Are you Australian Asian? Do you feel like you’re torn between two worlds? Or that you feel as though you don’t belong to either group?
You’re not alone. Many second-generation immigrants experience similar conflicts growing up in a culture that is quite different from their family’s background. Navigating this can bring up some unforeseen mental health challenges.
In this article, I’ll be referring to my own experiences as an Australian Asian Psychologist and some of my clients’ experiences as second-generation immigrants from Asia (born in Australia to parents from an Asian country).
Please note, that this is not a homogenous group. Asia is a large continent, but for this article, I will be referring more specifically to Southeast Asian (e.g., Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand) and East Asian (e.g., China, Japan, Korea) culture and experiences. (Note: of course, there will be varying experiences between families and there are often differences amongst these Asian countries and cultures as well).
The information in this article comes from my personal lived experiences as a female Australian Asian Psychologist as well as the experiences of my clients from these specific groups. If you'd like to learn more about me and my work, you can check out my profile here.
Western societies tend to value individuality, uniqueness, and assertiveness. Sharing your opinion is considered a normal and desirable attribute. As philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment” and “Insist on yourself; never imitate”.
Asian societies tend to value harmony, conformity, and acquiescence. Respect for elders is a given and talking back is frowned upon. Think the Japanese proverb, “The nail that sticks out, gets hammered down”.
Growing up exposed to two seemingly opposing cultures can be challenging for a child to navigate. It can be a struggle for children born in Australia to Asian parents, to grasp the differing social rules and norms of both cultures and reconcile them when they appear to conflict.
Some immigrants come over as refugees/asylum seekers, leaving war torn or poverty-stricken countries. Others come over seeking better opportunities for themselves and their children.
When these first-generation immigrants have children, there is often a pressure for their children to achieve the things that they may not have been able to, or to live up to their expectations because of their sacrifices.
In societies that are based on Confucian principles, the concept of filial piety is strongly ingrained into the cultural fabric. Being a “good child” is a core concept in many of these cultures. The “seen but not heard” child who is unquestioningly obedient and always putting the family first. Individual needs are secondary, if considered at all.
This can be exacerbated if the family has intergenerational trauma and put extra pressure on
the children to perform well. Things like academic performance and career pathways may be highly scrutinised by their family and community, (e.g., having to get an “A” on every piece of assessment otherwise, anything less feels like failure).
Social comparisons can also be quite common, (e.g., “Why can’t you be more like your cousin Jonny Kim? He’s a Navy Seal, Doctor, and Astronaut. I just want you to become an Accountant!”).
Sense of Belonging
As people growing up exposed to multiple cultures and norms, it may be hard to identify strongly with one or the other. A sub-culture can develop (e.g., subtle Asian traits on Facebook), where the Asian Australian experience has been identified as something independent of both Asian and Australian cultures. This can occur when the person feels rejected by both cultures and finds others who share similar experiences, thus forming their own norms.
If a family hasn’t assimilated, then the children may have very different experiences from their home to school life. Their family and members of their cultural community may make comments that they are not “Asian enough”, or that they’re a “banana, yellow on the outside, white on the inside”. At school, they may be relegated to being the “Asian kid” with the “weird food”.
Some people may overcompensate by engaging as much as possible in their cultural heritage, to the point where they may become more traditional than those in the Asian country.
Others may openly reject their cultural heritage and anything to do with it (e.g., food, language) in an effort to assimilate, be accepted by the majority, or become less of a target for discrimination.
There are also the more obvious and aggressive forms of racism. From seeing the “Asian Hate” narrative in the media, to personal experiences of abuse and violence, most, if not all my clients (me included) have experienced or know someone close to them that has experienced abuse based on their race. This extreme example of not belonging can leave a person shaken and feeling unsafe in their community and country.
Even switching on the TV can be an emotionally unsafe space with the media giving airtime to openly discriminatory views (e.g. Pauline Hanson’s “Asian Invasion”).
But racism isn’t always so obvious. Microaggressions can be a common experience for some people. These are seen in the workplace (e.g., leave it to Jess, she’s good at maths!) or dating contexts (e.g., “I want to date an Asian woman because they're exotic but still make good housewives”) or out and about (e.g., unsolicited hair touching).
Often, those responsible for the microaggressions, are none the wiser, saying that the person interpreting the comment, “can’t take a joke”, are “giving a compliment” or that they’re not racist because they have an ethnic friend. The person of colour is often left feeling gaslit and doubting the validity of their own experience.
One coping strategy that people can develop is to internalise this racism, so they appear “more White”. This may be adopted so we seem less different from those in the majority. People may start to tell themselves that they’re overreacting, so they can avoid a potential disagreement with others in the majority. This rejection of their cultural heritage can cause internal conflicts and shame over time.
Mental Health Implications
Denying a key piece of your history or experience can have a negative impact on one’s self-view and identity. Some people may develop anxiety due to making constant social comparisons, not feeling “good enough” and feeling as though they don’t belong anywhere. People may become more self-critical, which may lead to lower self-esteem and depression symptoms.
Intergenerational trauma may also mean that people are exposed to their parents’ traumatic stories and sometimes unhealthy coping strategies (e.g., drinking, gambling).
Straddling different cultures and trying to set boundaries with those around you (e.g., work colleagues, parents), can be an extra challenge due to the cultural conditioning of deference to elders.
Relationship conflicts can be common, particularly between generations due to a difference in values and communication styles. Family or domestic abuse/violence may also be more prevalent due to the differing laws or cultural norms that are present for each culture.
How a Culturally Sensitive Psychologist Can Help
A culturally sensitive Psychologist can create a safe emotional space for you to explore your feelings, thoughts, and impacts of your upbringing without judgement.
A Psychologist with a shared cultural background (like an Australian Asian Psychologist) can also relate in varying ways due to their own lived experiences. These shared cultural experiences can help you find the balance between individuality and maintaining cultural identity, manage interpersonal conflicts in a culturally sensitive way, and how to navigate your individual values/goals when they clash with family or societal expectations.
Of course, cultural sensitivity always needs to be employed, because again, not all Asians/Cultures/Persons are the same.
Growing up Asian in Australia comes with some specific difficulties, from internal (e.g., identity, values), to external cultural clashes (e.g., familial expectations, racism).
Although being a Second-Generation immigrant may come with some of these challenges, we can develop the skills to navigate the world in a way that validates who we are and creates emotional safety for ourselves.
If we can learn to take the best of both cultures and integrate that into who we are and accept ourselves as this person, we can move through the world in a way that is truly aligned with our own values.
If you'd like to learn more about working with a culturally sensitive Psychologist, please check out our team profiles here or give our friendly reception team a call on (03) 8330 5588.