Keeping Up Appearances As a 'Model Minority' Can Have Serious Mental Health Consequences
For 20-year-old Annie Shi, nothing was scarier than messing up during a piano lesson while her mom was sitting next to her. She could feel the anger and disapproval emanating from her. She knew that once they got into the car, her mom was going to scream at her. And yet, in front of the teacher, her mother remained calm and smiling.
This was one of Shi's early exposures to the cultural idea of face, or mianzi in Chinese. Face is a loaded psychological concept, but at its core, it’s how a person is viewed in the eyes of others. Maintaining and keeping face is a crucial part of upholding you and your family's honor. Losing face is a terrible thing—that's what would have happened if Shi's mom had yelled at her in front of the piano teacher, and what was taking place with each wrong note that Shi played.
Face isn't new—it dates back to the 4th century B.C. in China. But its presence in modern American life is colliding with a newer construct that Asians grapple with: the model minority myth. Since the 1950s and 60s, Asian Americans have been designated as the success story for immigrants coming to the U.S. The model minority myth says that all Asians are hardworking, non-disruptive, have strong family values, and raise kids that are preternaturally intelligent, excel at classical music, and go to Ivy League schools for engineering and medicine.
This myth is problematic for many reasons. It generalizes a heterogeneous mix of people, it pits minorities against one another, and brushes aside the discrimination Asians do experience every day. And when it gets tangled up with face—which decrees that status be stringently upheld—it creates an intense pressure for young Asian Americans, contributing to an uptick in serious mental health issues as they try to maintain face's high standards.
“This myth is creating a whole generation of kids with depression and suicidal tendencies because they’re being told by everyone around them they should be doing things that are impossible to achieve,” Shi said. “And the pedestal gets higher and higher, because there are a few kids who somehow achieve it. They achieve it by suffering, but they don’t talk about that.”
That can result in serious consequences for well-being. “I think it’s extremely detrimental to mental health because we are constantly sitting under this immense pressure of ‘face’ that, honestly, who really knows what it is?” Anna said. “It’s an added pressure that Asians add to themselves because they want to preserve something that they are taught from a young age that they have to maintain.”
Mental health is already stigmatized and a topic not broached in Asian families or amongst friends, partially because of face. That combined with the pressures to uphold the standards of the model minority can result in anxiety, depression, and suicide. Shi said she was burned out by the time they were 11 years old. “I was just completely depressed," she said. "I’m a good example of how badly the model minority myth hurt me, because I became suicidal in middle school and no one would listen to me.”
Asian Americans don’t report as many mental health disorders, but according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), are more likely to consider and attempt suicide. Asian Americans are also three times less likely to seek out treatment compared to white people. The U.S. non-profit Mental Health America found that Asian Americans are the least likely to have a mental health diagnosis, even though 57 percent who took a mental health screening had scores that indicated they were moderately to severely depressed.
When Asians were declared a model minority—by the community itself, and then embraced as such by Westerners—face put on the pressure to maintain it. It needs to be recognized that Asian Americans are a diverse amalgam of different cultures that contains both ends of the spectrum: those that have “succeeded," in the traditional sense, but many who haven’t. Then, perhaps there can be the acknowledgement that anyone can break under immense pressure, and discussions of mental health can be normalized.