By Stephanie Lee
February 4, 2022
My mom was 15 years old when she got in a boat to escape the war in Vietnam. Just a teenager when she was lost at sea, burning under the hot sun and ultimately had her last few precious belongings hijacked by Thai pirates.
When I was 15, I was fighting (I mean.. screaming) with my mom about her strict rules, trying to find a sense of independence.
At 18, my dad was in Saigon and sleeping on the floor of a house down a very small alleyway. Some nights he’d hear the shrapnel from bombs raining down onto the tin roof overhead. He was the only of my grandparent’s sons who was capable of escaping in the middle of the night, boarding a boat headed anywhere safer than there.
When I was 18, I was choosing a prom dress and trying to get ready for my big move to college and salivating at the idea of freedom.
As children from poor families, and eventually as refugees from war-torn countries, my parents had no choice but to be resilient. They found themselves alone in refugee camps in Malaysia and Korea hoping to make it to the US in hopes of a better future. Without knowing any English and surviving on just $200 from the US government, they found that future. I’m not sure where or how they learned to use their inner strength that allowed them to push past these extraordinary life events to survive. But I know I owe my resilient spirit to them.
It’s a blessing and a curse to see my parents in action. As a result, I will always persevere, and I *know* there is nothing I cannot do if I put my mind to it. But on the flip side, because of their experiences, I inherited my parents’ trauma -- whether generational, cultural or epigenetic. As a person of color, in my darkest of times I lacked the tools, resources and community to nurture my emotional wellbeing which led me to depressive episodes, feeling plagued with an everyday self-doubt.
And in an Asian culture that holds honor and duty to family in high regard, the fear of failure in society’s eyes was the invisible hand guiding me into a trap. It was the layers of “expected” resilience that suffocated me and my ability to answer, “do I need to feel human?” and show myself real care. Resilience that is foisted upon people of color, demands that we “grin and bear it”. That emotion is a weakness. And as “the model minority myth” dictates, we should just shut up and fade away.
It’s not healthy and I refuse to submit to that anymore.
In my mental health journey, I’ve had to flex my resilience muscle more than ever to serve me rather than society. This meant doing therapy, practicing self-reflection and taking an emotional risk to ask my parents to help me write a new definition of resilience for our family. This also involved asking my mom and dad to stretch themselves into uncomfortable territory and join me in therapy sessions. (I was scared shitless.)
And what I found is that their sadness and hurt from their lived experiences aren’t buried deep, they are righhhhht under the surface itching to have an outlet. Like I was, my parents were afraid of those feelings. Their resilience and ability to overcome obstacles time and time again was driven by their pursuit of happiness and their want to provide for their my brothers and me with a full life.. Digging deep required a sense of purpose and passion to continue when things were really hard - that real true grit.
So are we all healed and one happy family? Nope - still doing my trauma work. BUT, with empathy for my parents as humans (not just mom and dad), this is what I’ve got for you about our family definition around resilience: to seek out safe spaces so we can learn to stumble and fall, that it is necessary to tap into vulnerability to ask for what we need, but also know that there is someone who wants to help us get back up and try again.