Eating Disorders and Mental Illnesses Pose Challenges in Asian-American Culture

Shirley Wang

The United States Demographics Profile of 2012 reports that approximately 4.43% of all residents in the US are of Asian descent. I am one of these people.

My name is Shirley Wang. I have small eyes and a flat nose, I am short and petite, I play piano and violin, and I attend one of the most prestigious high schools on the east coast. I am a first generation Asian-American who spoke Mandarin Chinese fluently before I learned English, and who prefers to eat with chopsticks. By appearance and achievement, I fit neatly into the box labeled “Chinese.” But there’s a part of me that’s not so stereotypical, a part of me that is not commonly accepted in my family and culture. Because, you see, I have suffered from Anorexia Nervosa, Anxiety disorder, Depression, Self-harm, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. 

Before I was diagnosed with these issues, my parents and I had little knowledge about mental illnesses or mental health in general. In my experience, this stands true for most Asian and Asian-American cultures. My grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins do not know what an eating disorder is. They don’t believe in depression or think anxiety is anything more than just being a bit too nervous about a calculus test.

An article in Dimensions Online Magazine mentions Dr. Si Hyung Lee, director of the Korea Institute of Social Psychiatry at Koryo General Hospital in Seoul, who says he “remembers best the patient who died of respiratory failure: ‘She was a pediatrician’s daughter…her father and mother were both doctors.” Even on the day she passed away, both parents had no idea what was causing their daughter’s weight to plummet and her body to weaken. According to Lee, “her parents failed to realize that their teenaged daughter suffered from Anorexia Nervosa – a disease almost unheard of in Korea…until it was too late to save her.”

There is next to no education in many Asian cultures about mental illnesses -- eating disorders in particular. Perhaps this is because when my generation’s parents were growing up, hunger was far too common as a result of famine and too large of a population with food storages too low. Growing up in rural China, both my mother and my father considered themselves lucky if they ate three meals a day and were elated if they had money for meat. To this day, it’s hard for them to fully comprehend why I starved myself when food was plentiful.

Not only are eating disorders and other mental illnesses unheard of and not discussed, but I feel that those who struggle with a mental illness are shunned even when people do know about them. There is such an emphasis on achievement in my culture: earning straight A’s, being top of the class, attending an Ivy League college, earning a PhD, and earning millions of dollars. Here, perfection is not only encouraged, but it is expected and required. Anything short of perfect is not acceptable and showing weakness is looked down upon. That is precisely what mental illnesses are thought of in many Asian cultures: Weaknesses. Those suffering from an eating disorder, anxiety, or depression seem crazy and dangerous. Eating disorders, like many mental illnesses, have a biological predisposition that interacts with your environment and culture. And perfectionism is common a characteristic of those who develop anorexia, so while my eating disorder was not caused by one single factor, it was triggered by this combination.  

This needs to change. Eating disorders are a serious problem not only the United States but globally, including China and the rest of Asia. If my parents had only listened to the pediatricians, school guidance counselors, and nurses who expressed extreme concern over my weight, eating, and exercise habits, perhaps I would not have gotten so sick and done so much damage to my body. Perhaps I would not have had to suffer for an extra 6 months in silence and isolation, starving and self-harming. There must be so many other boys and girls, men and women out there in the same place I was two years ago: sick, dying, and scared ¬¬– but ignored.  I was ignored not out of mal-intent, but due to the lack of education within my culture that eating disorders can be life-threatening mental disorders that require professional help.

The only way to decrease people’s suffering is to increase education. There needs to be awareness about eating disorders and other mental health issues in Asia. Everybody Knows Somebody who is suffering, but in many Asian cultures, we pretend that they’re okay and that it’s “just a phase.” Eating disorders are severe, life-threatening illnesses that one cannot just “get over.” It’s not as simple as “just eat.” So let’s get up, let’s go out, and let’s spread our knowledge and show families and individuals that it’s not their fault and that it’s okay to ask for help.  Let’s go make a difference, and let’s go save lives.

Visit to find out how you can get involved and help raise awareness of eating disorders during NEDAwareness Week, February 24-March 2, 2013.

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