These days, our lives are so full of responsibilities (and indulgences) that our time passes by unexamined. Yet, even the busiest amongst us can’t escape those moments when our world collides with someone else’s. In these moments of conflict, time freezes — and sometimes, so do we. For all of us with roots connected to Asia, whether we are the first ones in our families to arrive in the United States or descendants of Asian immigrants who arrived as early as the 1600s, we face these cultural collisions every day.
Sam Louie is the author of Passport to Shame: From Asian Immigrant to American Addict, published in May 2023.
In 1976, at the age of 4, Louie — who at the time carried his family name, Fu Yuen — immigrated to South Seattle with both his parents and two younger brothers from Hong Kong for the opportunity to chase the American Dream. In exchange, Fu Yuen and his younger brothers felt forced to abandon their ancestral names. Despite South Seattle’s growing Asian population in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Louie recalls, with impressive accuracy, vivid details from his childhood of being bullied and discriminated against for being Asian. Their family experienced discrimination and prejudice from people of all racial groups. The message Louie received as a child was crystal clear: If you want to be left alone, if you want to be safe, don’t be Asian.
To protect himself, Louie distanced himself from being too Asian. He avoided his younger brothers at school, fearing rejection from his white schoolmates if he was seen with them. At home, he began speaking to his parents in English rather than relating to them in their native language. Even in the most intimate moments alone, like in the shower, the pressure to assimilate into “American culture” was so strong that Louie vigorously scrub his skin with soap, hoping to “clean” his natural skin tone.
To be Asian American is to be caught in between worlds, never fully belonging in any place. “Too American” at home, “too Asian” anywhere else.
Adding to his childhood struggles, being the eldest son meant bearing the responsibility to blaze a trail for his younger brothers and family of financial stability and success. There was tremendous pressure from his parents, which he would internalize to a higher degree, to be infallible, to be perfect. Many Asian Americans walk this tightrope of perfection, where the cost of a mistake feels life-threatening.
But, we can’t labor in this way forever, and Louie bares his soul as he openly and bravely shares his struggles with various forms of addiction at the height of his career as a journalist and reporter. As someone who appreciates hearing detailed stories so I can reflect on mine, I am grateful for Louie’s vulnerability. When we hear these authentic stories, we normalize the candid rockiness of each of our journeys.
Louie discloses in this memoir the generations of family struggles with addiction – gambling, infidelity, substance use and alcoholism — as necessary outlets for coping from denying oneself while upholding the collective. Even before his ancestors experienced the racial trauma that Louie experienced here in the States, this battle with self-denial and repression created an intergenerational struggle with addiction. Coping with societal and communal expectations of perfectionism through various forms of escape.
As these addictions led Louie down a path of intense hardship across his career, love life, and family life, which he recounts in the second part of this three-part memoir, Louie shares that his life was saved after a pastor at an Asian American church gently encouraged him to find a therapist.
Unfamiliar and scary at first, therapy soon became a safe place where Louie was empowered to shape his life free from addiction. By having a deeply intentional space to examine why he would turn to addictive behaviors, Louie was able to understand what was missing from his life – fulfilling his own needs. He had suppressed his own needs for so long in his attempts to be perfect, to bring honor to his family, but this led him on a path so far from himself that he couldn’t even function, at times. By developing a healthier relationship with himself, forgiving himself, and releasing childhood traumas related to being Asian American, Louie was able to forge a better balance between serving his community and himself.
Louie’s memoir is an inspiring journey that we don’t often hear about in Asian American spaces, and stories like these help normalize conversations about mental health. Mental health stigma runs deep in our communities and mental health issues are still often perceived as parental failures. For children of immigrants to tell their parents that they are battling with their own mental health is to be courageous and bold, because we know our parents will feel responsible and may project that guilt by telling us we’re “ungrateful.” When that happens, the conversation shuts down, and the opportunity for healing closes.
Reading Louie’s memoir made me think of my best friend who died by suicide, and how I wished he was able to walk a path like this towards healing. But I know that there were so many barriers in his way. Like Louie, my friend wasn’t able to talk with his parents about his mental health struggles. He wasn’t even really able to tell his friends. When he did seek professional help, he only went once. The therapist didn’t understand many of the cultural factors that made it so difficult for him to be able to see his healing as a possibility.
We need more mental health services developed by our community and designed for our community. While therapy can be a route to healing for some, it remains inaccessible for the majority of us. Affordability, language, and cultural competence remain core barriers for this form of healing to be more commonplace in our communities. But therapy also has its limitations.
Louie’s memoir ends with an important call for Asian Americans, particularly Asian American men, to find themselves through therapy. And as someone who thinks about this often, I am so grateful that this memoir is being published. But our communities need many more solutions and offerings to heal from generations of trauma, addiction, and substance use. I would have liked to see the memoir invite our community to build more of these solutions – which I have been seeing from this generation of healers, community activists, and social change agents.
Imagine if, instead of Asian American culture telling us to avoid being a burden on others, that it demanded we protect a culture of care, where we know we can lean on each other for however long we need until our inner strength returns. And then, we can extend support to our circle. Isn’t that how we get past mental health stigma? Isn’t that how we create a culture that prioritizes both our collective and individual healing? Who are you leaning on today, and who will you let lean on you tomorrow?
Brandon Hadi is a second-generation Indonesian-Thai American born in California’s Central Valley and raised in Seattle. Due to his spiritual and multicultural upbringing, he is deeply curious about the world we live in and the world that has been created by people. He was awakened to his purpose after his best friend died by suicide, transforming him into a fierce advocate for equitable mental health care and systems change. Inspired by prolific healers and writers such as adrienne maree brown, bell hooks, Bruce Lee, and Thich Nhat Hanh, Brandon approaches writing with an invitation for all of us to heal. Brandon received a M.Sc. in Social Work from Columbia University and a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Washington. He is easily bribed by boba and easily grounded by yoga and poetry.