Where do your roots lie?
Our roots can stretch across continents, and they don’t always have a single point of origin.
I was born in Taiwan, which makes me a first-generation immigrant.
As a toddler, I never really had a father figure, it was just me, my mother and our extended family. Years later I learned my father was still finishing his Bachelor’s degree in Los Angeles. My grandfather was a violent alcoholic, and my uncle was always in some sort of trouble. My grandmother and the other elderly ladies raised us children; they were my family. Being with them was the only time I really remember being truly, inexplicably happy in my life.
In Chinese culture, there is no phrase for “mental health.” Sure, there are words for disorders like anxiety or depression, but Chinese social values don’t see maintaining mental health as a state of well-being — instead, it is seen as a disease of the mind. Asian people, particularly older generations, don’t talk about mental health and often see struggling with mental illness as a weakness.
This stigma is part of why I was always ashamed to confront my mental illness. It felt shameful to admit that despite having all my the basic needs to live a comfortable life met, I wasn’t ever happy. When I was clinically diagnosed, I spiraled deeper into embarrassment. What would my family think? What would my community think? How could I let myself become like this? It felt like I was sticking a giant middle finger to all of the cultural values that had been instilled in me.
One of my family’s foundational values is the concept of filial piety. In essence, this means duty to the family because the family’s bloodline is passed down from generation to generation. Chinese children know from birth that they are the extensions of their families, and because of this, their every action will reflect onto their family. From birth, we are taught to save face to bring pride to our families. We spend our lives bound to our families because we have to give back for everything they did to raise us.
As an immigrant child, this tradition was always held over my head. My family constantly reminded me how hard it was to make a life here in America. They told me how many long hours they had to work, how we had to live paycheck to paycheck just to make ends meet. Everything they did, all the places we moved to and from, all the late nights, were for me to have a “better life than they did.”
As the only child, it often felt like I was holding the halves of my family together. I was passed back and forth between my parents, the two sides of my family, acting as the peace offering, the mediator, and the scapegoat. I always felt stuck, so I bided my time, planning my escape once I left for college.
Just as I was always caught between the two halves of my family, I felt caught in between two worlds in America. I went to American school, learned American history, and spoke English. At home, I spoke Chinese, ate Chinese foods, and learned Chinese proverbs at Chinese school. My Chinese has an American accent and I can’t pronounce some English words correctly.
Even when I moved to college when I was 18, I still couldn’t be fully independent without cutting ties with my family. My feet were always parted on two separate spheres, and as I got older, the spheres started to grow farther and farther apart until I was stretched thin.
When I came to college, I was tired of the familial duty. I was tired of leading two lives, one where I had to put my family first and the other where I got to put myself first. So when I got to UCSD, I threw caution out the window and slowly started losing touch with my roots. I lost touch with my extended family on both sides. I barely noticed, but if I had, I probably would’ve thought that this a small price to pay for my freedom. I didn’t know then that personal autonomy doesn’t require complete rebranding. I was desperate to outrun my roots because I had never come to terms with how they had affected me and shaped my personality and mental health.
In Asian culture, we are taught from birth to internalize. To be silent, to work our frustrations away, to achieve happiness by giving back to our families that raised us. I had grown up justifying the toxicity in my household, making excuses for the way I was treated because I convinced myself that my family gave me everything I needed to grow up into a healthy, successful woman. I had food, a roof over my head, and access to education. Now I see that this doesn’t excuse the psychological damage that came as a result of growing up this way.
I think I ran away from my roots in college because I couldn’t face my family, which I had always put first before myself. How could I justify the scars on my arms? How could I explain my instability? Is this how I had chosen to give back to them for their years of toil and labor?
To tell the truth, I’ve turned out just fine, and I know that I have the resources at my fingertips to succeed in any career field I choose. I am thankful for the foundation my family laid out for me, and I am certain that I wouldn’t have made it this far without them. Even so, this doesn’t justify the way they tore me down and gaslit me. This doesn’t justify the trauma I am still trying to unlearn because I grew up knowing fear, anger, and hatred better than love and kindness.
In Asian culture, we are not taught how to communicate openly and honestly. This is largely because within generations, we were never given a chance to when we were little. As I lost touch with my culture in college, I felt empty. I felt like I was eclipsing part of my identity. Over time, I have learned that duty and self are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to place value in family while also maintaining personal freedom. The key for me was finding the balance. I know now that I will never be just Chinese or American. And while my culture is a foundational part of my identity, it doesn’t always have to consume who I am.
During the lockdown, I started to take better care of myself, both physically and mentally. This allowed me to reapproach my connection to my roots, to understand that my family and I had to fall apart to find each other again. I had to lose sight of them and they had to lose me before we both realized how to coexist together in a way that wasn’t toxic or overbearing. When we talk to each other now, I try my best to meet them halfway. But I have started setting hard boundaries that they can’t cross, such as calling me slurs or imposing unrealistic rules and expectations. It has been a difficult but worthwhile process.
I’ve been enjoying more home-cooked Chinese meals and sitting with my calligraphy brush on the weekends. I also like practicing my Chinese with my grandparents on the phone, because it brings me closer to my heritage and to my family. Finding the balance between all the facets of my character has helped me feel more whole. While I can’t tell you that I know what happiness is, I feel the faint glimmer pass through me fleetingly some days. And I’d say that’s a pretty good sign.
I’ve learned a lot from my family about upbringing and how it is passed down from generation to generation. They are my roots, and while roots lay the foundations of who we are, we get to choose where and how we grow. The more I think about it, I’m still that confused little girl that came to America when she was just four years old. Today, I am a woman of color, someone I know that would make that little girl proud.
How have your roots shaped you? Do you know where to find them? Remembering our childhoods can be difficult, but they can be an intrinsic puzzle piece that completes the narrative we’re writing of ourselves today.
Take care until next month!
Ella Chen is the Editor-in-Chief of The Triton. You can follow her @cinder_ellachen.