots of variations of that and being alone is not quite the same as really being generative and having a life that is really “life giving”. Sometimes single people without children are conceiving the most. Re-envisioning what it means to be a father and husband outside of this narrow shell of, only if you have biological offspring and a contractual marriage can you be a father or a legitimate man.
I have the privilege to help reframe all that shame. When a client asks me, “If I choose this path, will I find love?”, of course I can’t promise that it will. But I can say that this is the beginning of something authentic and important for your generation and family. These are the pathways that our children need us to open to open up for them. Otherwise they’re going to have to suffer under our narrow narratives.
Elliott: I’m interested to know what are some particular issues that are specific to Asian males?
Don: Well first I’ll speak generally. A lot of the men who really struggle are the more creative ones. The world doesn’t really host their gifts in a way that’s very legitimate. And so…this is not particular to Asian males, but feeling sexually marginalized. Pornography, etc. It’s not about sex, it’s about power. The virtual world becomes a place where men who feel sexually marginalized can come on top. But then you lose yourself in these worlds because they are not real. So talk about shame. More shame. Just heaps upon heaps upon heaps. Sexual addiction. Sexual anorexia.
Elliott: Sexual Anorexia?
Don: It’s a term my industry has coined. Especially for Asian men and Christian men, we can become so noble and so good that our sexuality can be cut off. There is the notion that if we fulfill all those goals we will get the girl. “Just tell me what to do, I’ll do that, get the job, what else do I need to do to get the girl?” But the good boy doesn’t get the girl.
Elliott: I think in Asia that still tends to work. When I lived in China, it was fascinating to see where these notions came from, and to see that the society supports it. But when you transport that to the West, to follow the rules and be the good son, it doesn’t work.
Don: That’s one realm where it doesn’t quite work. It’s their sexuality. That’s alive, a living thing.
Elliott: You just can’t study it. [laughter]
Don: There’s the option of partnering with somebody around that old way of being. But I see those marriages in my office everyday and you can feel the simmering pain. The old way doesn’t necessarily work either. But if you hold out for that, true partnership, true connection there’s a good chance you’ll never find anyone! [groans]
I can’t guarantee my clients that if you’re authentic, you’ll find a partner. But you may.
Elliott: And what are some common themes for Asian women clients?
Don: Same pressure but depending on the culture they have a double struggle. Even if they get a career they are not legitimate unless they have children. They can’t fulfill the narrative, and that can be a very painful place. So what do you do? I think they’re more oppressed so to speak. For them to even come out has a lot of costs. We as men are at least taught to speak out, but for some cultures such as Japanese culture even verbalizing these things is already a huge taboo. But also, honestly facing that precipice of perhaps not having children is harder because they face the biological clock. We don’t. Those are very deep struggles that take up a lot of energy.
Elliott: So you’re involved in vermicomposting (worm farming). How did that come about?
Don: Have you heard of the Transitions movement? It’s people that are recognizing that the current system is not sustainable. But if we create a utopia that’s also not realistic, so we have to transition slowly. And part of that transition is creating cottage industries. But short story is it’s a part of me that’s trying to find a way to live in way that’s not so classist. Because in this world, as a professional, I’m the healer, I’m the priest. But in the world of worms and nature everybody heals, everybody is an agent of change. I know that it’s the only way to change our whole culture. Therapy is so limited – it’s powerful, but there’s a part of me that longs for collective change too.
Elliott: One thing I’m seeing a lot now is Asian American political activism. We’re fighting, fighting racism or whatever. But what I think is really happening there is that we are externalizing some internal conflict we have with our own families, our own culture, and ourselves.
Don: Yeah that’s just topsoil. The stuff that is going to make us healthy in the long run has to do with internalization, how we’ve internalized all these things in our own lives….and that’s way beyond ethnicity.