Dr. Jenny T. Wang, Part 2
"This was for the schooling you never got to have.'"
They say we remember moments not days. In part two of our interview with Dr. Jenny T. Wang, Dr. Wang crystallizes a moment between her and her mom, that feels relatable for all immigrants and their descendants, showing them that their hard work and sacrifices were ultimately worth it. Listen to that and more, including thoughts on resolving the role of our generation and how we can invite in tradition in a healthy way. And the way Dr. Wang lights up when answering the question around family food and recipes will have you craving a meal and time shared with your elders.
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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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.
If you haven’t had a chance to listen to our last episode, we spoke to a psychologist, author, and speaker who has built a community of people around mental health and wellbeing. Both professionals and those themselves who are looking to heal, build stronger relationships and craft a new way forward across the Asian diaspora. This is part two of our interview with Dr. Jenny Wang and a continuation of our focus on such growth and healing during Mental Health Awareness Month. There is so much to be learned from her encouragement and her personal stories. You truly don’t have to be Asian to benefit, learn and participate. Here’s part two.
So when working with BIPOC individuals, we're often speaking to those individuals that come from collectivist cultures, which is so beautiful. There's so much beauty in that. You know, when my mom died her best friend stepped up and said, call me Mossy from now on because I'm like her sister. She texts me every Friday because that was the day that I used to speak to my mom for the longest time. So that sort of galvanizing community. All those other things is so beautiful about our Asian cultures and our BIPOC cultures, our collectivist nature.
Yet we also have a priority of individual health that needs to be prioritized. How do we resolve that? How do we work through that? You know, how can we maintain our culture and that collectivist community part of things, but at the same time feel like we're healing ourselves?
I feel like the tension between self and other is crucial within BIPOC communities. People of colour, I think in many ways, community was how our ancestors survived. And so I think that that tension will always be there. I will feel it on all sides between my own nuclear family and my aging parents. Between the needs of myself and my community that looks to me. And the thing I often remind myself is that my connection to my community is meant to be life-giving. It's meant to connect me to a grounded source of encouragement, resiliency, strength, but sometimes that community also can create a lot of complexity, expectation, judgment, gossip, all these things that human beings do. And so I think the question I always have is, does my community and what they ask of me require me to abandon myself in order to be a part of that? And if it does, then I need to reevaluate why.
For what cause, what purpose, what reason and does that align with my values? And I think sometimes it comes down to moment-to-moment decision-making. It comes down to do you ask your in-laws to move in with you because that's culturally what is expected, or do you realize that your mental health is at stake if that happens and that you would not be able to be the mother, wife, person that you need to be in your life too.
And sometimes it's messy because those lines are not clear, because human beings are not clear cut. But I think in the struggle with the tension, we learn to tolerate the discomfort that it creates in us and if we can sit with it, if we can tolerate that discomfort long enough, then at least it gives us a chance to test and iterate and evolve and say, hold on, that's not working. Let's change. Let's pivot. But I've seen clients say, this was the expectation, my mom had to live with us when my father died and yet she and I have never gotten along. And because of the rigidity of that rule in her mind, she had to learn the long way about what it meant for her to abandon herself.
And at some point, I think we do realize the abandonment that's happened, the self-abandonment. And if we have support, if we have space to just introspect, we can realize it's happened and realize perhaps how much it's costing us and try to start to say maybe there's a different path, a different way.
I do really like that notion of a different path or a different way. Our parents were trailblazers. They left their countries, they didn't look back. They wanted possibility for us and if we are rewriting the rules it opens up a whole world of possibility to what that all looks like.
So I can be respectful of tradition, I can be respectful of the bonds that bind us and our culture, but can I do that on our terms? Can I do that without sacrificing mental health? Which frankly was not an option for my mom. It was not an option for my parent's generation, your parent's generation.
It was at the sacrifice of. That they had to soldier on and do the things that they did. And that's a really interesting notion of owning that as a different path. I'm really fixated on this idea of what our generation's mark on our cultural history will be.
Time will tell, time will tell. So we see at Root & Seed the power of individual stories to inspire a sense of belonging and a sense of healing in your journey. We always like to say you can't find Nani's biryani recipe on Pinterest or Google with the nuances that she does it with. And so we really need to be a generation that is claiming these stories as her own, claiming their recipes, writing them down, practicing them. At the very least, even if you don't want to do it for yourself, for your future generation, and the world that comes ahead of us.
Do you have any stories of your individual past, the kind of great ones, maybe the traumatic ones, the ones that are in between that have really shaped you into who you are today?
Growing up, one of the stories that really pushed me or motivated me was that my mother was the youngest of three and they were living in Japanese-occupied Taiwan. My grandfather worked for the Japanese health department, but they did not make very much money and so all of the resources went into educating her brothers who were ahead of her in age.
And so she didn't ever get a chance to go to college. She is brilliant, but did not have opportunities to pursue careers that really felt aligned. It was very much the hustle, the struggle. You do what you had to do and so the fact that my sister and I both went to college, the fact that my sister and I both have advanced degrees, my grandmother who's still living does not know how to read.
So the power of two generations down the line, I have a Ph.D., whereas my grandmother cannot read a newspaper to me is a story that has power. And I think that was one of my most proudest moments was to be able to hand my mom my doctoral diploma and say, this was for you, for the schooling that you never got a chance to have. And to show her that her sacrifices were worth something.
Yeah. When my mom passed away I went to therapy and I was fixated on honouring my mother.
Ironically now that's all I do through Root & Seed in my way. However, by no means at that time did I think that I would be birthing a platform like this, but the therapist said to me, you're honouring her by living your life. In everything you're doing in the steps that you're taking, in the parenting, at some point you will realize you're embodying all the things and the places that she stepped in and the places she didn't step in and you're literally on the shoulders of giants like they say. And you are on the shoulders of her and she gave you this ability to do what you're doing today. Just by living your life, the Ph.D., the higher education that clearly was in the realm of her intellect, but not in the realm of possibility for her given the societal norms at the time. That's something that really sits with me well and I wonder if that could be an inspiration for people as they resolve their identity and the cultural part of things and how that all sits together.
What can and does a healthy relationship with culture and traditions and celebrations, what does that look like for us? For our generation? For our children? When we are talking about patriarchy and all those other things that are kind of rampant through cultural practices, what can something like that look like?
We were talking about our generation and the unique role that we play in time and I think we are the generation that says it might have worked back then, but I don't know that it's gonna work going forward. And so when I think about patriarchy, which is very much a part of my mom's childhood. She still very much feels its grip because of her marriage to my father who is seven years older. So those dynamics are ones that they feel, but maybe could not name or even didn't recognize were negative because that's how their ecosystem functioned. And so our generation says, Huh, perhaps I've seen the effects of patriarchy in my parent's generation and their marriage and their relationships and I'm choosing differently and I'm choosing a spouse or a partner who's my equal and sees themselves in that way as a parent, as a partner, right?
And so we choose the things that we decide to carry forward and also release from some of the things that we observed but may not agree with, may not align with our values.
When I think about healthy culture, there's not one definition of that because everybody resonates with different parts of our culture that they choose to bring forward. But I think that there's something about truly being seen and then truly being able to show yourself authentically, that, to me, feels healthy. And I think for a culture that historically has been steeped in silence, in shame, in isolation, I think our generation is saying, we're not going to do it that way. We're going to choose despite how hard it might be to be vulnerable, to tell people we go to therapy, to tell people we're trying medication for the first time. We're choosing to talk or learn about our emotions and that's powerful.
I love that, it was so well said. Dr. Wang, thank you so much, I would love to ask you a question from our conversation cards, oracle card style. In the sense that you're supposed to pick out one that is meant for you today and I'm going to do it on your behalf because we're not together physically.
I'm gonna pick out two and then you can decide which one you put. You actually got two in food.
There's four categories: family stories celebrations, traditions, and food. You got two in food so they're very related. The first question is, what is our most important family dish or recipe? And then the second one is, what foods do you think of around the holidays?
Oh, it's so hard because we love food in our family, but there is one dish that my mom makes that kind of like stops me in my tracks. I have to portion it out so I can freeze some and save it because my kids will devour it, my husband will as well!
So it's the sticky, savoury glutinous rice and it's called YouFan in Mandarin Chinese or 油飯 in Taiwanese. And it's interesting because this dish often is prepared when a family has a new child as a kind of form of gratitude towards their community and also like we've had a child kind of announcement.
The family will make this sticky glutinous rice dish and give it to their most kind of valued family and friends. My mom watched my grandmother make it, but kind of always just watched on the sides because she was never allowed to touch anything.
And then in her adult years started to just kind of like do everything by feel. And so this dish she's tested and beta tested so many times and she's finally perfected it in these last few months. There's some in my freezer right now because she just made some and it is a dish that is comforting, it is savoury. It has pork belly in it so it's like this unctuous dish and it just feels like home and it feels like it'll just warm you up from the inside.
I love that. The words just come off your tongue like it's just poetry. And then to see people light up when they're talking about food that makes them feel like a kid again is actually my most fun thing. So I know our listeners can't see you, but you're lighting up as you're talking about it and that's one of my most favourite things so thank you.
Thank you, Dr. Wang. This has been amazing!
It has been such a joy. I apologize my voice is on its way out. I'm glad we were able to do this nonetheless and thank you for creating spaces like this because this is part of that documentation. And so I'm just so grateful that we connected and could have this conversation.
Amazing and we'll make sure that everybody knows how to follow you. You have a friend in Canada now I guess I can say and so we're excited to follow you and see what else is next. I hope you're working on another book.
It's definitely on the radar trying to think through what makes sense. But yes, it's been so powerful to hear the feedback about my first and I think that makes all of the fear, insecurity, imposter syndrome and hard work worth it.
So fingers crossed, there's more to come.
As we all wait for book number two, you can check out her first one called Permission to Come Home and follow along at her Instagram account @asiansformentalhealth. Dr. Wang’s encouragement to reevaluate and rewrite our approach as we navigate our mark on history is at once inviting yet at the same time feels like a process. This isn't something that is going to happen overnight. Trying things out while respecting our own boundaries and mental health feels significant and necessary if we're going to make any headway in healing with potential to influence the generations that came before us and are to follow. We recognize that to say this is simpler than it can be in actual fact so we do encourage you to follow Dr. Wang for more pearls of wisdom.
What if there existed a platform that broke down some of the more complex concepts facing our generation? Next episode, we speak to Samata Krishnapillai who has done just that with her platform OnCanada project. Breaking down complex societal concepts, getting to the root of stories so that we can all understand them enough that we can feel comfortable to get involved in the conversation. All in an effort to make a scratch on the collective liberation for all people who have experienced colonization and oppression, allies and all.
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 https://soundcloud.com/ryyzn
Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported — CC BY 3.0
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