A few years ago, I found an aerogramme from the late ’60s tucked away in a drawer at my parents’ house. One of my dad’s friends, already living in the United States, wrote to him, “This is a very good time to come here. There are so many opportunities.”
He said nothing about leaving his family or adjusting to a new country. Only “opportunities,” “come here,” “good time.” The language of success was scribbled across a thin, powder blue, tri-folded letter, waiting for my dad to take the bait — and he did.
I discovered this letter around the time I began therapy, months after my dad died and months before I asked my husband for a separation. These losses were more connected than I realized.
My dad came to the United States in 1969 to get his master’s degree in electrical engineering. He married in 1972 and, with my mom, had kids by the late 1970s. They bought their first home, then their second, and sent their kids to college.
In the middle of all this, my dad lost his sister in a car accident and got his MBA while working full time, and my mom abandoned her artwork for a clerical job with a pension. They juggled maintaining family ties abroad, making new friends in a new land, raising kids between two cultures, being denied a mortgage because of their race, and fighting about the same issues without resolving root trauma or reconciling the fallout of migration. While they were “making it,” they never sought outside help.
My parents also emigrated from India, a country where the culture shuns the idea of seeking outside help. We were the model minority, and we had a responsibility: education, financial security, the American Dream. The United States did not pass the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 so that we could feel our feelings. The country needed our “skilled labor,” our capital.
At the same time, family back home was rooting for us. We were supposed to be their success story, so we couldn’t afford be the source of their shame.
After centuries of the British occupation in India, my parents re-rooted themselves in a country born through genocide. It makes me wonder if our cultural norms of shunning help were driven by colonizers who historically diminished my parents’ self-worth and incited shame. Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek out mental health services than their white counterparts.
My dad was quiet and never spoke about his parents. They died before I was born. All I knew was what I could piece together from a black and white photo of them in my parents’ bedroom. They posed next to each other with rigid lips, staring into nothing, my grandmother with a saree draped over her head and my grandfather wearing a Gandhi cap. Their faces screamed sadness.
Hindus traditionally display photos of parents who have passed away out of respect. The photo sat in the master bedroom near our temple, where my dad prayed every morning. When my dad looked at this picture in our 2,700-square-foot home in a safe Chicago suburb, did he think he’d “made it”? Or did he still carry their pain?
My mom, on the other hand, wore her joy and sorrow on her sleeves. She’d do anything for her family, always at the expense of herself. She sacrificed her artistic dreams and channeled that energy toward us in the form of delicious meals and criticism.
She repeated her motto, “Why make a mistake if you don’t have to?” with such confidence I still freeze when I start anything new for fear of messing up. She and I bicker plenty about her unreasonable expectations, but I’ve speculated that her fear of not “making it” meant none of us could fail.
I may have felt more brainwashed by my parents than by my therapists
As the daughter in my family, I carried more emotional weight than my brother. It got heavier when my family focused more on how expired coupons could save us money at the store than how to save themselves. It was heavier because my mom spilled her grievances to me when I was 12 years old.
I prided myself on being her counsel during stress, on being the mediator between my stubborn mom and my stubborn brother. This pride lived with me and reproduced itself later in life, landing me in therapy.
I was in my 20s when I met a funny, self-deprecating, and moody Indian guy, who I stuck with partly for my parents’ validation. They worked so hard and sacrificed so much, the least I could do was marry someone within my culture who appeared to have a promising future.
But I also hoped I could fix him in the same way I was my family’s advisor. I defended him to others when he chastised me because he’d always say he was sorry. I forgave him for keeping me from my friends because he convinced me his friends were cooler. I would protect his feelings at the cost of my own. I was groomed for this role by my family and my culture, to make our parents believe their penny-pinching was worth something.
It took me 8 years of being bullied to realize I had to leave. It wasn’t a coincidence that I came to this decision just months after I started therapy.
So I sought out a therapist.
Soon enough, our sessions filled with conversations about the dysfunction of my marriage and how my upbringing had gotten me there. And by “there,” I mean to the place that pushed me to keep “making it”; to not bring shame on my parents, just like they didn’t want to bring shame on theirs; to be the model minority and forget how this perpetuates racial divides.
But “making it” never addressed the gaslighting by my husband or why I fell into the role of everyone’s therapist. I never thought I was good enough to “make it” either, and when you never believe you’re good enough, you’ll constantly find fault in yourself and project it onto others. Entering therapy forced me to self-reflect and see how my co-dependent behaviors were a form of self-harm.
As the seventh anniversary of my dad’s death approaches, my mom, who went to a couple of therapy sessions after she lost him, refuses to return. “They just tell you what to do,” she says. “They don’t understand things about us.”
I may have felt more brainwashed by my parents than by my therapists, but she isn’t wrong about that last part. While there are therapists of color out there, they’re difficult to find. And if it’s a South Asian therapist, my mom worries they’ll spill her secrets to people we might happen to know. It’s a lose-lose proposition driven by deep shame, loss, and the denial of her own wounds.
Still, I continue going to therapy because the work is never done.
The duty I feel toward my family is entrenched in guilt and obedience because of what they sacrificed to come here. Maybe they “made it,” but what was the point if all we do is continue the cycle, forcing ourselves to work through lunch instead of taking a break? It seems like the hustle is glorified while we internalize the grind.
Ignoring trauma caused by uprooting oneself, leaving your home country, and trying to establish yourself socially and financially in a new country has consequences that will be passed down from one generation to the next. Already, migrants of all populations seek out mental health services less often than those who were born in this country.
So “making it” should be redefined.
It’s time to loosen our bootstraps so we can ground ourselves in the truth of what “freedom” asks of our mental health and how much we’re willing to bear. This way, we can give ourselves permission to ask for help and understand the ways we’ve tricked ourselves into thinking that “help” was for other people.
If we do this, the legacy we offer to future generations will be the radical power of healing and the beauty of vulnerability.