[Dear Damsels] Learning to Reject Tradition

Chinese tradition dictates that you live with your parents until you get married. Ideally, you should get married to a good, Chinese boy. Then, when your parents retire, it is your duty to look after them.

I am not a dutiful daughter. I was, once. I could have been, once. A long time ago.

But then I grew up, and I got sick. I got sick, and my parents told me to pray. They told me to stop being so emotional, to control what I was feeling. Just focus on your studies.

I am not dutiful, because mental illness doesn’t follow the rules. It makes you hurt the people you love, and say things you don’t mean. It makes your whole world topsy turvy, and some days it’s difficult to tell which way is up and which way is down. It changes you, and there’s no manual, no set of instructions that tells you how to deal with that change.

There’s been a significant shift in the way our society approaches and discusses mental illness, which is fantastic. But in many Western countries, these discussions often exclude – or at the very least – don’t take into account generational and cultural differences.

My parents are Chinese. They were strict, and they had expectations. I don’t think they expected me to get sick – and I didn’t expect them to leave me in the dark. I didn’t have anywhere else to turn, so I turned inwards. I wrote, and I studied, and I wrote some more. I put on the façade of the dutiful, studious daughter, so I wouldn’t have to answer any awkward questions.

I wrote, and sometimes I wrote badly. I let myself be swept up in a torrent of painful, pitch-black emotion, and I poured my heart out onto the page. Words kept me safe. I understood them, and on some kind of level, I’d like to think they understood me too.

But when I wrote, I wrote in English. Even though I wrote every day, I simply couldn’t find the right words in Chinese to tell my parents how I was feeling. The only phrase I know for ‘mental illness’ in Chinese is one that is used as an insult. It’s almost synonymous with ‘going crazy’. And I tried – I really did try. I just don’t think they understood. I think they thought I was going through a phase. That I’d get better, and then everything would be okay.

I wrote – and I still write – to find some sense in the world. Especially in those days where my old friend rears its ugly head, and I feel myself turning into someone I don’t want to be. I don’t know what my parents think of me now, but I’m not sure it matters. They probably think I have gotten better. That I’ve picked myself up and dusted myself off, and I’m back to the person I used to be (whoever that is, or was).

Chinese tradition dictates that you do your duty. No questions asked. But I am not a dutiful daughter. I can’t be, because this illness has changed me. I can’t be, because now, my parents don’t know who I am.

I am not a dutiful daughter. I was, once. I could have been. If things had gone just a little bit differently.

This piece was first published in Dear Damsels, as part of their September letter: Lessons. Read the original piece here.

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