The oppressive heat of mid-June weather in Chongqing, China, made it a difficult time to explore on foot. My friend, Anthony, wore a hand towel around his neck to wipe the dripping sweat off his face. We began walking faster while passing each building in order to feel the temporary relief of cool air that escaped from automatic sliding doors.
We were in a plaza named after a war-time monument, which we noticed had been adorned with four green Rolex clocks. The irony was not lost on us as we exchanged a glance and burst out in laughter. I appreciated having a friend in the strange city of Chongqing.
We were both working as interns and lived in the same building three blocks down. Over the summer, I got to know Anthony very well, having much in common: our parents moved to Canada to give us a better life, and we were both the only child as per the one-child policy.
It took us some time to become real friends — for every similarity we had, we had ten differences. He would berate me for not reading enough books, and I would scold him for trusting strangers too quickly. I was older and much less academically gifted while he was brilliant but lacked much social skills. He had an indomitable spirit, and always charged ahead with the enthusiasm of a cartoon character — becoming the annoying little brother I didn’t ask for.
One day while traveling, Anthony got a group of us into a scam, and as his big sister, I had to fix the mess. Later that evening, after a heated argument, Anthony and I crouched down on plastic stools outside our hostel and shared lukewarm beers.
“What will you do after graduation?” I asked him, to which he answered, “My parents want me to go to Harvard and be a lawyer, but we’ll see.”
I remember his demeanour changing, as he also began smoking that night. He lit up his first cigarette as he was petting a stray cat that was napping on the back of a motorcycle.
This is my favourite memory of Anthony.
It’s difficult to describe the bond that was developed between us. I chalk it up to us being from a generation of only children. Forever lonely, we latch onto our friends, looking for the love shared between siblings that the state took away from us.
We had a cultural shorthand with each other and understood the implicit need to be — or at least pretend to be — the perfect child for our parents. After all, they sacrificed their futures to give us ours.
We received all the love and criticism in exchange for meeting their expectations. We were spoiled, yet grounded. We were the eldest and the youngest. We had no one to help us alleviate the insurmountable pressure we felt from our parents, so we created two identities to cope.
Two lives — the one we want and the one we live in.
Chongqing was our escape from home, away from the life forced upon us. We were able to be ourselves in this strange city. But life moves forward, and we eventually left Chongqing and back to our regular lives. Everyone became busy, and our friendships were reduced to idle chit chat.
Anthony eventually entered into Harvard Law School.
“I thought you didn’t want to be a lawyer?” I asked him.
“Yeah, but that’s the least I can do for my parents,” he replied.
Is that the least we can do: to live our life for our parents? When do we get to live our life for ourselves? Until we have perfected the facade of being a perfect child, or until we are so miserable living our life for everyone but ourselves that we no longer want to live?
I wish I had said that. Instead, I could only say what I thought was protocol, “Congratulations, I’m sure your parents are very proud.”
Anthony’s death sat heavy in my heart for a long time, the better part of nearly three years.
There was no service and his social media was taken down at the request of his family. Suicides are taboo in traditional Chinese culture, and it was difficult for me to reconcile his death. So on its anniversary, I went to visit him to try and find closure.
I found his resting place, overlooking a pond and surrounded by willow trees and strangers. Beautiful, but lonely.
I became fixated on his death after that. Why did he do it, how did he do it, why didn’t he say anything? I didn’t realize it then, but I was projecting my own misery. The reality is, I can’t know. There is no closure to be found.
Coming to terms with his death brought back painful memories I suppressed as a child, sending me into a pit of depression. It was well hidden from my friends, colleagues, family, and even myself.
High functioning depression, it’s called. I didn’t have the courage to seek professional help, because I didn’t want to be depressed. I always wished that Anthony had sought help, yet I couldn’t place that same kindness on myself. It was ingrained in me to not be a burden to my parents and to take on the responsibility of taking care of myself, alone.
This is the toxicity of blind filial piety.
It took a painful end to a meaningful relationship for me to finally seek help. I could no longer keep up the facade that I was mentally well.
There is absolutely no shame in getting help, but when you are depressed, the easiest solution is to keep functioning as is. Having become diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, I do wish I had sought help earlier. We cannot come to accept what we have if we cannot understand it. This is why awareness is so important.
Mental illness is taboo in Chinese culture because it’s traditionally seen as weak, especially by our elders. They believe in putting down their heads and continue working through the pain, but that’s their coping mechanism, and we have our own lives to run. The great thing about understanding our upbringing is that we can choose the elements we enjoy and break the unhealthy chains that keep us from pursuing a better life.
Therapy has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and I am learning that it’s brave to seek help. I am sharing what I have learned with those who will listen. I am practicing being open with our community because we are suffering as a result of suppression. Being diagnosed with depression is not the means to an end or an end of any sort. Being diagnosed gave me a sense of relief — there was something recognizable for me to work on.
The bravest thing my parents did was move to Canada to start a new life in a new country for the betterment of our future. I truly believe that therapy is the bravest thing that we, the children of immigrants or not, can do for the betterment of our families and our own future.
There is no closure for trauma; there is only acceptance and integration.
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