Sophia and I became friends in our Chinese School class when we were kids. Although she stopped attending after a few years, we were reunited later in life when we both volunteered in the same community service organization and Buddhist summer camp. I've always admired Sophia for her strong sense of independence and her motivation to work hard in becoming successful in her education and future career. In this feature, we talk about how her perspective as an Asian American female in the medical field ties in with the topics of colorism/racism and mental health within the Asian American community.
STEPH: Do you consider yourself a feminist? If so, what is an issue within the community that you want to bring light to?
SOPHIA: I definitely believe that I am a feminist, as someone is who an advocate for women's rights. I just truly want to see women be able to stand on equal ground with men. An issue and belief that I have been focusing on recently is the idea that women need to depend on another for stability and who knows what else. Career-focused women are talked about negatively if they're not interested in settling down with a partner. Women who are approaching "that age" are seen as unwanted if they're not seen on the way to marriage or in a committed relationship.
Recently in a seemingly lighthearted conversation, I was asked, "So are you working on getting a boyfriend?" and when I calmly said that I am still just working on myself, I was met with disapproval. "Some women these days think they don't need a man, thinking they could do things by themselves now." I was speechless for a second, contemplating whether or not I had really just heard what I thought I did.
"Women are fully capable of handling their own lives by themselves and should not be seen as anything less just because they want to be independent."
STEPH: As an Asian American female, did you ever feel any hardships within situations you were in, such as not being taken seriously, or feeling like you didn't have a say in things in a specific moment? Did you grow from it?
SOPHIA: In high school, there was a teacher that openly made offensive jokes about race in class. At one point, it reached the extent of mocking Asian accents that made me really uncomfortable. I finally approached him after class once about how his actions did not seem right to me. As someone who was very shy in high school, that situation where I actively spoke out and went against my own teacher was a huge step. That was definitely the first time I went out of my way to address something problematic. While conveying my feelings, I constantly tripped over my words, was unable to make eye contact, and just seemed like a mess in general. Maybe he took it as something he could take advantage of, knowing I was a shy kid, or maybe not. But he simply brushed off my opinion and told me "you're just overreacting." And that was that.
Even after reaching out to higher officials of the school, I was still brushed off and nothing was done. It felt like I was simply not taken seriously and that I was just seen as someone just reaching to make an accusation. I felt incredibly embarrassed and even came to the point of questioning myself. "Was I really overreacting? I was the only one who said anything, so obviously it wasn't an issue right?" With less than 10 Asian Americans in my grade of almost 250 students, this experience made me think that we were small in numbers and were also incapable of being heard.
After that experience, I have grown to be able to identify the micro aggressions that should be seen as offensive, even when others feel as if they're not as important and be able to stick to what I believe is wrong. It propelled me into a direction where I was more comfortable with being able to speak out.
"A lot of people’s view’s won’t change just from one instance. It needs to be actively addressed. One failure does not mean you should just stop. It is something that could push you to do more because you realize that it will take more for change to happen."
STEPH: What is it about the club you're involved in (Asian Pacific Islander Nursing Student Association) that makes it so interesting?
SOPHIA: API-NSA focuses on healthcare & nursing within the API community. They look at different cultures and relate it back to what healthcare means in that culture. It’s really cool because a lot of the attendees are Asian American and are either first generation or growing up in America. They hear a lot about their own country, but it’s usually through their own parents. So through our events, we're able to expose them to even more information that they might have not learned growing up. It brings them closer and gives them a better understanding of where certain ideas come from within their culture.
STEPH: Out of all the subjects you guys have touched upon in the club, which one do you think resonates with you the most and why?
SOPHIA: When we talked about the anti blackness/colorism that is instilled in our parents and how they attempt to have it be brought onto us. I know many instances where I've experienced that from my own parents and how I’ve had to tell them that their beliefs are very stereotyped. If you look at history of the intra-Asian colorism, the reasoning is more widely known as an indication of your status. If you were more light skinned and more pale, you would be seen as more wealthier because you were able to stay inside and not do any labor/manual work outside. If you were more darker skinned, you would be working in the farm and doing manual labor all day.
For colorism within API communities, it’s kind of this ideal that someone is lower than you simply because they have a darker skin color. That creates a lot of distance and hostility between different areas and a lot of groups between APIs in other countries. As a result, there might be not as much unity and solidarity in-between these API communities simply because of skin color.
STEPH: Did you ever have an experience with colorism?
SOPHIA: When I was in middle school, my mom told me that my skin was getting too dark. So she started bringing home these skin bleaching creams and would make me put them on my face every night. She told me that if I used it, my skin would get whiter and more pale and my dark spots would go away. Obviously, I did not want to do it because a lot of the times when people strive to get lighter skin, they might not have the resources to go to more expensive means to accomplish what they want. As a result, a lot of skin bleaching creams are very harmful for the body and skin and can cause a lot of adverse effects. I was too little to realize the meanings behind what was done. My mom didn’t really know the meanings of what she did. For me, it was like, “My mom is telling me to do this, so I should do this.” So I usually went along with the stuff she wanted me to do, considering my physical appearance. As I was growing older, I started being exposed to other views than just my parents and I was able to educate myself and realize what was going on within family and my culture as well.
I am Taiwanese and our skin color isn’t naturally dark or pale. It’s just usually a regular skin tone but some people still want to be more pale. I also have a lot of Filipino friends that are born with a darker skin tone and have experienced a lot of heavy colorism in their family. Often times there are a lot of comments about their skin tone and it's come to the point where it’s very normalized. However, I think that it stems the idea that being pale is valued more.
"Addressing colorism is really important, especially in this time where a lot of communities might feel divided. As this growing generation, we’re able to have a better understanding and kind of make up for the beliefs that were passed on from older generations."
STEPH: What are your thoughts about the concept of mental health in the Asian American community? Why do you think it’s important to push for reform?
SOPHIA: Discussing mental health within Asian American communities, it’s something people keep to themselves. There is a stigma of mental health-- that it’s not a real thing, or how expressing these feelings could be a sign of weakness. A lot of times, it’s not really understood. It's more seen as the way if you had a fever, that it's something that can just be fixed automatically. Because it’s not so greatly understood, a lot of people don’t really know how to approach the subject when it comes down to it.
I think it’s really important to advocate that feeling that you can talk about what you are thinking. Since a lot of Asian Americans growing up aren’t comfortable with sharing their feelings, it grows internally and they never get the chance to address what is happening. Sometimes, it just gets to that point where it gets out of hand and spiral and lead to things like suicide.
STEPH: Do you think you’ve tried to be more conscious in trying to make change?
SOPHIA: I’ve definitely become more conscious in recognizing micro-aggressions, especially in just everyday conversation so they don't become normalized. I try to help people understand what they’re saying and how it affects others. Now, I’m not as soft spoken than I was growing up. It's important to take that time and address the problem right there and then instead of just not recognizing it or letting it slide. I’ve been more active in that and becoming more aware these things and how it affects other people.
With mental health, a lot of the times it’s hard to push people to talk about what’s going on with them. I think it’s important to become an active observer. I think it’s good to let people know that you are willing to listen if they have anything to talk about and not push people to what you want them to do. Let them go at their own pace and be their support system if they need one.