Making Therapy Work for Asian Americans

How does one negotiate the truth within a network of Western racist stereotypes that pathologize the East, alongside equally Western ideas about “insanities”?

“Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese,” asks Maxine Hong Kingston, “how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese?”1 This question interrupts Kingston’s well-known preface to her 1976 experimental memoir, The Woman Warrior, as she tells the erased history of her father’s sister, who drowned herself and her illegitimate baby (born when her husband had been away for years). Kingston’s speculative narration suggests that telling the story of a family trauma—haunted by specters of rape, incest, and superstitious village life—is made all the more complicated by her emigrating family’s negotiations between cultures and generations. These difficulties highlight a rigged game for Asian America: How does one negotiate the truth within a network of Western racist stereotypes that pathologize the East, alongside equally Western ideas about “insanities”?

Kingston’s question today, asked explicitly in the context of therapy, might look something like this: How can an Asian American examine her own childhood for what it was, with such cartoonish stereotypes as tiger moms (and their high-achieving, automaton children) ringing in her—and her therapist’s—ears? How can she even go to therapy, particularly given the ambivalent in-joke that Asians don’t do therapy? As Kingston showed decades ago, for Asian Americans, asking where diasporic history and culture end and a form of (Western) diagnosis takes over is a maddening internal exercise, everywhere compromised by external structures of race and racism in the US.

Thankfully, new paths are being charted out of this cultural and therapeutic impasse, most recently in David L. Eng and Shinhee Han’s new book, Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: On the Social and Psychic Lives of Asian Americans. Eng and Han—a literature professor and a psychotherapist, respectively—demonstrate how to understand the entanglements of history, culture, and psychoanalysis for Asian Americans.

Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation reveals how understanding the structural effects of racism is a necessary step toward understanding the individual psyche (especially with regard to undesirable psychic states like “melancholia” and “dissociation” that typically have been treated in psychoanalysis as strictly personal). The title’s repetition of the word “racial” signals that these psychic states—which seem especially prevalent among Gen X and Gen Y Asian Americans—must be viewed against the broader backdrop of racism in the US. Most important, the book argues that understanding the details of how racist social and political structures become internalized by a specific demographic is required to break down the false dichotomy between individual and cultural pathology, a binary upheld by an equally false ideology of “whiteness as universal.”

In an interview for Omnia, the University of Pennsylvania’s arts and sciences magazine, Eng notably characterizes their book as “a social justice project.” Specifically, he explains that the book tries to help Asian Americans access “their own individual pain” as it connects to “different histories of immigration and discrimination.”2

This is an unusual social justice project, for it imagines a collective politics that is grounded in the intimate—and highly individualized—work of therapeutic repair. Indeed, the book explicitly models itself as a holding space (one of the book’s several concepts indebted to the work of the British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott) for therapeutic play; their “project exists in a gap—in the space of creative play—between two disciplinary deployments of psychoanalysis” (in literary theory and clinical analysis).

We, as Asian American readers, are invited to “play” in this space, to try on the frames of “racial melancholia” and “racial dissociation” for fit. Eng and Han illuminate (and depathologize) the collective psychic pain that emerges from specific racist social and historical conditions.

Eng and Han’s project is one of collective mourning—a long-standing collaboration launched after a spate of suicides among Asian American college students at Columbia University in the mid-1990s. They ground their work to understand these students’ psychic distress in Han’s years of clinical practice with Gen X and Gen Y ethnically Asian patients.

For the subjects, as well as for Eng and Han, two historical moments illuminate their collective experiences. The first is the rise of the model-minority myth in the wake of the civil rights era; the second is the “color-blind” era ushered in by depoliticized, celebratory ideologies of diversity and multiculturalism, from the fall of the Berlin Wall into the Obama era. Each of the book’s two governing concepts emerges from these two pivotal eras.

Eng and Han’s idea of “racial melancholia” speaks to the model-minority myth; specifically, it is the melancholia that results from the myth’s forced forgetting of the long history of Asian immigrant exclusion.3 Achievement, for this model minority, must always take place in the shadow of never reckoning with an earlier, nonmodel status. Moreover, it is always defined by a false promise, since the assimilative process will never be complete.

The book’s concept of “racial dissociation” imagines how false notions of a postracial America can have a gaslighting influence on minorities, who often experience more quotidian forms of racism (Asian Americans tend not to experience the large-scale, state-sanctioned violence that targets black and brown Americans). Through the lens of race, Eng and Han revisit different aspects of Melanie Klein’s “object relations” theory, which argues that the normal development of an integrated self requires adequate attachments to caregivers in early childhood and infancy. In a racialized context, attachment to an immigrant parent might be disrupted when a child perceives his parent to be the undesired “other.” An ideological focus on color blindness might also dissociate a child from his own raced body, because the insistence on a “postracial America” renders experiences of casual racism illegible to the self.

As a second-generation Chinese American, a literature professor, and an older millennial, I am addressed by Eng and Han’s discussion with almost embarrassing demographic specificity. Like many of the students they describe, I attended an elite undergraduate institution where I encountered mostly white male professors. I was curious about what Eng and Han could tell me about myself in college, where I decided to pursue a career-defining love of Victorian literature, and where—for seemingly separate reasons—I often felt sad, invisible, and not good enough.

Was it racial dissociation—engendered by my coming of age at a time when color blindness arose in the US—that spurred my identification with the Victorian era, a period largely synonymous with white imperial violence in the name of “civilization”? How would Eng and Han’s racialized psychic structure complicate my understanding of my career in relation to my family: an affectively distant and sometimes violent father, for instance, who was educated in Hong Kong long before the handover and received more acculturation to Victorian England and its ideological legacies than I ever did?

I was born in 1983, when the generational shift from model-minority myth to color blindness was still being negotiated. Could the idea of racial melancholia—especially how it is driven by the myth’s coercive demands to assimilate at all cost, even to the point of amnesia—help me grapple with my immigrant, borderline mother from Shanghai? To what extent could collective loss suffered by emigrating Chinese mothers—many tied to ambitious Chinese men who did not know that the Hart-Celler Act meant the US did not want that much Asian skilled labor—justify the exacting price my mother drew from her daughters to balance the ledger?

Eng and Han argue that we cannot understand distress and loss within a family system without understanding race. Yet I see a danger in the potential for race to become an alibi for intimate familial cruelty. This danger seems to issue from a central methodological conflict between the academic fields of critical race theory and psychoanalysis. It is a conflict that Eng and Han can’t quite resolve.

Critical race theory, which has its origins in the work of legal scholars, charts the variegated, always morphing infrastructural ways in which continuing norms of white supremacy are buttressed.4 Critical race theory insists that race relations touch every part of our living and knowing. In short, there is no “extricating” race from human relations, no space of pure or shared humanity that can transcend how our white, brown, black, or Asian bodies interact with one another. By contrast, psychoanalysis—despite its own Western colonialist roots5—tends toward a faith in the universal human in order to make efficacious diagnostic judgments.

On the one hand, then, racial melancholia and racial dissociation are imprecise rubrics if we are to follow one of critical race theory’s most important premises (melancholia, dissociation—indeed, psychoanalysis itself—is always already racial). On the other hand, as I mentioned above, race’s powerful explanatory power risks excusing cruelties—between parent and child, for instance—that are felt to be deeply personal.

Desiring recognition as an individual seems to emerge from a particular fatigue: the exhaustion of Asian Americans struggling to see where to stand.

Eng and Han’s “resolution” to this methodological problem—which is to conscript Winnicott’s “good enough mother,” a well-known term from psychoanalysis, into the concept of a “good enough” interpretation of race—feels inadequate.6 This is in large part because their “resolution” comes on the heels of one of the most disturbing (and clearly unresolved) case studies in the book. This case involves Yuna, a first-generation “parachute” child from South Korea, part of a relatively recent, growing demographic of young people from East Asia sent to the West for educational opportunities (without their parents). Han charts Yuna’s progress as she comes to realize that her “psychic nowhere is also racial nowhere,” but makes clear that their relationship ends on a suspended note of uncertain progress. The racial rubrics here fall short “in the face of debilitating family dynamics”—dynamics that, in Yuna’s case, Western psychoanalysis would certainly consider neglect, as well as physical and sexual abuse.

Eng and Han offer: “A good-enough interpretation of race would also shift our focus to psychic pain and misery away from analyses that would configure the subject of racial history as an all-encompassing explanatory narrative.” But this shift is not given much space in their account.

I linger on this methodological impasse and how it touches the personal because it is a defining place of irresolution for myself. As an academic, I teach and write about critical race theory and defend the position of race’s all-encompassing nonneutrality.

More personally, an explicit alliance with Western psychoanalysis’s parsing of self and other has been invaluable in helping me discover where my mother ends and where I begin. Chinese culture is not pathological, but selfhood and boundaries are not part of the discourse. Yiyun Li writes that in Chinese one avoids “I,” for “living is not an original business.”7 And yet, the West’s parsing of self and other has been—and continues to be—its central justification for colonialist violence against nonwhite others across the globe.

Perhaps Eng and Han’s “good-enough race”—though an imperfect concept, and, in fact, only an aside in their book—offers a place where Asian Americans can stand collectively (part of Eng’s hope for “social justice”) but also, more crucially, individually. To close, I reflect briefly on my own recent experience teaching Asian and Asian American college students, to stress why individualism—even when inextricable from Western racism—matters for us.

Our racialized collective experience in the US—which has taught us to assimilate, to be compliant, to ignore our raced embodiments—certainly requires collective resistance. But I suspect that the process of “coming out” as Asian American is psychically difficult, because it involves, to a certain extent, yet another form of (politicized) assimilation.

For example: At my diverse Bay Area university, I often find white students receptive to talking about racial privilege and black and Latinx students connecting to intersectional political movements. By contrast, Asian and Asian American students struggle to articulate how they fit into the landscape of white racism—even in a classroom with an Asian American professor who tries to model this position. In their written personal reflections about place, identity, and history, Asian American students elide race but repeat, over and over: I feel invisible, invisible, invisible.

Last semester, a “parachute” student from South Korea talked at length in office hours about connecting with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, but he was quick to say that it wasn’t because of race, “as it was with black people in America.” For him, the connection emerged from the fact that his mother was going to marry him off if he returned home. Meanwhile, I was helping him navigate some clearly raced interactions with others who found him a “resistant” student. Frequently checked out in class, this student was no “model minority.” And yet, in office hours, he eagerly made connections between Shakespeare, Ellison, and his turbulent family life.

Why, I wondered, the difference between office hours and the classroom, and what might this have to do with race and the Asian American experience? In a different interaction, as the end of class slid imperceptibly into office hours, a Filipina student—after a class discussion of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks—casually mentioned to me her decision, against the wishes of her mother, not to whiten her skin, “because of health reasons.” I mentioned offhand that I still carried in me the sense that white women were more beautiful than we were. We talked coloniality for a few minutes, dancing around race, but she nodded vigorously.

One of the most radical aspects of Eng and Han’s account—which may not be immediately evident to readers outside the fields of literary theory and clinical psychoanalysis—is that it forces a juxtaposition of two spaces rarely thought about in conjunction with each other: the classroom and the clinic. In doing so, it has helped me reflect on why the “office hour”—and the perception that it could serve the same functions as a clinic—has often served as the time and place in which my Asian American students have eagerly “come out” to me as individuals.


The Model-Minority Bubble

By Joseph Jonghyun Jeon

This fierce desire for individuation goes hand in hand with a resistance to racial identification that entails collectivity. This resistance, despite what Eng and Han emphasize, is not just a symptom of model minorities mistaking themselves for white or of dissociation from race because of America’s postracial gaslighting.

Desiring recognition as an individual seems to emerge from a particular fatigue: the exhaustion of Asian Americans struggling to see where to stand. How do I as an individual exist in collectively minded Asian cultural norms; in racism that denies Asian American personhood; in the traumas of immigration and diasporic movement; and in debilitating family systems?

What Eng and Han’s “good enough” account of race inadvertently allows at the margins of their discussion, then, is the enduring desire that Kingston’s question articulates: “How do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese?” The answer, perhaps, is that we cannot. But we may need Western psychoanalysis’s imperfect discourse of self and other to find some ground on which to stand, and from there to play, to live, and then to form collectives.


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus. icon

  1. Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (1976; Vintage International, 1989), pp. 5–6.
  2. Susan Ahlborn, “Looking at the Invisible Minority,” Omnia, June 6, 2019.
  3. The interpretive frame “racial melancholia” echoes and reworks Anne Anlin Cheng’s foundational arguments on how melancholic states constitute racial identity.
  4. Yesterday’s triangulations of chattel slavery, indentured labor, and indigenous dispossession are today’s prison-industrial complex, model-minority myth, and continued dispossession of native lands by private corporations.
  5. As scholars like Ranjana Khanna have pointed out, we have to wrestle with the fact that modern psychoanalysis’s origins in Europe at the turn of the 20th century meant that definitions of the “self” in the West were directly connected to the relationship between the modern European nation-state and its colonies. See Dark Continents: Psychoanalysis and Colonialism (Duke University Press, 2003).
  6. Winnicott’s theory is that the mother’s failure to satisfy all of the wants and needs of her infant is important for the infant’s healthy differentiation and formation as a subject separate from the mother.
  7. Yiyun Li, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (Random House, 2017), p. 27.
Featured image: Detail from Hasegawa Tōhaku, Pine Trees (16th century). Wikimedia Commons