Opinion: Viewing new trauma stirs memories of old ones

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine revives 40-year-old memories of China’s repression of author’s family.

Nothing could prepare a child to watch her beloved father handcuffed and taken away.

I was that child -- I just froze. I will never forget his gaze of love and desperation when he looked at me, before he slowly walked toward a jeep waiting with one man in front and one man behind him. I remember my brother and I would visit him in the room where he was imprisoned, asking when he could come home, crying. My dad was the world to me. My mom would not come with us because she did not want others to see her tears.

Even with my dad gone, the trauma continued. Our home was raided – they turned my parents’ mattress upside down, looking for evidence of my father spying for Russia (the Soviet Union at the time). My brother and my sister, a toddler at the time, were lined up against the wall. I remember screaming at the top of my lungs with tears in my eyes, asking them to get out of our apartment. Our neighbor, whose balcony directly faced ours and whom we affectionately called “uncle,” died by suicide after experiencing immense political pressures.

Amidst Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, trauma from the present now collides with trauma from the past. Gunshots from Ukraine reminded me of gunshots I heard as a child within a well-known southern Chinese news agency’s compound in Guangzhou, directly across the road from where I would walk home daily.

Combined ShapeCaption
Jian Lily Chen

Credit: contributed

Jian Lily Chen

Credit: contributed

Combined ShapeCaption
Jian Lily Chen

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Tanks rolling into Ukraine remind me of tanks rolling into Tiananmen Square in 1989. Innocent Ukrainian lives lost, including women and children, remind me of the students at Tiananmen Square whose time here was cut short. A picture of a lifeless mother and her children in Ukraine plastered on the front page of the New York Times was just too much to bear.

And in my adopted home of America, a political battle with overzealous prosecutions of innocent Chinese American scientists under the “China Initiative” has shattered the lives of many families and children, and instilled fear in Chinese communities. Professor Anming Hu from the University of Tennessee and Professor Gang Chen from MIT were wrongly accused, handcuffed away and jailed as spies, just like my father 40-some years ago.

Fears of actions in both the Ukraine and the U.S. prompted my friend’s 3:30 a.m. text worrying about her children’s mental health. She shared that the Ukraine war was a trigger for many parents, who were also concerned about the possibility of the political war escalating to real war between China and Taiwan.

We prayed silently together before going back to sleep.

The question, “Am I going to be next?” hangs over our heads and stirs fear each time we read news of anti-Asian hate: an elderly Asian woman being called an “Asian (expletive)” before being hit in the head 125 times; an Asian American woman was pushed down to the tracks of an oncoming train in New York City; in a store in Midland, Texas, an Asian father and his 6-year-old son were stabbed by a man who reportedly believed they were “Chinese and infecting people with the coronavirus.”

Asian Americans are experiencing a mental health crisis amid the surge in anti-Asian hate. As parents, we have never had the opportunity to address our own traumatic experiences from the past. But unspoken and unresolved trauma could exacerbate the current mental health crisis, leading to communication issues with our children and being unable to support our children’s emotional needs when they experience bullying and racism in schools and beyond.

To be sure, mental health disparity among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) predates the era of rising anti-Asian hate. Studies show that Asian Americans have nearly a 20% lifetime rate of any psychiatric disorder and yet are three times less likely to seek mental health services than whites. Asian American college students have reported higher rates of suicidal thoughts and attempts than all other racial/ethnic groups.

Culturally sensitive and linguistically appropriate mental health resources are urgently needed to address the unique mental health issues facing AAPI communities, such as the deep stigma surrounding mental health, low literacy regarding psychiatric illness and lack of trauma-informed care revolving around racism and violence.

I hope more Asian Americans will feel safe and supported to share our unique stories and speak up about the collective trauma we’ve experienced that too often goes unheard or unrecognized.

I know it can be painful, but our stories matter and our voices matter. Let’s make sure they are heard.

Jian “Lily” Chen is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholar Fellow and is project director for United Chinese Americans’ UCA WAVES (Wellness, Advocacy, Voices, Education, and Support) — a youth mental health collaborative. She lives in Cary, North Carolina, with her family.