Asian Men Are Taught to Suppress Our Emotions. I'm Changing That For My Kids.

Michael Kwan
Michael Kwan

This APIA Heritage Month, we're talking about mental health. Because, for too long, it's been stigmatized among our community. That's why PS is spotlighting mental health journeys from APIA perspectives — to confront the shame around going to therapy, seeking help, and talking about our feelings. Read the stories here.

Born in Canada to Chinese immigrant parents, I always felt like I had to balance Asian traditional values with the prevailing Western culture around me. As much as I watched Jim Carrey comedies and listened to Top 40 radio stations, my outward demeanor was governed by my parents' expectations.

We were taught that men were "supposed to be strong," and that meant masking our struggles and vulnerabilities.

While they never said it explicitly, my parents raised me and my brother to express very little emotion. We didn't show physical affection, in public or in private. I don't think I was ever hugged as a child. We didn't ask for help, partly because we didn't want to feel like a burden to anyone, but also because saying you needed help was interpreted as weakness. We were taught that men were "supposed to be strong," and that meant masking our struggles and vulnerabilities. I didn't recognize it at the time, but I'm sure my dad had his fair share of challenges that he endured quietly. And alone. This explains his many smoke breaks in solitude. The only time I ever saw him shed a tear was at my grandmother's funeral.

Since my parents were working all the time, my older brother would sometimes assume the role of a proxy parent. As a tween, I didn't have a lot of friends at school and had a hard time fitting in. One day, I told my brother that I thought I might be depressed. "What do you have to be depressed about?" he dismissively replied. And that was that.

At the time, I don't think I was looking for advice. Rather, I wanted a sympathetic ear. In hindsight, I probably shouldn't have expected much more from my teenage brother, but this added to the belief that I had to suck it up and go on about my business without complaint. Asian stoicism prevailed.

It took years of self-reflection to learn that repressing my feelings wouldn't make them go away. All it did was make me feel alone or defective in some way. I'd ruminate on negative thoughts on my own. So when I became a dad to my two young children, I wanted to make sure they always had someone to turn to and the tools to manage their feelings. I'm actively working to shift the narrative around fatherhood and present a more modern perspective on mental health. My kids have seen me express a broad range of emotions, understanding it's normal and healthy to have feelings. I'm trying to break the taboo around mental health by speaking more openly about it, both online and in real life.

I say, "I love you," and not just with a plate of sliced oranges.

I hug my kids every day, often with the "Disney rule" — not letting go of the hug until they do. I say, "I love you," and not just with a plate of sliced oranges. They see me talking to my wife when I'm having a hard day, not just retreating into myself and pretending that everything is fine. We try to model what a healthy, supportive partnership can look like.

A few years ago, my older daughter discovered the book I wrote about my first year as a work-at-home dad. Beyond motivating her to learn how to read, it offered her insight into my headspace as a first-time parent. She read about the fear and uncertainty I felt on the day she was born. She read about how flustered and overwhelmed we felt during her first bath at home, her favorite chapter. And she read how I felt about being the only dad at story time, surrounded by mostly stay-at-home moms.

My daughter can see — through this book and my daily interactions with her, her brother, and her mom — that I feel "big feelings" too and can be wholly transparent about my insecurities. We can and should talk about them.

For my preschool-aged son, I want to arm him with tools to better navigate the nuanced emotional landscape of adulthood. I've found that simply naming the emotions and identifying their underlying causes can be powerful. When we're reading a Daniel Tiger book together, I'll ask him if Daniel has a sad face or a mad face, and why he thinks Daniel feels that way. I want him to learn empathy and reflect on his own feelings more effectively. I don't want him to feel like he has to bottle them all up and be a "good model minority." I want to teach him there's strength in vulnerability.

In an effort to combat the epidemic of masculine loneliness, I cofounded Five Dads Go Wild in 2018. It started as a boys' camping trip and grew into a forum for us to openly discuss our struggles and wins as fathers. Our group chat serves as a safe space to vent and seek support from one another. We celebrate each other's victories and remind one another that we're not alone in our defeats.

Throughout the year, we're all very active on Instagram, modeling what modern fatherhood can look like. My kids see my passion for this community. I want to normalize that Asian men are allowed to have feelings, and we're allowed to express them.

As with so many things in life, it comes down to open communication in good faith. If I can talk to my kids about Naruto and Pokémon, I can talk to them at an age-appropriate level about complex emotions, too.

I still deal with bouts of anxiety and depression today, but I've also come to learn that I'm not alone in these struggles. With my kids, it's important to me to destigmatize mental health so that they're comfortable talking about it and reaching out for help when they need it. They don't have to feel alone and defective like I did.

Michael Kwan is a freelance writer with over 15 years of experience. He has written on a variety of topics, including technology, social media, parenting, entrepreneurship, and gaming. No stranger to dad jokes, he can be found blogging about modern fatherhood and the pursuit of a life fulfilled at Beyond the Rhetoric.