As we reach the halfway-mark of Shattering Stigmas 2020, I first want to thank everyone who has written or read posts so far. I’d also like to note that we have so many more fantastic personal essays and Q&A’s left from people who will speak honestly and rawly about their mental health. Today, I’m so excited to welcome middle grade and YA author Katie Zhao to my blog to talk about the stigma against mental illness in Asian communities and how it relates to her forthcoming YA debut HOW WE FALL APART. You can find Katie’s online links here.
Writing this blog post focused on mental health in Asian communities feels like I’m breaking a taboo, because there is a huge stigma against discussing these issues in Asian cultures. But that’s why I feel it’s especially important for Asians to start openly talking about mental health, and to have stories that unpack this “taboo” topic – especially since the coronavirus pandemic has made anti-Asian racism rampant, creating even more mental stress for Asians everywhere.
HOW WE FALL APART is my debut young adult thriller novel, pitched as CRAZY RICH ASIANS meets ONE OF US IS LYING, coming from Bloomsbury YA on August 3rd, 2021. The story is told through the perspective of a second generation Chinese American girl named Nancy Luo, and it follows five Asian American students attending an elite prep school in Manhattan. When one of them, the top student, is found dead, an anonymous figure on the school’s gossip app pins the other four friends as the main suspects, and their darkest secrets begin to unravel.
On the surface, this is a dark academia thriller in the vein of PRETTY LITTLE LIARS and GOSSIP GIRL. Beneath the flashy pitch is a story infused with themes that are often tied to Asian American upbringings, like family sacrifice, American dreams, diaspora musings. One of the main themes I explore is mental health treatment, and how traditional Asian households tend to dismiss mental illnesses as “made-up” or “laziness.” In my experience growing up in such a household, perfection was the standard, and anything less than that was seen as “not good enough.” ADHD, mental illnesses, any condition that might make someone unable to learn and/or grow at the pace society has deemed standard – all of that was chalked up to simply not working hard enough. It also doesn’t help that American media is obsessed with portraying Asians as studious and nerdy, as model minorities and overachievers who all attend top schools. Such pressure leaves no room for error for Asians teens – and certainly no room for taking care of one’s mental health, or diagnosing mental illnesses. This level of perfection has spawned incredible work ethic among a lot of kids and teens, but it also creates an impossible standard by which young people, especially young children of immigrants, are measured and valued.
In HOW WE FALL APART, I wanted to explore what happens to these Asian teens who are thrust into the privileged, pressure-cooker, competitive, toxic environment of Sinclair Prep. Everything is riding on them bringing home the highest test scores, the best grades, the most extracurriculars. All the pressure is on them to make it into top universities, to fulfill their families’ American dreams. And in such an environment, these teens will do anything – betrayal, maybe even murder – to rise to the top.
While HOW WE FALL APART takes the cutthroat prep school environment to an extreme. There are lots of moments in this book that took me back to my own grueling high school experience – in which I put too much pressure on myself to perform up to my parents’ and society’s impossible standards. In which my mental health plummeted to an all-time low, because according to the messages I received from everyone everywhere, my worth was determined based on my grades and if I got accepted into an Ivy League or not. When I “failed” by those standards, I reached my lowest mental point. Even writing HOW WE FALL APART was a very painful experience, because it forced me to relive the darkest time of my life. A time when I felt utterly worthless. A time when I viewed friends as competition, when I resented that they’d taken what I “deserved”. That was a time when I would have greatly benefited from mental health treatment – if my parents even acknowledged that that was a real thing.
Those who have read my stories or know me at all know how outspoken I am about Asian American issues, and mental health is an area I’m very invested in. This is especially important now, given how anti-Asian racism has spiked due to the coronavirus and the President and his followers dubbing Covid the “China virus”, further fueling anti-Asian sentiment. Earlier this year, I wrote an article for Health Magazine discussing some of the anti-Asian hate crimes that have happened since, and how damaging these crimes are on Asian American psyche. Now, there are many mental health resources available to Asians specifically, like the Koreatown Youth+ Community Center, New York Coalition for Asian American Mental Health, The Cosmos, etc. I encourage any Asians struggling with mental health to take advantage of such resources, and I wish I’d had access to these when I was a teen. Writing became my therapy instead, but having actual mental health treatment would have doubtlessly helped me get back on my feet a lot sooner.
I want to end this post with a specific message to children of immigrants: You are more than your grades. More than your test scores. More than an acceptance to Harvard. More than any achievements that may prove your family’s sacrifices were “worth it.” You are so much more than the stereotypes American media may hold of you. You are beautiful and unique and whole, and you are enough, just as you are. Please, please take care of your mental health, especially in this pandemic.
Katie Zhao is the author of the Chinese-inspired middle grade fantasy The Dragon Warrior and its sequel, The Fallen Hero. She’s also the author of the forthcoming Asian American young adult thriller How We Fall Apart. Katie grew up in Michigan, where there was little for her to do besides bury her nose in a good book or a writing journal. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a BA in English and a minor in political science; she also completed her master’s in accounting there. In her spare time, Katie enjoys reading, singing, dancing (badly), and checking out new Instagram-worthy restaurants. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York. www.katiezhao.com • @ktzhaoauthor