Struggling to Find the Right Answer: Recognizing #APAHM and #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth

People ask me if I’m okay after writing my last essay “cười.” I give them a shrug paired with a slight smirk as I tilt my head, “I’m alright.” An adequate answer that’s not committal to convey anything concrete. An answer that doesn’t reflect how I appreciate the amount of teamwork it took to help me write something so excruciating yet revealing. For all the readers to give their positive responses and support, I am truly grateful for their time. The question is regarding my well being, have I gotten better? “I’m alright” is the most honest answer I can give.

***

One of my close friends had constructive criticism about my last essay, that I was holding back. I had more to offer, I should have told a more comprehensive story about me. She was correct, in a sense I did that on purpose. There’s an illusion in writing personal non-fiction that one should document  all their stories in utmost detail. My approach when I write my non-fiction is to come from a vulnerable narrative, as sharing everything about my life isn’t true vulnerability. Brené Brown has a precise rule to that in her research of vulnerability: “Oversharing? Not vulnerability; I call it floodlighting. ... A lot of times we share too much information as a way to protect us from vulnerability. It's how we protect ourselves from vulnerability. We just engage in a behavior that confirms our fear.” Writing is an engagement between the writer and the reader. Without having a reader in mind on the other end of my text, my writing at best is just a journal entry or a raging rant.

Since non-fiction requires using real people, I have considered how the characters will be portrayed to the readers. Art has moral consequences, as it varies between person to person. For some the art can benefit, but it can cause consequences for others. An example that comes to mind is the infamous image of “The Execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém” by Eddie Adams. The photograph was a raw timepiece of how gruesome moments were in the middle of the Vietnam War. That photo of the event won him the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography. The photo became a message of the anti-war movement in Vietnam. For Lem's wife, she was handed a newspaper with that photo on the front page, the message was her husband is dead. "A friend of mine brought me the newspaper,” Lop Lem recalls “and then I found out what had happened to my husband." As Lem’s face is the only visible one shown, the world cringes to see the brutality going on in Vietnam. For Lop Lem, her husband’s face in that picture means something else.

***

My favorite kind of storytelling is the comic book medium. It’s the first piece of writing I have ever read. One story that fascinates me to this day is the origin of Peter Parker, and how his grief propelled him to become the superhero audiences have come to know as Spider-Man. His grief of his uncle’s death haunts him so much that he puts on a mask and does what he can making sure no one else feels the pain he does. That mask he puts on reminds him that there is hope beyond his grief. The villains, on the other hand, have been devastated by a traumatic moment so devastating that they sit in rumination, recounting how unfair life is. The villains’ only form of expression is to lash out to the world, trying to understand why others don’t hurt like they do. The mask they hide behind justifies their right to be angry. This ongoing battle between good and evil is a metaphor that I use to define my moral compass. Some days the villain wins in my heart and my actions are held with true regret. Other days when the Peter Parker in me gains the victory, it may take months to heal.

There are days I don’t want to share my stories, exposing my heart to new experiences as its tolerance for heartbreak grows weaker. Age adds years of jadedness to the point where black coffee doesn’t affect me anymore, other than to burn my mouth at 6 am. Special memories that give me energy are what I hold tightly as I revert into a childlike state, not wanting to share with others. However, to grow as a person, there’s a social responsibility of an artist when it comes to writing. James Baldwin writes: “There are, forever, swamps to be drained, cities to be created, mines to be exploited, children to be fed. None of these things can be done alone. But the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.” My decisions of what I write is not bound by a fear of my stories being public, rather it’s who do I entrust with these scrolls of written battles that define my morality.

***

But am I truly okay? Doesn’t writing it out help?  

What if I were to ask the reader: “What happens if I give you that answer as if you want a happy ending to my story?”

Giving the reader a feel-good ending will generalize my story as a blueprint to where grit and love conquers all. The shallow compassion stories that we see on the news are sensational at best. There is no emotional risk in those characters other than to make us feel inadequate with our choices as we move through life. The rumination that we can wear as a mask can run into our heads thinking in absolutes: “Good things never happen to me. It’s always perfect people that have great fortune.”

With western culture of expectations and answers, I can now see why most first generation families don’t discuss their past life. It’s a standard in diasporic families to keep things from the family, usually answers we need are left behind in their homelands. Involving outsiders is the biggest cardinal sin - why let other people's affairs add to our family’s troubles?

I can’t offer a happy ending. But I can offer this:

T Kira Madden published a tremendous essay explaining why her writing isn’t necessarily healing “Against Catharsis: Writing is Not Therapy.” T Kira Madden reveals when she writes, she doesn’t subscribe to the “bleeding into the typewriter” motto. “To craft something and chisel it until there’s room for more than catharsis. What I want is the space for you, as you’re reading this essay, to read these words and supplant your own knowledge where mine breaks, to apply these ideas to your own work and your own opinions and purposes.” So the specific details I wrote was to engage with the reader  enough to let their guard down. Having the reader be within my darkness is to prove that I too can sit next you, with my arm around you while you are alone in that hole.  I’m misdirecting you to use your curiosity to find true compassion.

We forget the power of being inquisitive. We've replaced it for practicality and the predictable. We need curiosity because it is “a potent form of kindness.” A certain kind of kindness that sparks that forgiveness you deserve because you didn’t mean to do it. A certain kind of kindness that your significant other finds new ways to love you. A certain kind of kindness that gives you strength to let go of the mask of shame, so that the ones who love you can finally see that smile they dearly miss. Forgiveness, love, and strength can't come into your heart if you chose to lock that door.

Without that curiosity, I wouldn’t have been able discover these writers as I was looking for answers. They have redefined what a heroine means to me. Esmé Weijun Wang’s book The Collected Schizophrenias is her individual complicated journey struggling with mental illness, as it shows there’s no single simple diagnosis to Schizophrenia. Every essay she wrote gave me the focus I needed to endure my severe depression as it tried to cripple me in beginning of this year. Jean Ho’s essay “At Once Familiar” is about “migraines, memory, depression, what we inherit.” How she recounts these fragile moments were lucid and sharp, the way a needle can pierce your skin. She gave me the clarity to my stories that I couldn't find the words to alone. T Kira Madden’s essay explains her craft as she misdirects you to think in one direction, only to reveal her underlying thesis when you were thinking something else. When Kollaboration asked me if I was okay to write a reflection about my previous essay Cười, her essay tricked me to revisit my past again. However, like magic, it didn’t hurt as much this time around.

I’m never too bashful to admire the luminaries in my life, whether real or fictional. Unlike Spider-Man, the people I mention are flesh and bone who also exist outside these stories. They bleed, hurt, and agonize in their own private life. Not to forget in a digital age where capitalism forces us to create a "brand" in this modern time if we want to be successful. They do not owe us more than what they write. However what I do owe to them as well as this community is the effort to further expand on other stories of Asian Americans. The world can be such a cruel space, especially for Asian-American women online. I want to use kindness to highlight their hard work to this community because their work means so much to me. Though their art doesn’t necessarily try to define itself as solely Asian Americans, they add contextual depth to our community. The mask we were taught to put on to hide our ethnicity we can put away as our stories gradually become more universal.

With depression, the chance of a happy ending may not come at all. "Alright" is what I have to stick with. That's the pain I have to live with everyday. Depression doesn't have a "cure." Even if I stop being depressed, how it felt left a huge impact on who I am. That’s the lens that I’ll always have to navigate with when I write, create, and even live. What carries me through my day though is something I heard as a kid, “With great powers comes great responsibility.” It’s Spider-Man's trademark slogan that we've gotten accustomed to. However, over the years, that definition keeps evolving as Spider-Man’s story gets reintroduced to a new audience. This is one of my favorite versions that I’ll leave with you:

“And ever since that day… I’ve been trying to live a life that resembles what those words mean. And I can tell you they mean everything. I can also tell you this:

You can live everyday of your life trying to think of something more profound or more on the nose..

But for us, for people like us, who suddenly find themselves looking out at a crazy world and not knowing what the hell we’re supposed to be doing in it..

I can tell you that just remembering that with great power comes great responsibility can completely define you.”

-Long Vo