September 12, 2016

ON MY MIND | Coloring in Mental Illness

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Photo Courtesy of Chitrapa at English Wikipedia

Near the apartment complex where I used to live, there’s this small Chinese restaurant called Tasty Egg Roll. Here’s a hymn I just composed in honor of that place:

O orange beef!
You are a savory, soaked hide of caramelized rubber.
O house special lo-mein!
I am rechristened in the baptismal font of your styrofoam container,
slick with yellow grease.
O Tasty Egg Roll! To me a temple of mind and body and soul.

Tasty Egg Roll also happens to be the site of a confusing and uncomfortable memory that I can’t erase no matter how hard I try.

I was 14, maybe. My mom had sent me to pick up a to-go order. The transaction of goods was swift and cheery because I was, as I definitely am not now, a consummate professional. With sacred cargo in tow, I pushed the restaurant door open, strode through it towards the minivan – and stopped.

A truck blocked my path. In the fading light of late afternoon, I could barely make out a group of white faces grinning at me through rolled-down windows. And then a voice called out:


By the time I’d registered the words and bristled in preface to formulating an appropriate retort, the truck had veered off in a black plume of global warming and riotous snickering laughter. I felt all the blood drain from my body and into the sidewalk where I stood. In that spot I remained, a cold statue, a featureless accessory to the landscape, a lone, busted streetlight. My ears had stopped working, or the world had stopped humming to me. Total silence, then.

Eventually sound returned. I uprooted myself from the pavement and somehow ended up in the car. I think I made a remark to my mom on what had just happened, but it was just a quick blip of quiet incredulity. Most of me was still stuck back there in that moment, processing.

The whole affair probably lasted no more than 10 seconds, but it left an indelible mark on my consciousness. Maybe I’d already begun to dramatize that brief moment in my mind but only because it puzzled me so completely. I couldn’t help it. So many questions dropped down like so many lead weights to burrow snarled spirals deep into my brain.

Why did that even happen? I don’t think I knew those people – did I? That was racist, right? But what even qualifies as racism? Couldn’t it just have been teenagers being stupid? Doesn’t everyone get made fun of at some point in their lives? It’s not like they threw anything at me. But why f*cking Pikachu of all things? Is it because of the way I look? Is there something wrong with me?

Why am I still thinking about this? Why can’t I just forget it ever happened? Have the people in that truck forgotten? Probably. Then what’s wrong with me?

Many of us who call ourselves minorities have had similar experiences. These moments mark a stark revelation – Wait, I’m not white? Which eventually turns into – Is it because I’m not white?

As far as I can tell, I’ve been aware of my non-whiteness ever since I was old enough to realize the difference between the people at my Korean church and those at my predominantly white school. When my classmates started having “boyfriends” and “girlfriends” in fifth grade, I would pray to God, asking him to please make me white. If I could get that, then maybe girls would look at me the way they looked at all the other tall, blonde, blue-eyed, sharp-nosed boys. I grew increasingly frustrated at my body. How come all my swimming competitors seemed to hit a 7-inch growth spurt, except me? Because I’m Korean, obviously. And then, with the Pikachu thing, I developed a habit of subconsciously dropping into fight-or-flight mode whenever groups of laughing strangers passed by. Gradually and quite suddenly, I was hyper-aware of my face and skin.

And so it has come to pass that a hatred towards my skin has moved on to bigger and better things: the person underneath.

Let me be clear – I’m not blaming white people/white America for my day-to-day brushes with anxiety and self-loathing. The pit I find myself in has seen many different hands holding many different shovels – not least among them my own. I’m also not spinning a universal sob story of racial victimization. Having a skin tone doesn’t invariably necessitate hating yourself for it. There are plenty of people of color who are perfectly satisfied with themselves, just as there are plenty of white people who suffer from mental illness.

What I am saying, however, is that small, almost random incidents like what happened on the curb of Tasty Egg Roll can reverberate and amplify over time until they become an integral part of the stories we construct about ourselves. So when people of color have some issue with mental health, it’s often inextricably linked to the names, stereotypes, and expectations thrown at us along a trajectory of race and ethnicity. As an Asian-American male, that means the model minority myth (aka “I’m so glad I have an Asian in my group project!”), emasculation (aka jokes about my dick size) and racist generalization (aka “Hey! If I say, ‘Ching chang chong!’ what does that mean?”) – or any exciting, original combinations thereof.

It means my most persistent fears of abandonment, anonymity and ridicule partially stem from being one of many slant-eyed, flat-nosed, Pikachu-looking motherf*ckers on this campus.

It means that meaningful expressions of my identity are evaporated by a desperate urge to compare myself to and distance myself from all the other slant-eyed, flat-nosed, Pikachu-looking motherf*ckers on this campus.

It means I get caught in these infuriating mental merry-go-rounds where the line between external racism and internal paranoia gets smeared, distorted and eventually rendered senseless.

It means I’m paralyzed from seeking psychiatric help because counseling and medication are for white people, not for me.

It means that, from my perspective, any attempts to feel like I have a place in this world are realistically pared down to three options:

  1. Adapt to whiteness as best I can in order to be seen as normal, or
  2. disassemble my racial makeup until I fit into my designated slot on the ethnic rainbow color palette of “diversity”, or
  3. failure.

And it means I disassociate from all these realities by addicting myself to the bright screens which, coincidentally, have graciously allowed me to bring to you this heart-warming article.