Features

Asian-American struggle

"Asian-American struggle" Continued...

Issue: "Tidings of discomfort and joy," Dec. 28, 2013

Esther Suh
Handout
Esther Suh
Esther Suh, a 21-year-old Korean-American student at Smith College, is 5'7", wears a size 8, and used to eat a small carton of yogurt and then burn the calories off by running 10 miles. She lost 30 pounds, only to gain double the weight back once she realized she would never reach the ideal 100 pounds. She says the Asian-American community tends to ignore weight questions: “No one talks about it.”

According to the National Eating Disorder Association’s latest statistics, 20 million women and 10 million men in America struggle with some form of clinically significant eating disorder, which includes anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, or an eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS). But we still have no statistics on how many of these individuals with eating disorders or serious body image issues are Asian-Americans. Susie Roman, program director of NEDA said part of the reason is because the information available is drawn from treatment centers. Asian-Americans are less likely to seek help for mental issues.

For example, Stefani Tran, 37, a Korean adoptee who has never been clinically diagnosed with an eating disorder, says she obsesses about her body image daily. When she moved to Korea to teach English for two years, the constant comments (“You’re fatter than yesterday!”) her students and co-workers made on her weight “really messed with my head. This was 10 years ago, but it’s still with me today.”

Chad Yoo, a clinical psychology Ph.D. candidate in California School of Professional Psychology, did a yearlong study in 2009 on Korean-American women and disordered eating. Yoo’s research focused on young Korean-American women ages 18-25, many whom he found at local churches. His studies found that Korean-Americans who struggle to fit into both sides of their cultures have significantly increased risk of developing disordered eating. When juggling this issue with other external factors like racial and weight teasing, the risk for disordered eating further increased.

If Yoo’s research result is true, that puts every Asian-American woman at a higher risk for disordered eating, because all of them experience certain levels of stress from acculturation, whether they want it or not. “Consciously or unconsciously, they all have to figure out their racial identity,” Yoo said.

Yoo said his research could also be applied to other Asian-Americans with similar backgrounds, such as Chinese- and Japanese-Americans who share Confucian influences: “Parents worry about their children becoming fat, so parents will always say that to their children, that is natural to them.” Yoo said the problem has gotten worse because Asian-Americans think struggling with a mental illness is shameful to their family and society.

Grace Cheng, a 21-year-old Taiwanese-American who once struggled with bingeing and cutting, said Asian-Americans need to “ask questions: Who are you to tell me how I should look like? We need to create our own culture. We need to scream and shout or nobody’s going to listen to us.”

Thick Dumpling Skin isn’t meant to “cure” Asian-American women of their food issues, but Chen and Lee hope to open up a dialogue. Chen has had a bittersweet feeling reading submitted posts because some of the writers are so young: One post featured a 15-year-old hospitalized for anorexia in eighth grade. 

Chen, though, found that talking about her disorder was her first step toward treatment. Initially, she worried that revealing her problem “would be career suicide. I was afraid people won’t take the risk of hiring me. I was afraid of the shame. And I didn’t trust myself to be able to come clean about it and not relapse.” But ever since she opened up, Chen said her recovery has been steady: Although she still binges occasionally, she no longer follows it up with days of self-condemnation, and “was surprised by how everyone I knew started coming clean to me that they have food issues, too.”

Where are they now?

Jessica Perez
Handout
Jessica Perez

WORLD’s November 2012 story on eating disorders began with a profile of Jessica Perez, whom I met through Skype, phone calls, emails, and Facebook. I remember the day I first got an email from her: She had read about my own battle with eating disorders and wrote, “It is obvious that your religious background has been a font of strength and wisdom to you. Personally, I consider myself an eternal seeker—I want to know God, I want to feel as though God hears me, will help me … loves me.”

Jessi concluded, “I feel like I can’t do this by myself. … Only something stronger than me can help me, and the only thing I can think of is God.” I told her then, that she was blessed through her suffering, because she realized a truth that not many people accept.

Jessi Perez died in her sleep on Jan. 18, 2013. She was 25 and weighed less than 60 pounds. After almost 15 years of struggling with an eating disorder, her body finally gave up. When I heard the news, my first thought was: “Oh no. No, no, no.” The second thought was: “I hope she’s with God right now.” And the third: “That could have been me.” I remembered the nights when I would stir awake to my parents gently cupping my shrunken face, checking that I was still breathing.

One morning, after I talked with her about the gospel via Skype, she clasped her tiny hands to her cheeks and gasped, “I understand. I get it!” That was grace. —S.L.       

Sophia Lee
Sophia Lee

Sophia is a features reporter for WORLD. She graduated from the University of Southern California with degrees in print journalism and East Asian language and culture. She lives in Los Angeles with her cat, Shalom. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.

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