Dr. Jenny T. Wang
"In Asian culture, you don’t fight back, you don’t speak out.'"
Just in time for Mental Health Awareness Month and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month, we bring you part one of this two-part series with clinical psychologist, Dr. Jenny T. Wang, PhD. In one of our most heartfelt, honest discussions to date we discuss what it means to be descendants of immigrants, we explore compassion and empathy for our parents' generation, and acknowledge our role jostling between aging elders and the next generation, our children. Dr. Wang shares her professional insights gained from being an advocate for Asian American identity and mental health, together with personal stories of her own family - the dynamics and moments that defined her own story and now gifts to the world.
About our guest: Dr. Jenny T. Wang is a Taiwanese American clinical psychologist and national speaker on the intersections of Asian American identity, mental health, and intergenerational and racial trauma. Her professional mission is to destigmatize mental health within the Asian community and empower Asian Americans to prioritize their own mental well-being. She spearheaded the Asians for Mental Health therapist directory (www.asiansformentalhealth.com) to connect individuals with culturally reverent mental health care for Asian American diasporas. She created the Instagram community Asians for Mental Health (@asiansformentalhealth), where she explores the unique ways in which Asian American identity impacts our mental health. Her first book, Permission to Come Home: Reclaiming Mental Health as Asian Americans was published by Grand Central Balance in May 2022. She is a mental health advisory member of Wondermind and The Mental Health Coalition.
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In many ways I feel like our generation we are the cushion or the buffer between the immigrant, perhaps generation above us and our kids who really are the second, third, fourth generations. And yet, at the end of the day and I said this to my daughter last night. I said, when you leave this house the only thing I truly care about is that you will want to come back and spend time with us.
Welcome back to Root and Seed, a podcast about tradition seekers who are sparked to explore, define and celebrate their family and cultural identity. I'm your host, Anika Chabra.
Last episode we met Daniel Mazzone, who has risen to artistic fame using his beautiful concept of displaying a person's story right on their skin. Empathy over judgement every day but that's hard when our stories are hidden under the surface. And why is this even a thing? Because many communities have been taught to "swallow the bitter" as you'll hear from our next guest, Dr. Jenny Wang.
Dr. Wang is a Ph.D., psychologist, author and speaker who is working to help Asian Americans understand the impacts of suppressing their mental health. Her platform "Asians for Mental Health" has quickly caught on because for our immigrant, marginalized and minority communities who often are collectivist cultures, the repression and hiding of our feelings has intergenerational impacts. Thanks to people like Dr. Wang, more people are seeking to understand. So with it being both Mental Health Awareness Month and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we couldn’t think of a better time to share our conversation with her.
But first, why is this important to Root & Seed? Well, we fell in love with Dr. Jenny Wang when she posted about Lunar New Year and how exposure to your culture helps children internalize the beauty in the stories and rituals of their heritage through positive narratives. Thereby protecting them from internalizing racism and that's the clarity and lightness that makes her so appealing. From her experience and personal stories, the insights from her own life are ones many of us can resonate with.
Also quick disclaimer, I want to also acknowledge that she was under the weather when doing this interview and we are so grateful that she still decided to do it. Without further ado, here is Dr. Wang.
My name is Dr. Jenny Wang. I'm a clinical psychologist here in Houston, Texas. I'm a corporate speaker as well as author of my new book that just came out last May, called Permission to Come Home, Reclaiming Mental Health as Asian Americans.
I am a 1.5 generation immigrant in that I was born in Taiwan and then moved to the United States when I was two years old. And I'm also a mother, a wife and daughter and sister.
Oh, I love that. I always remember to say sister at the end.
It's an important role.
Absolutely it is. The other thing we'd like to ask Dr. Wang and I feel like I want to call you Dr. Wang today, if that's okay. We love to ask a foundational question in the context of speaking to our Root and Seed community.
What are the cultural influences, geographically, ethnically community-wise that make up your identity?
That's such a great question and I think of almost all these multiple pockets you know, because I think at its basic level I see myself as Taiwanese American. That kind of almost forms the foundation of how I see myself, that I am a child of immigrants.
I am someone who's not lived in Taiwan extensively. I was raised here in America and yet was heavily steeped in our Taiwanese dialect, speaking Mandarin Chinese through both my parents going to Chinese school on the weekends and then also had a more kind of I guess white dominant environment that I grew up in. Growing up in New Jersey, in the suburbs.
And so for a lot of my life I was often one of very few Asians in my community and yet we would find these enclaves. So I went to Asian American church growing up and then my Chinese school, so it would have these pockets in my life where it'd be filled with other Asians and then pockets of my life where I almost tried to hide my Asianess.
We love to hear the family story if you don't mind sharing with us later on, but we'll come back to that because I think, let's just dive right into the platform that you've built.
You know, you spoke about yourself being a psychologist and an author and the champion of the awareness of mental health amongst Asian Americans. Can you talk a little bit about your platform and what you're bringing to the world?
Yeah, it's funny because you know, when I started the platform there was really no kind of agenda or even scope that it would grow in the way that it has. I really just wanted to start one of the first Asian American therapist directories and was literally DMing other Asian mental health professionals asking them to fill out a Google form. And it was a way that I could access people from across the country easily.
And then it was also a space that I could speak on the intersections of Asian American identity and mental health, which at the time was not really something I saw on social media. There was a lot of mental health content from a very general level, but it was either very broad or it was very Eurocentric and as I was learning about how I wanted to parent, how I wanted to raise my kids. I remember memories of wishing I was not Asian because it felt so isolating. I felt so different and I was determined not to have my kids feel the same. And so around that time when I began my account, it was pre-pandemic, but only by a couple of months.
Oddly, my daughter was subjected to a racist gesture. She was in first grade and I remember at the time being so heartbroken. I remember when the teacher told me what had happened the teacher said, I don't think your daughter really knew what that gesture was, but I knew. And her teacher was white, but is very aware of the history of racism against Asian Americans and called out this interaction and brought it to light when she could have hidden it, she could have ignored it. And so I think that started to really catalyze this idea that this platform was about creating space for people to explore those identity issues because if we were honest with ourselves before the pandemic many of us could name racialized trauma experiences. We could remember them in our childhoods and yet we had never really processed them. We had never given them words. We had never given them language. And so the account started to evolve almost on its own organically in themes, ideas, what resonated with folks. And then it just started to kind of grow and snowball and I would say that it's grown because the community has allowed it to grow. I think in so many ways my account feels like it's just a vessel and people pour into it what feels right and what resonates.
You talked about your daughter's experience, but your own experience. How did your upbringing prepare you for and/or propel you to do something like this as an adult?
My parents, I always say they really tried their best with the knowledge that they had, but we never discussed things like race. We never discussed things like discrimination. So I think so much of my life I had begun to internalize when somebody treats me this way it's because of this, because somehow I'm lesser than or that I was less valuable in this society.
And that was for a while the story that seemed to come to the surface when I encountered these different difficulties. It wasn't until I would say I was much older in my 30s having finished my Ph.D., having started to work with clients actively that I had to really start to unpack some of those experiences.
And start to realize that we all live within these larger systems of hierarchy in all different forms of value placement of how much worth you have based on different metrics. And I think realizing that there was a bigger system that I coexisted within I could then finally say, oh, maybe sometimes this isn't about me. This is about this person and this lens by which they see the world. And that in many ways it started to function as a protective factor, right? It starts to protect our identity instead of self-blame, self-hatred. It turns into a recognition that there are forces that do harm and they are oppressive against people of marginalized identities.
And so I think in Asian culture there's this idea of swallowing our bitterness. You don't fight back, you don't speak out, you stay under the radar and this platform, this account really challenged a lot of those frameworks because I was literally coming out and saying things that I've been told not to say, not to discuss. Yet with that and with the feedback and response from the community, I realized my goodness. We need this and as we speak out the truth about who we are that is how identity begins to get formed or reformed or reclaimed.
I love that. Something that was going on in my head and I need to share this with you. I had this moment on Saturday evening, I'd gone to a dinner party with predominantly white people and I felt like I was getting really aggressive and really vocal and like my pendulum was going the other way, which also didn't feel totally right and good for me at that moment. But it's almost like you gotta feel the boundaries as you're trying to explore what does this new world look like? I'm sort of experimenting with that now and what feels good and what's still is honouring my family and my values and all those other things and also just like having compassion about that journey.
Yes, I agree. And I think when you talk about almost the swing towards the other direction right? It reminds me of how when we're scared when we're threatened. Our trauma responses rise to the surface, right? And so fight is one of them. We say, oh no, you're not saying that to me, right? I'm gonna react in a way that protects myself. But I think for myself growing up a lot of it was the other trauma responses such as just freezing or shrinking. And so in some ways, I feel like we move through all of those ranges, right? Where we comply, we defer, we nod and smile. Even as we're being insulted and then we have moments where we say, I'm not taking this and I'm standing up for myself.
And I think you're absolutely right. We test the limits of each of those protective mechanisms for ourselves. And I think at times as I swing in the direction of more assertiveness or sometimes more aggressiveness. I have to remind myself that assertiveness doesn't have to look like the white dominant male figure that I think our society seems to prioritize and sometimes assertiveness is actually creating space for others and opening up space for our community which is one of the goals of the account now.
I love that. That's so well said and thank you. Pushing the limits is exactly the right words. One of the things we've been marinating in is identifying the role and responsibility of our generation.
I gave you a little bit of background on why we're called Root and Seed. So root is about the past and seed is what we're planning for the future and we actually spent so much time designing our ampersand because our ampersand is symbolic of this generation. Of the sandwich generation of the generation that has the elders that are getting older and then the younger generation that are sort of trying to find their place in the world.
I had to ask you this question when I was preparing for this interview. Have you figured it out? What is our role and our responsibility? Like is there anything that you can do to help us understand or inspire us in that unique place of children, of daughters and then parents of? I think it's a really interesting spot for us to be in.
I think that's such a great question and I think I'm still in the figuring it out process. But I do think that our generation, in our maybe early to late 30s to 40s, 45, 50s, we are in a really unique position to choose what goes forward and how we pass that forward. An example that I think of is having been forced to go to Chinese school for so much of my life, it was such a miserable part of my childhood because it was not enjoyable. It was on a Sunday after church, more school, more homework and it was a very strict type of teaching style and I just didn't jive with the person I was becoming. And we tried that with our eldest and it was just kind of a similar model, but I said, you know what? I'm glad I speak the language. I'm glad I can read now. So maybe we try it and it's funny because as my daughter started probably in first grade was going to Chinese school. It was so tension inducing. I'm not a native speaker and I didn't have the full proficiency that I needed to help her in her studies. So I felt like I was getting retraumatized of my Chinese school days again.
And when the pandemic hit and everything went virtual it became even more difficult. And I think one of the things we had to decide is, do we hold onto this as a non-negotiable aspect of her childhood that was causing us a lot of family tension, relational stress just to get her to do something like this? Or do we actually not see this as perhaps a loss, but as an honouring of where we are in this part of our story? And I think I have to trust this next generation and I have to accept that they choose their own journey as well.
In many ways, I feel like our generation we are the cushion or the buffer between the immigrant, perhaps generation above us and our kids who really are the second, third, fourth generations. And yet at the end of the day and I said this to my daughter last night. I said, when you leave this house, the only thing I truly care about is that you will want to come back and spend time with us.
And I'm getting emotional thinking about it.
The generation before us perhaps felt as though the stakes were so high. It had to be driven by fear, harshness, a strictness that did not allow for warmth and I think our generation is saying there's another way of life and that is beautiful too. And it is a gift from the older generation because now our generation is likely more stable than we have ever felt for our family stories. And so we can give our kids the warmth, the support and the freedom that maybe we didn't have.
Ok, pause. We have to wrap this episode here, but are you hooked? It's almost like a cliffhanger. We want to keep sharing our conversation with Dr. Wang, but we're going to save that for part 2. We'll continue on the idea that every generation has a different set of context to survive within, both situationally and societally. So this shapes each generation's objectives and our traditions evolve too!
So while you wait for that episode to be released, check out Dr. Wang on social media @asiansformentalhealth because her posts are full of universal truths that mix in affirmations and positive sentiments that bring positive ethnic identity to ourselves, our children and even to our elders. And follow us @rootandseedco to get alerted when part 2 is released.
Root & Seed is hosted by me, Anika Chabra, executive produced by Jenn Siripong Mandel, and edited by Emily Groleau and Camille Blais. Bye for now.
Hosted by: Anika Chabra
Brought to you by: Root & Seed
Executive Producer: Jennifer Siripong Mandel
Editing by: Emily Groleau
Sound Editing by: Camille Blais
Music credit: Something 'bout July (Instrumental) by RYYZN
Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported — CC BY 3.0
Free Download / Stream: http://bit.ly/-_something-bout-july
Music promoted by Audio Library https://youtu.be/OFga9pkl6RU
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