Mental Health Impact of Straddling a Dual Identity as an Asian American

Asian American dual identity

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

“Difficulty of balancing two different cultures” has been shown to be associated with mental health problems among 1.5 and 2nd-generation Asian American young adults.

As a child of Chinese immigrants, I grew up with a dual identity: one at home and one at school. I didn’t feel like I belonged in either, only desperate to impress whoever was around me at the moment. I was lost between two worlds, facing the dilemma of choosing who I truly was every time I stepped through the doors of my home.

At home, my parents were in survival mode. They worked hard and long hours to make ends meet. There was no time or space to emotionally and mentally connect. Their priorities were putting food on the table, ensuring the mortgage was paid on time, and paying for our extracurricular activities. They gave their blood, sweat, and tears into providing their children with a better life than they had.

Whenever we met up with extended family, I never felt Chinese enough. I was born in Canada, and even though I looked like them, they assumed my cultural knowledge was diluted because I didn’t grow up in the motherland. Relatives visiting from Hong Kong would use their broken English with me. Then they would ensure someone ordered sweet and sour pork to satisfy my Western palate.

As a child of Chinese immigrants, I grew up with a dual identity: one at home and one at school. I didn’t feel like I belonged in either, only desperate to impress whoever was around me at the moment.

I didn’t like being put in a box and stereotyped as a “banana” (yellow on the outside and White on the inside). I wanted to prove to them that I understood my heritage. So I would act as Chinese as I could, responding to their questions in fluent Cantonese, addressing all the elders by their correct titles, requesting a traditional dish, and refusing to touch the sweet and sour pork.

I continued pretending to be someone I wasn’t, even outside of my family. Every time I left for school, I would put my armor on to avoid showing the Chinese side of myself. I wanted to blend in, to look and act like those in my predominantly Caucasian school. I'd get furious at my mom if she packed anything my classmates would consider weird or smelly for my lunch.

I was self-conscious about my language skills and tried hard to speak English without an accent. I aimed for perfection when it came to writing without grammar errors. If a Cantonese word slipped from my mouth in front of my class, I would be mortified.

I rarely shared with my friends about my family and what happened over the weekend because I knew they wouldn’t relate to going for dim sum with relatives or binge-watching Chinese dramas. Instead, I’d say something generic like, “It was great. I did some shopping and had some activities (which were Chinese school, math class, and piano, but I wouldn’t specify).”

I was self-conscious about my language skills and tried hard to speak English without an accent. I aimed for perfection when it came to writing without grammar errors. If a Cantonese word slipped from my mouth in front of my class, I would be mortified.

In high school, it was no longer just what I said and how I behaved. I started changing my appearance to fit in. I wore colored contacts, dyed my hair, put makeup on, and dressed according to what was in the teen magazines to look more Caucasian.

It was during these years that I struggled with depression and anxiety. The two identities I had created between school and home became so polarized that I felt like I had little control over my life.

As I entered adulthood, I started questioning my values and where I stood between my Eastern and Western upbringing. It was when I became a parent that I started experiencing an internal battle between collectivistic and individualistic values that affected my parenting and life decisions. 

Collectivism prioritizes the needs of the family above individual concerns, whereas individualism values personal identity and uniqueness.

What do I want to preserve for the next generation?

What values, beliefs, and priorities do I want to instill in my kids?

Which ones do I want to shed?

Respect the Hierarchy or Flatten It?

In East Asian culture, it’s a common practice to follow a hierarchy where each individual has a defined role in the family and is expected to behave within it. The relationships consist of the respected and the respectful.

Within an Asian family structure, decision-making is traditionally held by the father followed by the eldest son. The mother is expected to take care of the children and support her husband. Daughters are below sons on the hierarchy.

Family members are expected to honor this patriarchal hierarchy and any deviation from it is considered disrespectful, disgraceful, shameful.

Acceptance and obedience of this hierarchy is expected in order to maintain harmony in the family and in society, and these deeply entrenched cultural norms can be a source of inner conflict for many Asian American children and adults.

It has been shown this type of family hierarchy is a key cultural factor that negatively influences the mental health of Asian Americans.

Speak Up or Stay Silent?

Difficulty communicating with parents has shown to be a common source of stress for Asian American young adults.

Growing up, my father preached “respect your elders” and demanded it because of his position on the family hierarchy. However, I believed rules were meant to be broken. 

In school, I was taught to think critically and encouraged to ask questions. Speaking my mind and voicing my individual opinion were considered strengths. So I challenged his opinions every time I didn’t agree. My disrespectful behavior created a disconnect between us. 

I urged him to respect me as an adult and to stop treating me like a child. It was difficult to be around him because he wasn’t able to validate my emotions. Whenever I started sharing a bit about what was going on in my life, he would offer unsolicited advice which made me feel like I was not good enough. 

Growing up, my father preached “respect your elders” and demanded it because of his position on the family hierarchy. However, I believed rules were meant to be broken.

Over time, silence took over whenever we were in the same room. I couldn’t build trust because I was unable to have open and honest discussions with him. I didn’t feel safe fully expressing myself so conversations were limited to simple matters.

As the youngest in the family and a female, the hierarchy created a power differential that made me feel like my opinions weren’t valued, and therefore, I wasn't valued. I was desperate to be heard and seen; I knew staying silent and bottling my emotions were wreaking havoc on my mental health. However, whenever I gathered enough courage to speak up, I was either scolded or ignored. It didn’t matter if I spoke in Cantonese, used my years of conflict management experience or approached it with an empathetic lens because the more I tried, the more my emotions were invalidated. Eventually, disappointment became the expectation and silence won over. 

For many years, I struggled to make confident decisions because it depended on the approval of my parents or someone in an authority position.

Can You Really Choose Your Family?

Family obligations based on strong family values have been identified as a common source of stress that affects the mental health of Asian American young adults.

Negative relationships are related to an increased risk of cardiac events and poor family dynamics have been shown to be associated with reduced pain tolerance and slower wound healing times.

When I scroll through social media feeds, there are often messages about cutting out toxic people in your life, surrounding yourself with those who elevate you, and prioritizing self-respect and personal boundaries.

A 2015 study found that 80% of individuals who cut ties with a family member reported feeling “freer, more independent, and stronger.”

However, I was raised to believe that familial ties serve as the foundation of my culture. Maintaining harmony within the family is of utmost importance even if it means turning a blind eye to mistreatment, ignoring issues, and sacrificing happiness. 

The sense of obligation has amplified as my parents enter their 70s. The differences between us have caused us to grow socially apart, not physically. I see them regularly. 

I hold my tongue not because I’m afraid of the consequences but because I, too, value keeping the peace. I’ve accepted them for who they are. I’ve come to terms that they will never change, and it is what it is. 

Although I decided to maintain the relationship with my parents, it doesn’t mean the harm I experienced was acceptable. The decision is deeply personal to the individual’s situation and should not be taken lightly. Cutting ties may be the most appropriate choice given where the individual is on their journey. Furthermore, the decision can change over time as the relationship evolves. 

Ultimately, I’ve grown to appreciate the stability in our relationship even though often no words are exchanged. There’s a sense of comfort we can count on each other and our presence is fulfilling enough.

I hold my tongue not because I’m afraid of the consequences but because I, too, value keeping the peace.

Saving Face or Showing Vulnerability?

In a collectivistic family, success brings honor and failure brings shame. Success is defined as an increase in status and power or financial gains. From divorce, job loss, relationship issues, major debt, and mental illness, failure means anything that threatens this definition of success.

Sweeping problems under the carpet are often how Asian families deal with their issues. Social stigma, shame, and saving face have been shown to prevent Asians from seeking behavioral health care.

Over many years of self-work, I confronted my insecurities, deconditioned myself of harmful beliefs, and sought therapy for my mental health. From writing about my daily struggles as a mother, and the conflict with my parents to my less-than-perfect marriage, I’m on a mission to bring those issues to the surface despite growing up in a culture that hid them. 

Therefore, the dual identity crisis has significant effects on the mental and emotional health of Asian Americans. Taking care of your mental health can help you manage stress and anxiety with lifelong coping skills, gain awareness and clarity about your thoughts and feelings, recover more quickly and fully from emotional triggers, know and communicate your needs better, and improve relationships. Desiring healing and getting help are signs of courage and strength, not shame or dishonor.

Choosing your own healing and seeking support can be a powerful act of love and service for our family, our ancestors, and ourselves.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP
Katharine is the author of three books (How To Deal With Asian Parents, A Brutally Honest Dating Guide and A Straight Up Guide to a Happy and Healthy Marriage) and the creator of 60 Feelings To Feel: A Journal To Identify Your Emotions. She has over 15 years of experience working in British Columbia's healthcare system, leading patient safety incident investigations, quality and systems improvement projects, and change management initiatives within mental health, emergency health services, and women's health. Her expertise in facilitating, storytelling, coaching, and promoting tough and honest conversations provides the foundation for her site, Sum (心,♡) on Sleeve.