Ask a Model Minority Suicide: Hello

November 11, 2010

I don’t claim to be dead. But I do feel a bit Ghost of Christmas Future, cropping up to show you your options -- because if you’re the person I’m trying to reach, then this future is an afterlife you don’t believe exists.

Not so many years ago, I spent a few long seconds on a railing of the Golden Gate Bridge, then a few long days in mandatory hold at the county hospital.  

Here’s the thing: Unless you yourself were living the same puzzle, I doubt you’d have been able to tell. As a daughter of hardworking, upstanding Asian immigrants, I kept my nails clean and my shoes shined. Summa cum laude? Check. Top-ranked graduate program? Check. Fiscally responsible? Check. Smile and banter? Check.  

This is not the profile of a suicide. Unless, that is, you are Asian American. Psychologists at University of California, Davis, are finding that -- unlike every other racial demographic -- Asian American college students suffering from severe depression and suicidal ideation don’t necessarily “present” with falling grades, sub-par performance. Instead, if there’s a correlation, it may be in the opposite direction. High-achievers, low resilience.

How to explain this? Utter the words "model minority" within earshot of a university and someone will trot out the usual suspects:  i.e., white America makes room in its racial paradigms only for successful Asians; the rest of us might as well be invisible. Is this true? And does it make failure more unthinkable? Arguably. But did I try to step off a bridge because the only Asians I see on TV wear lab coats? Please.  

Did I try to step off a bridge because the only Asians my family, my community see wear lab coats? Because no amount of effort, accomplishment, or good faith could shield me from being called worthless? Well, yes.

Better dream of nothing but prestige for the family; better want nothing but what’s practical; better be perfect because any mistake is disobedience; better not question because resistance is ingratitude; better get used to your permanent inadequacy. Clothes worn, meals eaten, air breathed -- all these were filial obligations to be repaid, in denominations of selfhood.

Mine is not a unique upbringing; not hardly. Which is why this column. Seeing no reason to believe that future outcomes would do anything but follow past performance, I left the psych hold unable to assure myself that I wouldn’t be back -- on a ledge, beside a bottle, in a tub someday.  

Yet I’ve not been back since, and can say with awe that I no longer finger the brink of my life compulsively for comfort.  

Had any shrink, friend, or fortune teller tried to console me then, that things would change, that this future -- my present -- would know such peace, I’d have slapped his hand away: Don’t palm off your cheap platitudes on me. But I think, if Dickens were to send me back now to visit my sixteen-year-old self, she might believe me.  

So I’m here to help if I can, whether that means holding up my lightbulb moments for you to consider, or simply providing a safe place to compare notes. Here’s who I think you may be: second-generation Asian American, raised with sights set for Harvard, played the piano or violin, practiced math problems over summer breaks, and -- Why can’t you be like your cousin? What will people say? You make me ashamed to be your mother -- used to having things like that echo in your head.

Someone will yell at me here for generalizing or stereotyping or plain for making Asian immigrants look bad. Sure, every family surprises -- is more or less than Form -- in some way. Including mine. And if none of this rings true to the family that raised you or the families you’ve seen, congratulations. But if you find yourself here, asking questions of an Asian immigrants’ daughter because you, too, fondle the end of a rope, then I believe we have more, important things in common than not. Hum a few notes, and I may know your song.

* * *

Ask a Model Minority Suicide is a Hyphen series on mental health. Resource Guide here. How to Choose Your Therapist here.  Go here to see all posts in this series.

Comments, questions, or stories can be posted below -- or sent privately to Sam at aamms[at]hyphenmagazine[dot]com.



Ask a Model Minority Suicide


Sam is an alias, of course, but for a real person. Feel free to contact her directly
at aamms[at]hyphenmagazine[dot]com.




Wow! this is a great article and it will be a life changing column for many.  I believe that because so many people DON'T talk about suicide, yet how many of us have had to face the reality of it. I am sorry for the difficulty and despair you have had to endure and I am SO glad you were able to accept the changes that kept you with the rest of us! The impact of talking about depression and suicidal ideation can only help people understand, to be educated, in such a common problem, mental health and wellness, and illness. Suicide victims number twice as many homicide victims but is less spoken of than AIDS. I look forward to the next column.

Will do my best!  And will look forward to hearing your thoughts, too.

Wow this is going to be a great column and I'm looking very forward to it.  It's definitely something that needs to be highlighted and discussed more, thank you!
Thanks for starting a column on this topic.  It is definitely a topic of concern among Asian Americans today who face many pressures and grapple with saving face and finding acceptance.  We need supportive networks and communities with whom we can share our deepest thoughts and be transparent about what's going on in our lives...even if it's not so pretty.  I look forward to reading more from you!  

Thank you both.  Hopefully we'll be able to start a good conversation here.

I've been struggling with these issues my whole life. I've always achieved my parents standards, and when I became my own person and "grew up" their standards became my standards. Be the best, the most skilled, the smartest, socially "skilled"... but no matter how much I achieved these standards, it was never enough. Sort of like a drug addiction, or money addiction. Every day I'd wake up and then all these social standards would come in to my consciousness, and it'd be a day long struggle to maintain them. I felt like that dog in Disney's mulan, where mulan tied a stick on the dogs head, and dangled a bone in front of the dog to make him futilely chase it to spread rice to feed the chickens. ha!   It seems that prestige is a false and outdated glory that we asians are raised to chase. Reminds me of that Lupe fiasco song, The Cool. "Come, these are the tales of the cool...make you chase an unholy grail like a fool.."   Then, after finding out that Oxycontin was a better subsitute for the high of prestige and asian pride, I spent a couple years as a closet junkie.. and eventually, on the brink of suicide, something psychologically strange happened. One night, I was depressed beyond depressed, and I finally gave up hope in my "face". Then something weirder happened, it felt like the world was suddenly really tiny, and then huge, and then it felt like electricity shot down the top of my head, down to my heart, and then I felt so goddamn happy and loved and felt so much relief, I couldn't believe it. It was really strange, that experience completely blew apart my structured, rational, logical, scientific system of thinking that I used to make sense of life. All the love that I worked for and hoped to find in prestige, pride, and face, I found when I had let go and gave up hope in prestige, pride and face. Weird huh? How does that zen quote go? "if you are seeking it, you are not finding it." Something like that. The next morning, I woke up without my "face", which was strange, because I thought my identity was my face. For the next couple days, I could walk outside and not feel an ounce of self consciousness or judgement, and it felt so damn good and liberating. I could look people in the eye and not look down like I normally would.. However, as I went back to college and work, the judgements came back, as well as my "face"... But I had glimpsed the other side, and that gave me the hope and perspective I needed to unravel all these confusing psychological structures.   But its seems the more energy you invest into your pride, your prestige, your "face", the harder it is to let go of it, because it feels like your face is your place in society.   I think what this generation of overseas Asians are going through is a psychological crisis where we have to unravel the outdated social structures of confucianism. It seems that all the standards that our parents idealized "be better, smarter, more skilled, talented, ____ than other people" was useful in the past (1960s and back), when the world (Asia) didn't have enough resources to sustain the needs of everyone (ever hear of Mao's great famine? 30 mil deaths from starvation in the SIXTIES!!) , and to be ____ than someone meant that you were more fit to survive, that you were awarded the resources because you were useful to those in power. It meant that you could keep your family alive... However, when those parents, who have been traumatized by history, move to 21st century America, where resources are abundant, even excessive, they are too "shell shocked" to raise their kids like American parents, who grew up with excessive material comforts and didn't have to worry about starving to death. So then, our generation have to deal with the psychological fallout of our parents' histories. Every generation before us lived in world with scarce resources, so they competed to survive, and I believe confucianism was a great way to keep order and hierarchy in that kind of society. But when our generation grows up in 2010's resource abundant, survival guaranteed western society, our psyches adapt accordingly, and society's goal is no longer a struggle to survive, but a struggle to connect to each other. And so the survival based structure of Confucianism has now turned into an outdated barrier that comes between our connection to each other... I always thought " I must be this skilled or physically strong, or whatever to be loved." And that is the insanity that the psychological fallout causes, because love needs no standards. Those standards were only relevant when you are competing and fighting to survive. When they were relevant in the past, the train of thought was " I must be this skilled or physically strong, to SURVIVE!" I believe that asians are depressed and suicidal because they place so much hope in being loved if they reach those standards, and they invest so much time and energy into developing their face and skills according to that standard, that they believe they ARE their face, and when the love that they hoped they would get doesn't come... depression. They and their parents need to realize that the standards themselves are outdated and irrelevant to today's society. We are at a confusing transitional stage in history.. we must adapt!   know the difference between your face and your soul.   Whew. I am not gonna proofread that. Hope it makes sense, it wasn't easy to put into words, a diagram might explain it better.   Hope that offers some perspective to people!

Hi, Dave.  Thanks for your outpouring of experience and reflection.  It's generous, and not easy.  Hopefully the various ways that our stories resonate with other readers will give them affirmation, and the variety of perspectives we offer on how and why will give them options. 

Nice to meet someone who's given these questions so much thought, and come a long way.

Best wishes.


I'm glad you started this column, I think a lot more awareness needs to be raised about this topic, as I think this issue defines a large part of the asian american experience. I'm sure there's a lot of asians out there, especially males, who are struggling with these issues but feel ashamed about it or still believe that they are not "issues" but they are rather a personal inadequacy.. Hopefully more people come out of the closet with their depression, letting it fester is a good way to make it worse. I don't think the University psychologists can understand in depth what asian americans are going through. They'd have to live it first to understand it.   I have a lot more to say about this topic, solving this issue has been a big focus on my life at the moment, as it is really screwing up my life! I'm determined to get to the bottom of it. Hopefully this discussion gets reblogged a couple times and generates more momentum..

Hi, Dave. I do think this conversation will gain traction -- and it will because of people like you, who have experience to add and to corroborate.

Looking forward to hearing from you again in upcoming posts.


I've been awaiting this column and am happy to see that it's finally arrived. Thank you for creating such an important space to be acknowledged in a way that our communities and especially our parents can't acknowledge. I hope with this column that they will and be able to acknowledge and listen. How do you begin to unpack the baggage that comes with the expectations and pressure of immigrant parents to be perfect, to be anything but who you really are? How do you unpack never being good enough and always seeming to be an embarrasment despite enormous achievement? The pressure to succeed and then young second generation Asian-Americans not being seen for who they are topped off with no cultural space to acknowledge grief and depression - it's time our communities started adding up the pieces. Add on top of it those of us who grew up in all white environments, those of us who didn't have any support for our cultural identites - it's no wonder that depression and suicide rates are on the rise. I think the data that's coming out on suicides among Asian-Americans with Chinese and Filipino women ranking the highest for contemplated suicide is just the beginning.  To all those at that are holding on to that rope, you aren't alone. There is a space for you to be acknowledged and you deserve it, there are people to listen, yes, it's scary, and you are enough. You are more than enough. Lydia  

Thanks, Lydia, for hitting nails on the head. Your voice is important here.


Thank you so much for this post. I'm a 2nd generation Asian American high schooler who has depression and suicidal ideation. I used to try to be a perfect overachiever but I can't deal with all the bs anymore so I'm failing now. I'm even thinking about taking some time off of school. Thankfully my dad is being supportive but my mom... lol    There is so much stigma in the Asian American community around mental disabilities. I really wish that we could be more open about this and know that it's okay to ask for help. I'm looking forward to this column!

Hang on there, sweetheart.

As Lydia says, you're not alone -- but we'll also work on trying to compile some resources for you.  Being in high school is hard.  You have more options later.  Hang on.

I think this is a great column.  Hopefully this will get people talking and opening up about their experiences and give help to many Asian Americans who may be secretly battling depression. 
I'm so glad this is coming to light...I remember taking an Asian American psychology class several years ago, and my professor told me that there was almost NO research on mental illness in the Pilipino community, especially for Pilipino women.  I've suffered all my life with bipolar disorder, and it was only in the past 5 years did my parents FINALLY get me the proper help....I've spent years being bullied, in and out of psychiatric hospitals, surviving several suicide attempts, being pumped full of psychotropic pills that did much more harm than good, and the list goes on... I've noticed a rather disturbing trend with many of my Pilipino (and Pilipino hapa) friends and family:  Many of them have had mental illnesses (or symptoms of it) run in their family, and many traumatizing experiences that have contributed to it (like physical and/or sexual abuse).  The women tend to harbor it a lot more, and it's really sad that our communities staunchly refuse to address this serious issue.  It's always the "You'll get over it" BS or "You just don't go to church enough." I hope more (h)APA women come out and tell their stories...

It's true what you say, Bernie, that being The Hyperfunctional Minority means that outsiders don't think to look for trouble here -- and insiders don't want to disabuse anyone of the appearance of order and success.  Though young men of the 2nd generation feel this too, it certainly can take some particularly harsh forms for women.  More soon.

I attempted suicide in April--1st generation, went to college very early, am in graduate school currently.  Didn't really realize how to work with mental health issues for a long time, and have had a number of rather unhealthy relationships with men and women.  I'm looking forward to your column.

Thanks for writing in.  I hope you're getting some traction on healing -- it's not impossible, though it's hard.  Hope we'll touch base again.

Like others, I'm grateful for this new column on Hyphen magazine.  We need to start talking about suicidal behaviors among Asian Americans NOW -- the silence is killing us and/or making many of us suffer unnecessarily.  I am a researcher who focuses on suicidal behaviors among Asian Americans and have personal experience with the issue, but I don't know what the answers are.  I don't think any of us really do, at least individually.  But I think as a community we can figure this out... I would like to start a dialogue about this issue.  Not sure how, but maybe we can all brainstorm together.  Please email me at aileenad [at] if you are interested in finally having an open dialogue about suicide in our community. Love and hope, Aileen 
as a second generation person whose mother immigrated from viet nam with a whole range of PTSD symptoms, which persist to this day, i know that secondary trauma can also occur within families whose histories have been violently affected by war. in addition to family pressures to success/survive/keep face, this secondary trauma another component for some asian americans, especially the refugees from SE asia. those traumas can also lead to higher incidence of domestic violence and abuse of children. yet these can remain silent epidemics in those very cultures for whom 'face' is so important. i've long suspected that my mother would rather have me dead than talk about what's happened in our family, and 'shame' her as a result. so i saved myself, and gave myself a life beyond my family, beyond those obligations of silence. my silence has never protected me, and neither has my family. but i have a great life now, in my 30s, after suicide attempts and drug abuse as a teen. i have my ups and downs, sure, but everything remains in perspective. for me, the further from my family i've gotten, the healthier i've become. you could say it's a matter of setting boundaries, both geographic and emotional. not everyone can pull it off, but it has worked wonders for me.

J, sorry I took so long to reply to you here. You say so much in a few words -- it's a bit breathtaking. I hope you'll be willing to share more of what you gesture to here: esp. how you got to these 30s, which I know is for many of our younger friends the darkest mystery.

Re-visited this post, remembered a highly relevant song. I love Magnetic North--this song talks about female Asian American suicide. -AAW (I might have accidentally put a different email; I can confirm if need be.)

The song's spot-on, AAW. I may need to feature it in a later post, so that more people see it.

Thanks for bringing it to the table!   <3

Have you seen this article? Do you think it's a satire? Because this seems to be exactly the behavior by parents that causes mental health issues.

Thanks for the ear to the ground!

I think you are on to something. I am Chinese. My mom is 3rd generation from the SF Bay Area, and my dad is from Macau. I suffer(ed?) from depression and social anxiety, and I often felt an implicit (and sometimes explicit) pressure to achieve what my parents wanted for me academically and professionally. This pressure to accomplish along the established route contributed to my tendency to obey nearly everyone who told me what to do and my learned inability to think for myself and stand up for myself. "Just listen to your teachers and do well in school. Don't get in trouble," was what I learned all the way up to college. It is hard to learn resilience when your entire childhood mantra was to obey and avoid conflict. It is hard to be happy and thrive when you don't really know how to take pride in yourself for yourself and only know how to take pride in your academic, extracurricular, and professional accomplishments. Perhaps my depression and social anxiety are primarily caused by genetics, but I suspect that the culture I grew up in also aggravated my mental illness. My advice to anyone with depression: Treat your depression. Most people with depression can be cured, but 80% of depressed people don't get effective treatment. Know yourself and love yourself. Think positively about yourself and your life. Rest well, eat well, drink well, exercise well. Keep your stressors to a minimum.

It's remarkable that you're fourth generation on your mom's side, and still grew up with the same paradigms. Did your dad set the tone or were they pretty united, I wonder?

Thanks for writing in, and yes, take care of yourself.