Was my American Dream really my own or was it just yet another unattainable set of expectations that had been forced upon me by a demanding society? As the daughter of two Chinese immigrants, I’ve always pondered the true meaning of “The American Dream.” For me, and many like myself, that meant trying to be the best we could so that our achievements could give value and worth to our parent’s sacrifices. But among those high standards also came the burden of self-imposed scrutiny and hatred. Though I am an American by birth and heritage, as a Chinese American I always felt like I was being observed under a microscope by a pair of judgmental eyes. For the longest time I was taught to believe that the American Dream was a linear path that I had to travel in order to fulfill my duties as the daughter of two immigrants.
While this so-called American Dream of assimilation and perfection may sound nice in theory, in reality, it is only a set of detrimental values and pressures pushed onto minorities. In my case, I realized that The American Dream was another phrase for society’s unfair expectations of Asian Americans and a reinforcement of the model minority stereotype. Growing up, I was taught that my purpose in life was to get good grades, excel in sports, go to a prestigious college, make money, have kids, and build a life of excellence; simply put, there was no room for error, no space for unnecessary emotions, and the existence of “mental health” was out of the question. But this mindset of perfection wasn’t a creation of my own, rather a warped version of The American Dream that had been drilled into my head by a society that viewed young Asian Americans in a false light.
I struggled with two eating disorders for about three years, and I never asked for help because I lived in a society that expected perfection from girls like me, while inheriting a culture that viewed mental health as weakness. The image of the perfect Asian American girl was not me at all, and the pressures of the model minority stereotype, alongside balancing two cultural backgrounds proved to be too much for me to handle; in a sick way, my eating disorder helped me cope with these struggles while also single handedly destroying my health, happiness, and overall well-being. Sadly, my experience is non-unique, as many individuals share this same twisted mindset. Except, I was lucky enough to have received treatment and professional help before it was too late.
On July 16, 2021, I was admitted to a residential eating disorder treatment center at the age of fourteen. I stayed in treatment for about four months while the outside world continued on.
But receiving professional help was no easy feat. Within the Asian community alone, there is heavy amounts of stigma attached to mental health, especially relating to eating disorders. Dr. Geoffrey Liu, a psychiatrist at the University of Maryland notes the stigma in the Asian community; he explains the taboo topic of mental health and how it is often viewed as weakness or “the ultimate form of shame.”
Though it would be easier to blame the disparity of Asian Americans receiving psychiatric help on cultural stigma alone, this stance is false. In reality, the pressure of the model minority stereotype is also a major contributor to the added stigma around Asian Americans and mental health. Since the first major wave of Asian immigrants coming to America in the mid 1800’s, Asian Americans have been coined the term “model minority,” characterizing them as a hardworking and industrious group that effortlessly integrated into American society; though it sounds flattering, this characterization creates disparity between Asian Americans and other people of color, as well as creating unrealistic pressures and expectations that prevent individuals from being seen authentically. The model minority myth enhances the stigma around mental health, as admitting “weakness” would be letting down an entire ethnic group and community for Asian Americans. Lastly, data from the National Latino and Asian American Study found that Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek mental health services compared to White individuals.
The narrative pushed by society of the perfect Asian American creates a warped perception of The American Dream and prevents individuals from seeking out help. Though only about 8.6% of Asian Americans seek out mental help, there are so many others struggling who go unaccounted for. Through my experience, I hope to encourage others to reach out for help, despite the obstacles in place. Though treatment was extremely challenging, choosing recovery saved my life and I will never regret that choice. Positive change starts with education about mental health and accessible resources to those who need it.
Growing up I have been told what I should do, how I should act, who I should be. As I grew older it became what I should look like, how much I should weigh, what I should accomplish, who I should become. But when I was in treatment, I realized that I was tired of constantly being told what I had to do in order to be accepted by our society. This idea of The American Dream, what I should accomplish to prove my worth, had consequently led to a lifetime worth of insecurity and dysmorphia that I no longer wanted to carry.
So, I choose to pick what direction I want to lead my life; I choose to define my own American dream. I choose to feel proud of my recovery rather than ashamed of my struggle. That is what the American Dream truly means to me: the freedom to live my life, free from judgement.