Above the Waves: Discussing Mental Health

TW// drowning

You’re drowning.

Mere minutes ago, you had been happily floating in the ocean, your back to the depths below. With the warmth from the sun caressing your suspended limbs, you had been at peace. Yet this bliss hadn’t lasted long; it was only the calm before the storm. Out of nowhere, you had felt yourself being pulled farther from the shore by a force far outmatching your own strength. You had opened your eyes, just in time for a colossal wave to strike you beneath the shallows.

Now, each second feels like a lifetime without air. The salt stings your eyes, but your sole fixation is propelling yourself closer and closer to your next breath. And you make it! Your arm breaks the surface, and you manage to inhale a single time—before another wave beats you down. Thus, the cycle begins.

As another wave hurls you once more into the watery depths, every fiber of your being fights to break the surface of the water. Your fingers stretch upwards, pointed towards a bright sun and the promise of a new day, and your muscles fight like they’ve never before—because you don’t want to give up. You want to grow old and live boldly and freely. You want to eat your favorite food a million more times and listen to your favorite song on repeat and live to see countless more sunrises. You still have so much life left to live.

But there comes a point when your arms begin to tire. Your lungs burn, but your legs grow weary of propelling you towards the sky. What’s the point? You’ll never make it out. And even if you do, you’ll eventually find yourself back underneath the surf, buffeted by wave after unrelenting wave. While everyone else is swimming and paddling above the surface, you’ve sunk. You’ll die here, alone, unnoticed, in the depths of a bottomless ocean. Maybe it’s for the better. After all, you’ve never been a strong swimmer.

“Mom, Dad…I’m drowning, and I need help.”

The signs are all there: your hair is sopping wet, droplets of water have pooled onto the hardwood floor surrounding your feet, and there’s a peculiar look in your eye—the look of a person who knows firsthand what it’s like to lose a fight with an unforgiving sea. You’re tired of losing. You’ll do anything—don a life vest, or an inflatable floatie, or even take private swimming lessons with a licensed instructor. You will do whatever it takes to ensure that you will never end up beneath the surf again. But your cries are unheard.

“You’re not drowning.”

“Why can’t you swim on your own?”

“I never drowned when I was your age.”

In the end, you’re resigned to your fate. You give up, the salty sting of seawater interspersed with hot tears.

Homo sapien. “Wise man.” Yes, there is no doubt that our collective intelligence and adaptability to any environment makes us superior to all other life forms on Earth. But as humans, we need sustenance, shelter, and sleep to survive. Even so, these things don’t matter if we can’t meet the need for air. Without the ability to breathe, we cannot live—we cannot run through the greenest of fields, hike up the highest of mountains, or swim in the deepest of seas. But how can a person fight the currents with aching limbs? How can someone breathe with water-filled lungs? How can an individual thrive if their mind is functioning at a limited capacity?

Our brain is our most important organ. Yes, we are powered by our heart pumping blood through our veins, but the brain gives us the capability of sentient thought, revolutionary ideas, and strokes of genius. In fact, proper brain function is so essential to our way of living that even a person who has undergone cardiac arrest—whose heart has stopped—can ultimately survive, as long as brain activity remains. The brain gives us the ability to craft intricate stories and develop worlds that never before existed. It allows us the capacity to feel joy, store memories, and remember the faces of those we care for. Yet there is irony in the fact that the same organ that gives us the ability to love also allows us to feel immense, heart-wrenching pain.

The topic of mental health is often glossed over in Asian communities, but it needs to be discussed more than ever. With such a singular focus on physical injury, the typical Asian household leaves no room for emotional maladies. If you break your arm, you wear a cast. If you have a heart attack, you’re given time to recover. It’s the same even when the injury is beneath the surface: victims of stroke are expected to take the time to recoup. But is the same care and consideration allocated when the injury doesn’t leave a mark? Is it given to the silent sufferers, those who bury their emotional turmoil in the deepest, darkest recesses of their minds? Does someone’s mental well-being only matter when they’ve already drowned, succumbing to the saltwater filling their lungs?

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), Asian Americans are more likely to consider and attempt suicide than the white population. Given this information, one can assume that Asian individuals look for mental health services at a higher rate than any other demographic. However, this is far from true. While about 18% of the general United States population seek mental health services and resources, only approximately 8.6% of Asian Americans do so. Moreover, Asian Americans are three times less likely to utilize mental health services than their white counterparts. For most Asian Americans, a multitude of factors stand in the way, impeding one’s ability to get the help they need—and it all starts in the home.

Picture yourself as a young child. At five years old, you already know the rules: be polite, humble, and respectful. As the years pass, these expectations only compound in nature. Each passing birthday is accompanied by a new set of familial pressures, a new three-ton weight on your weary shoulders. There’s no room for mediocrity—you learn to be the best, rather than do your best. If you’re not perfect, you’re nothing. Your accomplishments aren’t solely yours; they’re shared by your parents, and your siblings, and your aunts and uncles and grandparents—and so are your failures. If you stray from the fields of medicine, or business, or law—you’ve shamed the family name. At school, you’re expected to be the smartest person in the room—shamed if you aren’t, but also demeaned if you are. You’re seen as a “model minority,” a one-dimensional caricature rather than a real person. To admit you need help would be embarrassing. You must “save face”—preserve your own public appearance to maintain your family’s reputation. And even if you were to get past this emotional barrier, your parents would never understand. They grew up in a different world.

You know success is a product of hard work. Your parents are the very people who taught you these values, and they know firsthand the meaning of sacrifice, tenacity, and determination. However, the struggles they faced at your age are completely unlike those of your own. They traversed the Pacific, braved the vast open waters to reach the land of opportunity. They came to America with no money in their pockets, building a new life for themselves, but also a better life for you. In your eyes, they conquered more than a voluntary culture shock and the uncomfortable feeling of being a fish out of water. Although their black hair and foreign lilt stuck out in the sea of light hair and English slang, one thing is certain—despite all of the barriers threatening to anchor them down, they didn’t drown.

How could they? Your grandparents had raised them—your grandparents, who had endured the racially-charged tension of the Vietnam War, whose own parents had lived through horrific militaristic and political turmoil. How can you complain about your deteriorating mental health when the people of the past survived the Laotian and Cambodian Civil Wars? Why are you so weak when Japanese Americans not even a century ago perished in internment camps during World War 2? Your ancestors were subjugated to unspeakable trauma, but in spite of it all still kept their heads above water. They had it worse. Suck it up.

The generation gap between adults and youth is larger than ever. It’s evident all around: the indisputable globalization of technology, the rise of social media, the words uttered by today’s youth. But for many Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander (AAPI) families, standard generational gap conflicts are exacerbated by the “acculturation gap”—the phenomenon where children of first-generation Americans and second-generation Americans adapt to a new culture faster and in a different way than their parents. Yes, when our parents and grandparents sailed the ocean blue to North America, they weren’t immune to incorporating elements of American culture into their daily lives. It was all-too-common to see accents fading, a new set of meals joining the rotation of what used to be solely cultural cuisine. Yet unquenched was the desire to remain connected to the country they were born and raised, the place they would never stop calling “home.” But for their children, it’s a different story. We’ve always been the fish out of water. Growing up, many Asian American youths constantly interact with individuals hailing from different backgrounds, making us especially susceptible to adopting a culture separate from the ones of our predecessors—but this poses a unique list of consequences.

Being a young Asian American in the twenty-first century presents a whole new set of challenges: the struggle to accept oneself in a world inundated with Eurocentric standards, the pressure from family and peers to academically perform, and ever since 2020, the increased frequency of racially motivated tension stemming from COVID-19. Yes, the struggles of Asian youth are vastly different than those of our parents, but that doesn’t make them any less real. And just because someone’s “yesterday” was full of gentle waves, blue skies, and sunshine doesn’t mean that tomorrow won’t bring torrential rain and an unforgiving sea.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Internet sensation that is Eugene Lee Yang, here’s a condensed history: Eugene attended the University of Southern California, from whence he graduated with a B.A. in cinema production in 2008. In 2013, he started working for the internet media company Buzzfeed, which was then only in its fledgling stages. At Buzzfeed, Eugene wrote and directed several viral videos, including “If Disney Princes Were Real,” currently with over 76 million videos, “Women’s Ideal Body Types Throughout History,” with 49 million views and counting, and “Wedding Dresses Across Asia,” which has amassed over 10 million views. With co-stars Ned Fulmer, Keith Habersberger, and Zach Kornfeld, Eugene established The Try Guys in 2014, producing content that is both lighthearted (e.g. “The Try Guys Try Wedding Dresses”) but also informative (e.g. “The Try Guys Try Immigrating To America”). In 2018, he and the rest of the Try Guys left Buzzfeed and established 2nd Try LLC, where they continue to this day to make content touching the hearts of millions of people across the globe. Out of the Try Guys cast, Eugene is not only the sole person of color (Korean American), but also the only openly gay man from the group. Viewers of the Try Guys channel are aware that today, he is proud of both his heritage and his queerness—but the road to self-acceptance was far from easy.

As a closeted Korean American in the South, Eugene struggled with his multifaceted identity for his entire adolescence and the majority of his early adult life. Already “otherized” for being Asian, Lee Yang’s inner turmoil only compounded once he realized that he was gay. The parts of himself that were most central to his identity were also the things that he hated most. After openly coming out to the world in a poignant and deeply moving music video titled “I’m Gay – Eugene Lee Yang” (which he wrote, directed, and choreographed), the Try Guys channel released a follow-up video titled “Why I’m Coming Out As Gay”, giving viewers a more introspective glimpse into Eugene’s journey of self-acceptance. In this video, he relates, “I was never in a position where I had enough support, or education, or confidence in any area, that when someone ridiculed me for being Asian, when people thought I could be gay, I was never at the point where I thought they were wrong. I had a strong belief that I was not only bad, but I was wrong, there was something wrong with me. A lot of my journey was kind of figuring out that I was never inherently a bad person.”

The beautiful thing about Eugene’s journey is that we can walk alongside him throughout the years, watching the gradual progression of his self-acceptance. In the earlier stages of the Try Guys, Eugene acted as a “hard” and “unfeeling” character. To many, his seemingly-natural aptitude for practically any task only emphasized his emulation as a haughty and aloof caricature. Yet fans loved him—idolized him, even, placing him on a pedestal that was miles-high. As the Try Guys grew in popularity, being nominated for (and even winning) several Streamy awards, so did Eugene, even being awarded the Unforgettable 2015 Male Breakout Star of the Year. From a purely success-related standpoint, Eugene was conquering wave after indomitable wave in an insurmountable sea. Yet he was still bogged down, anchored by the weight of hiding integral parts of his identity from the world.

When the Try Guys established their independent channel in 2018, fans began to notice a change in Eugene. While still guarded in many regards, he was more prone to genuine smiles and fully-fledged laughter. Even his fashion style evolved, as he interspersed typical masculine attire with androgynous and more feminine items of clothing. Fashion, the truest form of self-expression, showcased more than anything how far Eugene had come. Moreover, he began to refer to himself as “queer” on camera, not yet specifying his sexual orientation but slowly but surely revealing his vulnerable side. In an Instagram post back in July of 2018, he writes,

Dear Eugene,

I’m sorry. I’m sorry you were so depressed, angry, and confused all the time. I’m sorry that your race and sexuality were never perceived as strengths. I’m sorry you thought the bullies were right. I’m sorry you didn’t believe people could ever love you. I’m sorry you’ll never experience even an ounce of the confidence I have now. I promise to make up for all the lost time and be a strong example for other kids like you. You’re MY inspiration. You’re my life’s work.

When Eugene officially came out almost a year later, just in time for Pride Month, it was like a breath of fresh air. He was finally free, no longer held back or inhibited by the weight of the past. Yet I found myself equally as touched by another aspect of Eugene’s journey to acceptance, something that’s less discussed—Eugene’s relationship with his father. Back in the year 2017, when the Try Guys were still at Buzzfeed, the corporation released a five-part video series called “Fatherhood.” The audience encountered Jae-Hong Yang for the first time in the video “The Try Guys Re-create Photos Of Their Dads”. From the very first second of screentime, it was blatantly clear that Eugene and Jae had a strained relationship. As Jae recounted the context behind the photo Eugene had recreated, we learned about the father alongside the son. Throughout the series, we learned more about the factors that had led to the strange dynamic between the two, leading to years of misunderstandings: Jae’s father had died when he was only three months old, and his mother had abandoned him when he was in high school. Without a father of his own, Jae had to raise Eugene and his siblings in a country foreign to the one where he had grown. Working at a job hours away from the rest of his family, he had cared for Eugene in the only way he knew how: providing for him through monetary means. It was clear as day: underneath their respective reserved exteriors, Eugene and Jae loved each other—even if they didn’t know how to express it.

The Fatherhood series opened the door for honest communication between father and son. Although awkward to watch, the initial relationship between the two is something many Asian viewers had found relatable—the stilted interactions between Eugene and Jae are indicative of many Asian parent/child relationships. In the Asian realm, individuals are expected to adhere to specified roles within their families, submitting to the larger needs as a whole. Yet, despite this great emphasis on the family unit, open conversation between members is often lacking.

I’m thankful to Eugene and his father for helping me realize that while vulnerability is terrifying, it can open the door for mutual growth. And—hidden from the cameras—their relationship not only grew, but flourished, to the point where the video “My Dad’s First Drag Show (Featuring Kim Chi)” was released on the Try Guys channel on October 31, 2018. The premise of the video is self-explanatory: Eugene taking his father to a drag show. But this simple outing holds immense significance. Eugene is finally at a place where he feels comfortable sharing his queer identity freely with the world. He’s finally free from the chains that have dragged him beneath the surf: he’s finally accepted the part of himself he once thought was foul, and shameful, and wrong. Furthermore, he’s able to celebrate his identity with his dad, without any inhibitions. Some say it takes twenty-one days to break a habit. Others argue much longer. Regardless, Eugene and his father show that it’s possible to break down barriers you once thought were invulnerable, so long as you’re willing to try.

The human brain is remarkably complex; it shouldn’t be expected to run perfectly every single second of every single day of a person’s life. You only have one, so take care of it. Prioritizing your mental health isn’t shameful. Putting yourself first isn’t selfish. To those struggling with your mental health, please don’t suffer in silence. If you can, open up to your close friends and family. Let them in: tell them what you’re going through. Moreover, don’t be afraid to seek out professional help if you truly need it. Taking initiative to ensure your mental well-being is not a sign of weakness. It signifies your strength. I know you might not be at a time in your life when displaying vulnerability won’t be met with scorn or derision, but remember that the pain in your head is just as real as any bodily pain you might have ever experienced. Whether you’re happily swimming with your head above the surface, struggling to stay afloat, or can’t find your way out of the eye of the worst hurricane, remember that no storm lasts forever. And the next time a wave tosses you under, know that one day, you’ll finally be able to keep your head above the tumultuous waters, all on your own.

– Justine Torres

Links used:

https://adaa.org/finding-help/asian-americans

https://www.mcleanhospital.org/essential/why-asian-americans-dont-seek-help-mental-illness

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1071736/

Cover Photo Source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/341992165458245732/