I was born in 1989 in Brooklyn, New York. As the story goes, it was not long after I was born that my parents moved into a house they bought. Somewhere in one of the family albums, there is a snapshot of my smiling mother standing in the house living room as she held me, then still a little infant bundled up in a blanket, in her arms. The neighborhood I grew up in mostly had Italian American families. My parents were just about the only Asian family living there at the time.
I have repeatedly puzzled over when and how my social anxiety began. I can’t help but continually try to fit pieces together to understand myself and my memories, for the umpteenth time. I see this blog as a safe space for me to review the past and truly think about what transpired and what happened to me. In past blog entries, I’ve recounted some incidents in childhood that I believe played a part in inevitably worsening my coping methods with anxiety in general. I assume that because I didn’t have the resources or support to help me work out my issues, so left untreated, the ways I dealt with the anxiety were pretty unstable and served to further stunt my social skills for years. That is my belief about why I became the way I did, but I cannot be sure I wouldn’t still have other problems even if the central issue of social anxiety had been worked out earlier in my life. If it isn’t anxiety, I’m sure life would’ve dealt me another set of cards because any life is not without problems or challenges.
All through grammar school, I was known to my teachers and classmates alike as the quiet kid. I don’t know if this system still exists in American schools in today’s generation, but in my grammar school, junior high school, and high school, parent-teacher conferences were a regular thing. What were parent-teacher conferences? They typically took place sometime during a school year in the evenings well after classes were over for the day, in which parents of enrolled students could visit their children’s teachers and receive progress from the teachers about how their children were doing in school. There was usually a sign-up list taped to a table outside each teacher’s classroom for each parent to put down their name and wait to be called into the room to have individual chats with the teacher. The student could also be present for the chat alongside their parent. For me, being there to hear the teacher give his or her opinion of me to one or both of my parents was embarrassing. I often wanted to wait outside while all this went on but never got the courage to ask if I could.
I remember as far back as kindergarten when my teacher, Ms. Pec, told my mother that I was very quiet but followed instructions without any problems. I think I exchanged less than five words with Ms. Pec throughout the school year. I never initiated words with her and recall feeling a sense of both apathy and comfort in preferring to respond to her nonverbally if I could help it. For example, there was always “story time” during class each day and all the other kids knew as soon as Ms. Pec said that, they had to go to the back of the room and sit in a circle on the floor to wait for her to pick a book to read out loud. I was unlike the other kids. I can’t accurately estimate if it was only the first few weeks or at least half of the school year, but at first, I didn’t get the concept of having to move to the back of the room when Ms. Pec would address everyone as a group. Many times I just stayed in my seat and ended up playing with the toys on the classroom shelf. Ms. Pec did address me sometimes and ask if I would like to join them for story time but I would never respond. I felt as if I were in my own world and it’s almost like I didn’t fully comprehend that she was speaking to me. Until one time I heard her and it suddenly clicked in my head she was asking me something and expecting me to say something back. I don’t remember if I responded. Later on, I became best friends with a curly blonde haired girl named Diana-Rose and came to be like everyone else who would sit on the floor for story time.
Aside from kindergarten, every year in grammar school during parent-teacher conference night, my teachers would always tell my mother that I was shy and would grow out of it eventually. By third grade, I knew deep down that would never come true. The label of “She’s just shy” was completely wrong. In hindsight, it’s easy to think of why my teachers assumed I was just an introverted and quiet person that needed more time to come out of my shell. I certainly displayed symptoms of shyness but what no one could see was the bouts of anxiety going on inside my head and how I was internalizing all that. Hypothetically, had a teacher suspected I had anxiety issues and attempted to talk to me about it, I don’t think I could verbalize my feelings because of two reasons: I wouldn’t know how to begin to describe the anxiety in actual words and I probably wouldn’t have felt like I trusted the person enough to confide in him/her.
Having had such painful experiences associated with me as the quiet kid, in addition to the turbulence of having an array of conflicting emotions and thoughts swimming in my head that I had no idea how to verbalize to anyone, I really don’t know if things could have been different if the adults around me realized that I wasn’t just quiet. I would have liked to be a normal kid with a tenacity towards being introverted without problems with anxiety and issues expressing myself verbally. I’m sure I did have good memories in my childhood. That’s the part I feel most fucked up about; that there were times I felt happy and carefree while also going through periods of anxiety and not really dealing with it in any way except keeping it in my head since I didn’t know how to verbally describe the anxiety that I felt.
The closest thing to a “talk” I ever got from a teacher was in second grade during a school trip. The whole class was eating in a cafeteria area. I had seen a much older boy dump the remnants of his food into the nearby trash can. I didn’t know the boy but seeing his tall and imposing figure, he reminded me of a previous unpleasant incident I experienced in the prior school year, and then on the spot, I started bawling in a fit of panic. A classmate ended up notifying my teacher, who brought me outside the cafeteria to help me take deep breaths to calm down. She was so nice the whole time but instead of admitting to her the true reason why I was crying, I made up some dumb trivial reason because I was afraid she’d laugh at me. I have never told a soul about this incident (until now since whoever is reading this blog post now knows this secret).
I was immersed in the function of school in a very poorly prepared way. I honestly believe my parents did not a good job of acclimating me to socializing with other kids my age prior to my first day of kindergarten. I have a teeny remembrance of being in the same daycare as my older brother and screaming at the top of my lungs to get my parents’ attention because I didn’t want to be left there by them. I had separation anxiety. The woman running the daycare tried to pique my interest in playing with the toys or engaging with the other children, but I continued wailing hysterically until my voice was hoarse, desperately still wanting to get out of that strange, unfamiliar place.
Other than the daycare memory, I can’t remember any other times I was around children my age before kindergarten. This may or may not have been the same time I was introduced to my cousins Lily and Tara (my father’s younger sister’s children) and I didn’t even become actual friends with them until I was older. What I do know now about that period in time is scattered and vague. Both my parents were very busy working full-time jobs. I had a babysitter who looked after my brother and I after school while our parents were away, but during the summers, my grandma (my father’s mother) would sometimes visit and she would be the one to help me dress in the mornings and take me to summer school.
I don’t want to make my parents sound like typical Asian parents who immigrated to America, but in a way, they were. They were about working and earning money in an effort to keep up with the house mortgage, the bills, and to keep food on the table. It was do or die for them. That’s the partial explanation I have in my mind for why they were so practical about everything as a means of ensuring the survival of their own family. While I would like to theorize this as the reason why there wasn’t emphasis paid to mental wellness/mental health in relation to their children’s development, I think the actual problem is their own lack of understanding of mental health and the importance of it. I don’t know what the world of mental health was like in the ’90’s, but I imagine even if my parents knew about the professional resources out there that they could’ve tried, such as child psychologists, I seriously doubt they would have sought outside help for me since money was tight.
I have very conflicted feelings about this because I struggle to reconcile my imperfect Western views with my perception of my parents’ faulty actions due to the culture they come from. When I was younger, I perceived my parents failed me by not helping me deal with my inhibitions. During my teen years, I watched a lot of Oprah and Dr. Phil. I was so fascinated by the psychology of people’s actions and how so many times the root of people’s issues in adulthood seemed to partially stem from turbulent experiences and/or unresolved problems in their childhoods. I saw myself in those people who appeared on the shows to talk about their mental health issues and wondered if I might have become a different, more emotionally stable person if I had the chance in my childhood to have had ongoing help from a professional. I pine after something that could’ve never been, not unless this is a fantasy I am getting fulfilled by a genie as one of my three wishes. The reality is, I think even if my parents had raised me in today’s generation rather than the ’90’s, I imagine things would not have been much different for me.
Culturally, some of the things I have seen and experienced in an Asian household was harmful, in my opinion. I cannot say for certain if other Chinese families were like mine and for all, I know, the “culture” I experienced was specific to the people involved rather than it being an actual negative cultural attribute. What I mean by this is it’s possible the people I interacted were the negative influences on me, but that the negativity wasn’t rooted in the Chinese culture itself. I really have no idea which it is in my case.
I feel like I was conditioned to believe I was supposed to be quiet because quiet equaled being good. I can’t count the number of times I got told by elders when I was a kid, “Oh, she’s so quiet and not making trouble, what a good girl”, and my mother appeared to accept the praise and react positively on my behalf. At home, I remember being very inquisitive when watching television with my mother. It was usually one of those endless 30+ episode Chinese melodramas and I’d ask her lots of questions about the characters’ actions. She often gave me short and to the point answers. I would prompt her with more questions if I was still curious. One specific time she got fed up and half-yelled in frustration, “How should I know?” It wasn’t only during tv time I prompted her about things. Eventually, I started to perceive and notice how unenthusiastic she was with answering me. It made me anxious and self-conscious and had me wondering if I wasn’t supposed to say what was on my mind. Then there was the strangeness at home when my parents would talk to each other about me while I was in my presence but I wouldn’t be directly spoken to. An example was my father asking my mother what I ate for lunch. Or, my mother recounting to my father about what I had told her during that afternoon. I was treated like I couldn’t speak for myself and I suspect that, in their eyes, it made more sense to them to say xyz about my actions rather than them asking me about my activities so I could tell them instead. I was young then, but of course I was old enough to talk. During these times, I assumed I was supposed to just remain quiet.