by Hyunji Hannah Lee 이현지
"Let's Talk is a conference that was intended for Asian Americans and Asians, thinking about biculturalism and what it means to live in one culture and go to another to function; to go in and out seamlessly through both. We don't know if there are too many spaces where the conversation is [dedicated to being] all about that identity."
-- Dr. Josephine Kim, Harvard Graduate School of Education
This past week, my sister came from out of town to visit me in Boston. She had been here for less than five hours before she encountered a microaggression from a man who passed by her on the Red Line who said, "Hey there, China girl."
The very next day, as we got into our Lyft ride going home from Downtown Boston, the driver greeted her with a simple "Hey there, how are you?" To this she responded by saying "Hey, I'm good. How are you?" with perfect, accent-less English (as if there is something wrong with having an accent, even when it is usually indicative of another or more languages someone can brilliantly speak other than English…). She was met with another not-so-shocking microaggression. The Lyft driver continued to make comments throughout our ride from Downtown Boston to Cambridge about how well she spoke English, and how she did not sound like a foreigner at all.
Unfortunately, the experiences of being treated as an "outsider" for Asian and Asian Americans are not unique to my sister. If you speak to even a handful of people in the community, they will most likely be able to tell you of similar alienating experiences, of varying horrifying degrees.
As for me, my family and I immigrated to Orlando, Florida in 2002 from Seoul, South Korea. Don't get me wrong; I hold my identity as an immigrant proudly. It is an integral aspect of who I am, and I am incredibly proud of the work I have put in to achieve the same level of success as American-born students. However, after having grown up in the US since I was seven years old, continuing to be treated or witness the treatment of other Asian and Asian Americans as a perpetual foreigner/simplified model minority has been and always will be extremely disheartening.
Not being addressed as a community that belongs in majority -- or oftentimes even minority -- spaces is detrimental to Asian and Asian Americans' sense of self and mental health. A sense of belonging is one of the most basic human needs according to Abraham Maslow, a renowned psychologist best known for creating the Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. It is unsurprising then, that a lack of the sense of belongingness in the US has been linked with negative mental health outcomes for Asian and Asian Americans such has depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and the like.
In fact, research continues to show that Asian American students tend to report more experiences of mental health concerns such as depression and social anxiety than their majority student peers (Okazaki, 1997,2000; Okazaki & Kallivayalil, 2002; Sue, Ino, & Sue, 1983). Even when compared to racial/ethnic minority peers -- African Americans and Latinx Americans -- Asian Americans report as having the lowest self-esteem out of these three groups (Green and Way, 2005).
Thus, as HGSE's very own expert Dr. Josephine Kim summarized so well in the quote above, Let's Talk is a space that is operated by and created for Asian and Asian American students. The Let's Talk conference aims to address the aforementioned unique and pressing needs of this community related to mental health.
The organizing team has been hard at work with incredible dedication and passion since the fall semester. They are made up of international Asian and Asian American students who essentially have gathered together to create a space that they themselves have often needed when feeling distressed and wanting a sense of belonging and support.
On March 24th, conference day, Dr. Kim and other mental health practitioners in the greater Boston area plan on educating conference participants on common experiences of distress as experienced by Asian and Asian Americans. However, I am most excited about the incredibly rich workshops that HGSE and other graduate students themselves are preparing. Some of the themes for the workshop sessions include: Reverse Cultural Shock for International Students, South Asian American Mental Health and Healthy Relationships, AAPI in Non-Traditional Careers, Asian American Masculinity, Advocacy for LGBTQIA+ AAPIs, Faith, Culture, and Mental Health, and more.
Through our work, through this space, and through this movement, we are hoping to make something clear. We hope to declare in and outside of our community that we matter, that we are powerful, and that we are Learning to Change the World.
- Greene, M. L., & Way, N. (2005). Self-Esteem Trajectories among Ethnic Minority Adolescents: A Growth Curve Analysis of the Patterns and Predictors of Change. Journal of Research on Adolescence (Wiley-Blackwell), 15(2), 151-177. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1532-7795.2005.00090.x
- Okazaki, S. (1997). Sources of ethnic differences between Asian American and White American college students on measures of depression and social anxiety. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 106, 52-60.
- Okazaki, S. (2000). Asian American arid White American differences on affective distress symptoms: Do symptom reports differ across reporting methods? Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 31, 603-625.
- Okazaki, S., & Kallivayalil, D. (2002). Cultural norms and subjective disability as predictors of symptom reports among Asian Americans and White Americans. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 33,482-491.