For me, the most troubling burden of the pandemic was feeling trapped each day in the legacies of toxic Filipino culture.
As I isolated with my family, I could feel my mental health spiralling downwards. I was becoming familiar with the critical difference between being alone and feeling lonely – realizing that I was significantly happier living alone in my basement suite than moving back into a Filipino household of six. Instead, I continued to quarantine in the space where I, for the majority of my adolescence, struggled with depression, anxiety and a severe amount of insecurity.
As Abby Paison writes in “Addressing Toxic Behaviors in Filipino Families,” “These spaces ... can be filled with judgement, drama and toxic social behaviours like child bragging and comparing, body-shaming, gossip and even subtle public ridicule.”
As a first-generation Filipino-Canadian, there is a deep internalized pressure to live up to my parents’ expectations of academic and financial success — they often reminded us of the sacrifices they made to bring us to Canada. As a result, we were silenced from ever discussing low feelings of self-worth.
We were taught to stifle any signs of mental illness.
Explore the Subtle Asian Traits Facebook group and you’ll come across multiple discussions and satirical memes about mental health issues in Asian families being silenced or concealed. In many Asian households, conditions of depression, emotional abuse, body dysmorphia and addictive behaviour are not unusual within families.
The harmful cultural traits that shaped our upbringing have created long-term effects on mental wellbeing and personal development. Slut-shaming and body-shaming comments have echoed around my house since I was little.
Even this summer, my sisters and I can’t leave the house wearing shorts, a skirt or a tank top without being placed under a demeaning magnifying glass. We are shamed for showing too much skin, our bodies uncomfortably inspected for flaws.
Ongoing degradation alongside disciplinarian Asian culture as I quarantine at home prompts childhood trauma and memories of strict punishments involving public humiliation. Emotional and physical abuse is regarded as normal — an intergenerational issue of Filipino families perpetuating a culture of belittling their kids or neglecting mental well-being. Our parents too are the product of their own trauma and upbringing within toxic Filipino culture.
Yet I have unconditional love for my family, who are an essential part of my life. I am thankful for my parents, whose tremendous hard work has blessed me with this life in Canada. Yet as a young woman, the life-long shaming and stigma around mental illness left me with a heaviness of insecurity, self-doubt and ultimately loneliness. It battered me numb and kept me up at night when I was alone in the dark with my self-destructive thoughts.
Being in such proximity to the source of my stress and trauma has driven me to disengage to improve my mental health. My family viewed these boundaries as disrespect. This environment made the transition from self-hatred to self-love extremely difficult. Even though it became crucial for me to spend time alone away from my family, it also was becoming detrimental to sit in a harrowing loneliness of my own making.
Total separation from my problems wasn’t the key to improving my mental health. I realized that refusing to address the shadows of the past haunting my present mental well-being was not going to change my situation. My problems would not be solved simply by isolating myself and hiding in my bedroom.
As I began educating myself more on the societal structures that shape Filipino culture and family dynamics, I have used my social agency to speak out and encourage conversation.
I want my family members to heal from the wounds that they have long concealed. I have learned that these feelings of loneliness during quarantine are best battled with self-expression.
As I continue to occupy myself through art and writing, I have also begun to open up about my mental health struggles to friends and relatives. In these new discussions that have arisen during self-isolation, I’ve discovered that I am not alone.
Many others are experiencing similar situations. To unlearn these self-destructive attitudes, I found that it’s okay to distance myself from culturally induced family dysfunction, to find support from external relationships and pursue more experiences that freely embrace my authentic self.