Validating Hardships: Disability Stigma in the Asian American Community

By Angela Kim

My parents, Inkyung and Chulwoo, emigrated from South Korea to pursue graduate degrees in the U.S. in their early 20s, but were forced to abandon their desire for higher education when they had my older sister. Like so many first-generation immigrants of color, providing for a newborn child and creating a home took precedence over their dreams. Instead, my mother spent long hours cleaning houses and my father navigated the American workplace with his limited English and heavy accent to survive. We lived frugally, but they always managed to hide their financial struggles from me and my sister.

My parents first met in 1992 in St. Louis. My dad was smoking a cigarette and my mom said to herself, “I would never marry him.” My dad noticed that she had undergone double eyelid surgery and said to himself, “I would never marry her.” Four months later, they got married.

My mom worked at McDonalds in the mid-90s as a backroom cook. When she was on fry-duty, the hot oil splattered onto her left hand and left a burn mark. At home, when my dad saw the burn mark, he was filled with utter sorrow. He resolved to care for her for the rest of their lives.

When the rent at their 1-bedroom was abruptly raised, my parents bought chocolates, plastic Easter eggs, and stuffed bunny toys and spent all night creating Easter gift baskets to sell. The next morning, they stationed themselves at their rented booth in the local flea market, attempting to sell the baskets. They sold none. They drove to the nearest church and donated their failed baskets for the children and cried together at home.

My parents shared the last story with me at age 22. They refrain from sharing stories filled with hardship and devastation, as if they are better left forgotten. When I am fortunate enough to hear snippets of their seemingly former lives, I hold onto them as if they are precious jewels. I revisit them from time to time to remember my roots, to remember the immense sacrifices my parents made for their two daughters.

Perhaps this is why I struggled with sharing my mental disability with them. They had experienced such hardship when they immigrated to a foreign country with a suitcase and a few dollar bills. Would my own hardship compare? Would they write it off as “trivial?”

I was in eighth grade when I first heard it. “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.” Always carrying a face-up penny in my right shoe, avoiding left-bottom corners, assigning a different meaning to every letter A-Z and numbers 0-11, and countless other compulsions were components of my “normal.” The doctor suspected OCD to be the cause of these incessant tics and habits. Apparently, going to Cognitive Behavior Treatment Therapy (CBT) and taking medication would ease the symptoms. She handed me a pamphlet with my potential therapist’s contact information and instructed me to consult with my mom about calling the therapist at home. Before I faced my mom in the waiting room, I stopped by the bathroom and promptly threw the pamphlet in the trash.

The symptoms worsened and three years later, I was officially diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. According to the Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale (Y-BOCS), I scored in the highest range of severity: extreme. I knew I needed external support for my OCD since my obsessive and compulsive habits began to interfere with all aspects of my life, from schooling to sports to friendships.

It took four months of patiently explaining the various facets of OCD to my parents. I needed them to understand why seeking external help was crucial for me at this moment in my life. When I tried to translate “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder” from English to Korean for my parents, language barriers obstructed understanding. Would a simple translation “강박 장애” even account for all the nuances of my lived realities with OCD? Does the Korean translation stress the stakes of living with a mental disability, and perhaps, does it bear more potent connotations of stigma and shame?

My parents often dismissed my OCD as “a phase” and that “everybody has habits.” During these times, my strongest ally was my older sister who continually acted in solidarity with me. We tag-teamed discussions with my parents, she facilitated the brunt of the EnglishKorean translations, and she cultivated an environment in which my mental disability was unfailingly valid to her.

My mom finally agreed to take me to CBT and start medication. The parental acceptance was the first step towards allowing myself to validate my OCD. The four months in CBT were mentally the best four months of my life. I learned coping mechanisms, retrained my brain to disassociate obsessions from compulsions, and grew comfortable with my identity as a disabled person. Since then, I have learned to proudly live with OCD. I was featured on an episode about my experiences with OCD on National Public Radio to share my story. I conducted research on OCD treatment factors that won an award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Currently, as a PhD student, I incorporate disability studies into my research.

I do not fault my parents for their initial hesitation towards acceptance. Instead, I focus on the countless hours my mom spent driving me to and back from CBT every week. I recall how she would sit alone in the waiting room when I was attending my weekly sessions. I remember how each week, she would pay $3 for the mandatory Kaiser Permanente valet parking and an additional $1 tip to the valet drivers. I think back to the joint parent-child appointment sessions where she communicated in her limited English with the doctors, nurses, and therapists in desperation to understand her daughter.

In the Asian American community, seeking mental health treatment comes with extra baggage. Internally, family members are afraid of experiencing negative stigma from friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. Externally, people question if your parents did not raise you well or neglected caring for you as a child. Communal interdependence is a strong cultural value with Asian Americans, so seeking professional help or taking medication makes it seem like your community has failed to care for you.

With this mindset, there is a belief among younger generations that their parents have experienced far more challenging hardships. Just because I validate my own hardships does not mean that I invalidate my parent’s hardships. This cultivates guilt towards sharing our mental health struggles with our parents. Yet, this is a harmful misunderstanding between both groups. This is not to say that cultural barriers, language miscommunication, and access to healthcare may further complicate acceptance. But I urge Asian Americans to treat their disabilities with worth. Our struggles are worth bringing to the forefront of our families and communities. Proud disabled Asian Americans exist and thrive. It is time to validate our disabilities.

Angela Kim is a disabled Korean American woman and the daughter of immigrants. She is currently a PhD student in the American Studies and Ethnicity Department at the University of Southern California. She graduated magna cum laude from UC Davis in 2018 and received two bachelor’s degrees in American Studies and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. Her research examines the origins and popularization of double eyelid surgery, attributed to the work of Dr. Ralph Millard, a white U.S. Navy surgeon, who labeled the Asian monolid a racial “deformity” in various medical journals. Angela’s future dissertation will employ a Critical Disability Studies framework to study the processes of aestheticization and the surgical manipulation of the racialized and gendered body. Additionally, Angela is an activist for gender equity, incarcerated individuals, disabled students, survivors of sexual assault, and homeless youth.