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How my Chinese heritage made me feel ashamed about being disabled

Disability and mental health; these two concepts stimulate a huge amount of taboo within the Chinese culture. Growing up, these were rarely discussed and on the rare occasion that my parents or other adults did mention them, it was always with a negative undertone and conveyed the message that these individuals were somehow weaker and less deserving.

“You think you’re depressed? No you’re not; you just need to suck it up, everyone has bad patches so stop being overdramatic about it. Get on with your work and stop finding excuses, it’s not going to do itself.”

So when I, a young Chinese woman, was diagnosed with a longstanding mental health disability, the confusion I felt towards myself was almost overpowering. I was 18 when I received my first diagnosis of depression, but the feelings had long been there – I had just never felt like they were serious enough for me to talk to someone about it.

When you have grown up around such stigma and dismissal around the symptoms of mental ill health, it makes you question the validity of your own feelings.

You are hesitant to reach out for help in fear that you will be told that you’re being overdramatic, and that there was nothing really wrong. Although I was an adult when I received my first diagnosis, I felt like an unknowing child as I knew so little about this illness.

At that point, I had no idea about what my life would look like going forward; would this hang over me for life? Was it somehow my fault, for being too much of a perfectionist?

How would I tell my parents?

The last question haunted me. Telling my parents, they struggled to understand; how could I, their academically achieving child, possibly have something so ‘shameful’l? How could I be ‘fixed’? It became an internal battleground, as I struggled to accept this new part of my identity and was told by my parents to keep quiet about it.

They were doing what they thought would be best to protect me, as they grew up in a society where disabled people and those with mental health problems were not catered for, but shunned in the workplace as they were held to be less productive. In their eyes, they were just watching out for me as they did not want me to be hindered in any of my ambitions.

I had so many questions and confused feelings that I couldn’t share with anyone, and I had to bear the burden alone of learning about my illness. It was only when I left my family home for university, that I found out for the first time that a longstanding mental health condition could class as a disability.

At that time, I had struggled with getting through daily tasks, let alone pursue a degree that I loved, and I felt frustrated as if it was somehow my fault that I was being so affected.

When my university’s Disability Advisory Service informed me that my condition classed as a disability, it felt like a burden was lifted off of my shoulders; for the first time, I was able to start accepting that it was not my fault that I was finding life so difficult.

Going from seriously doubting the validity of my symptoms and feelings, to receiving the affirmation that I did, indeed, have a mental health disability, was a complete reversal of all of the values I had been taught growing up.

When I shared the news with my parents, they were almost in disbelief as in their eyes, a disability could only be physical. This was reflected by my difficulty in describing my condition to them in their native tongue – I was not equipped with the adequate vocabulary to explain my disability and struggles, as these words were simply never taught to me, to them, or to their parents.

I could only, at best, draw comparisons that captured aspects of my issues, but doing so diminished my suffering and just as when I was first diagnosed, my parents struggled to understand ‘what went wrong’.

Again, I was told to be quiet about my problems with the insinuation that I would be socially and professionally cast out if I made this part of my identity known.

But I know better than to be tied down by the same weights that are holding back my parents. Although these stigmas may exist in their culture, it’s not the culture I adhere to and I’m legally protected under UK equality laws.

I’ve battled my shameful feelings for long enough, and I am now able to accept this aspect of my identity and still achieve, in spite of it.


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