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Article on Suicide Rates in the Asian American community August 14, 2009

Posted by peterong in Asian American, Chinese American.


New American Media put out an article about the rise of Asian Americans and suicide rates and referred to recent happenings involving three students at Caltech who committed suicide.   As I read this and people are chiming in about the influence of pressure of achievement from family and also the overall environment at the university to excel. I think that some of the scholars are missing is that suicide narratives are such a part of the cultural narrative.

As I remember so much of our histories and stories in our family has always had one or another relative who found their only way of escape was to take one’s life. It was not glorified in any sense but more of a necessary reality of our family history. As I think through the analysis of some of the psychological issues which we as a culture forgo or dismiss, I think the deeper issue of transparency or creating space so we know how to speak into our individual and collective pain.

I think that we do undergo a sense of shame or other circumstances of our cultural environment. But I think that the issue is in large part of the focus of personal achievement for the sake of the community approval. But it is the focus on the personal. On the burden of the individual to represent the whole that is so graceless and distorts our understanding of the gospel. But it is not unlike our western counterparts which also focus on the personal glory as the pinnacle of one’s existence. but when we subscribe this sense of worship of self, eventually we will find something toxic and disfunction because we are made to worship. This is an insoluble question of our existence…what or who do we worship? The reality is that this is aorist tension, of  in process or “already and not yet.” It is our theology or thinking that we work out this reality of our pain in the midst of our worship. To know that we are often found wanting in the midst of glory. But we put on the pretense that God is the very central thing or to the other extreme, our failure is the very central thing. We have a abbreviated gospel. It is either ONLY about God or ONLY about our failure. But it is the fuller view is our failure in the midst of God’s glory. To make it capable for us to enter in with  humility because we have a hope to our tragedy. That there is a wonderful narrative of salvation comes to those who are brokenhearted. To not self worship our moral conditions but rather to worship God who redeems.

Suicide is the darkest conclusion of our pursuit of self worship.

There is a sense that there is no way out because we have failed to present the gospel that invites us to the beautifully excessiveness of God grace. Especially in the Asian American culture, the religious works helps us keep our obligations to God tenable and even some of the sacrificial gestures are forms of appeasement to God. It is our moral credentials that is the measure of our success or failure that determines our discipleship but not at the work of Christ on the cross.

In varying degrees, we are so desperate for grace because of the tremendous despair of a world of ungrace. What a challenge for us to express grace. To show that all our hope is in Christ alone. So the movement is from this central place of grace and from that we can work out who we are in Christ.


1. More on suicide and Asian Americans – ARE WE PAYING ATTENTION YET? « PEARLS BEFORE SWINE - August 16, 2009

[…] issue and how it connects with self-worship and Asian culture. He says it well, so just link over (link). If we believe that the Kingdom of God will effect real cultural change and redemption, even for […]

2. Xiao Lei - August 16, 2009

Thanks for your blog. It’s a much needed discussion for Asian American families.

This is a very sad statistic for Asian and Asian American families. In recent years in China, the official number of students committing suicide (mainly middle school students) is around 20,000 per year. That translates into 50 students per day throughout China. Thta’s a freakin’ huge number of young lives lost. Officials believe the main reason is the lack of love from parents due to work stress and broken families. Meanwhile kids are still pushed by their parents to excel in school. When such an expectation fails, kids feel hopeless and often opt for suicide. Some try several times before they succeed in ending their lives. The common suicide reason in China is so clear – lack of parental understanding and love. Here in America, we don’t think it that way when in actuality we share the exact same reason in the Asian American communities with China. Asian American (thank God, it’s usually the first generation immigrants) parents push their kids so hard to the extent that their kids don’t feel loved or understood by their parents. Because of the language and cultural barriers, first generation Asian parents don’t even try to understand the American culture or their kids, which really frustrates and embarasses their American-born children regularly. When will Asian parents wake up?

This topic needs to be discussed more and really be talked about with every Asian American parents being asked about their thoughts and how they would do to prevent pushing their kids. I am an immigrant from China with kids born in the U.S. Thankfully I am very aware of this problem with fellow Asian American families. I have made sure my kids are given opportunities to become a well-rounded individuals (academi, sports, camping, social events with friends from school, partying, etc.). Too many Chinese American families that we know don’t even see the need to do activities with their kids other than academic ones. Needless to say, their kids are suffering but the parents are proud with their kids’ academic abililty. Who cares if your 2nd grader knows division and outperform a 4th grader at the end of the day if your child ends up needing psychological counseling? How can we help our Asian American parents undertand the priority? Please help! For the sake of many, many children from the first generation Asian immigrants.

3. Xiao Lei - August 16, 2009

Oh, I forgot to mention that we are a church-going Christian family. We see the exact same phenomenon with Christian families among Asian Americans in Chinese churches through the U.S. In fact, I believe Chinese churches provide an environment for first generation immigrants to compare their kids and hence push and scold their kids. After experiencing and witnessing much of this Chinese culture, we finally left our Chinese church to attend an American church when our first child was about 1 year old. Many Chinese parents (friends of ours) had already started comparing our kids when they were about 1 year. We are much happier than without being a total Chinese environment. We still have Chinese friends but we can definitely control whom we want to be our friends.

4. Chinese Teen - September 3, 2009

Hi Mr. Ong. Once in a while I’ll pop on your facebook page to link to your blog. After reading this post, I was saddened. It’s partially due to the article but more so because I currently have several friends both of whom are Chinese American teens and both have began to contemplate suicide. And honestly, as a friend and a fellow Chinese American teen I feel spent. I look at my own life and the pressures present from my family, church, and friends and I just feel spent. In a week, I will enter my freshman year of college and with this anticipation I have tried to connect to my parents with an effort unrivaled in my eighteen years. But every conversation, every attempt, and every gesture is pushed aside. I feel spent from so many years of struggle and self examination and with the gravity of exhaustion I try to fulfill the role of a friend and Christian brother in caring for and loving my brother and sister in Christ. I ask God to replenish my energy and give me the strength but it is as if after everyday I am praying the same prayer for strength and energy. It is as if everyday is to much to handle.

5. neahlee - October 26, 2009

hey pete! just noticed you have my website on here! thanks for the promo…however my website has changed to neahleemusic.com. thanks!

6. jojo - January 13, 2010

hi p ong,

great article. thank god you speak out on this with courage and honesty.

as a relatively new churchgoer, yes, i am an asian american female, in that “suicide” prone age range.
even outside church, for asian americans, there is a lot of parental pressure coupled with lack of love, overachiever and work ethic, low self esteem and severe psychological underdevelopment, inferiority complex as minority, etc.

constantly in despair about dealing with hovering parents, a broken family and relations, low self-esteem, etc., i have often thought of how to end my life, atleast for six years, and often isolate myself, and if not for the fact i go to church, well 😦

we have to emphasize that our human worth is not in grades, competition champ awards, looks, but in the lord.

despite going to a highly ranked college, being a polyglot (learning many languages), earning state and national awards, getting top grades, it is never enough for parents and only failures shine to them, while basic dignity and self-respect whittles away; hence the depression and self-focus that takes away our fundamental joy of life.

i am often desperate for help, and found through some sources, like this website, that i need not isikate myself, and luckily go to an abc church; i sure wish this second generation topic can be openly discussed.

kudos to you for sharing


7. Lena - February 3, 2010

Hi–l really like your blog!

My children’s Dad grew up in China, & I was born in the US, not of Chinese descent.

We’ve talked about the issues in this article a lot, because really, everyone who is alive has stresses & problems, & everyone has mental health issues in their own family or extended family, no matter what culture one belongs to!

My children’s Dad is in the medical field, & when he first trained in China, he said psychiatric care was almost non-existent there. There just was none available.

I think maybe among many of the Chinese-American community here, there is not the habit or idea that one can go for counselling and talk to someone about feelings of loneliness, too much job or school pressure, a teen or child who is lonely or on an unhealthy path, a marriage that is having trouble withstanding all the pressures of modern life, etc.

These are problems that people of every culture have, but I think there is a stoicism in Chinese culture that can be a source of really great strength, but at the same time does not allow things to be addressed or healed sometimes.

Sometimes, it takes some searching to find a counsellor who is attuned to cultural differences, too.

I think the American family in general is facing a crisis because of divorce, both parents away from home and working too many hours, sudden increase in material wealth and media over the past 40 or 50 years, and the children sort of trying to find their way in the world…

…the Chinese American families are influenced by all of these pressures, same as anyone else, but may need more help in learning to reach out and get help.

Another thing I noticed among quite a few of the Chinese families that I knew over the years, and not as much the families of other cultures, is that the Dad & Mom often live very far apart because of their jobs. That can be really, really hard on the family. Maybe this is just the people I know, but I am wondering if anyone else has observed this as well?

And in response to the young people above, please go talk with your school guidance counsellor & ask him or her if she knows of the name of a good counsellor for you to talk to. My children are high school & college age, & I think most of the people that age feel a lot of pressure & anxiety at this point in their lives! You are certainly not alone!

Maybe if you talk with someone, they can help you figure out what is important for your heart deep down, how to relieve a lot of stress & anxiety, how to build healthy connections with other people, & what things you can let go of & not worry so much about!

That helped our family a lot! The counsellors have seen so many people with so many of the same worries, & they often have good problem-solving ideas.

I think most people, teens and adults of all cultures, wonder what their place is in this world & how to find some balance, love, & happiness.

Good luck & God bless everyone! 🙂

Thanks for a great column!

8. slavidzee - April 30, 2010

Hey Peter, just stumbled on your post. It’s an interesting idea that uniquely Asian cultural narratives that feature suicide contribute to these higher suicide rates among young Asians. I was sorry to hear that that instances of suicide were something you heard a lot about growing up, but I was wondering what more general and archetypal narratives you were referring to. All I could think of was the practice of Seppuku old-culture Japan, but that is a very isolated practice, and I don’t think it generalizes at all to the rest of Asian culture.

It’s hard for me to see a subtle cultural influence that implicitly condones suicide at play, independent of the crushing social pressure to perform. The economy of prestige and shame that runs a lot of Asian social relationships is a powerful mechanism, and can drive individuals to hopelessness, depression and suicide, but that doesn’t mean suicide itself is ever romanticized, whether overtly or implicitly.

9. solixamo - September 14, 2010

Hi Peter,

I stumbled on this post when I was researching Asian-Americans and depression. I’m about to start grad school to study clinical psychology and theology and am interested in many of the issues on your blog! Thank you for your voicing the concerns of Asian-American identity and the struggles of Asian-American ministry. Do you mind if I link to your website?

peterong - March 4, 2011

yes, feel free to link it.

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