Illustration: Tina Tiller

Dear Baba and Mama: A letter to my Asian parents about my depression

‘There is no word for depression in Vietnamese,’ writes Celine Dam, as she tries to tell her parents how she’s been feeling for too long now.

Dear Baba and Mama,

The world that you have tried to shelter me from has caught up on me. I am 19 now and my secrets have grown too big for their old hiding spots. I have no choice but to let them stand out in the open.

Baba and Mama, I suffer from an illness called depression, and even if I take an x-ray, you still can’t see it. I know it is hard to wrap your head around but I appreciate your patience and willingness to understand it, especially because I am saying all of this in Vietnamese. I want to say that you have blessed me with the best childhood that any child could have asked for. I cherish all the holidays, all the games, and all the love you have provided me with. The endless hours of work in the face of an endless stream of racism – racism that you continue to battle daily – has blessed my brother and I with the childhood you wished for yourselves. Unlike your own, my childhood was not war-torn, nor was it abusive. In fact it was magical.

But despite all this, I have depression. You might believe it is selfish of me to feel this way when I don’t necessarily have a reason to be sad. I need you to respect that although I lack justification for my feelings, there is potency in simply telling you that something significant is affecting me.

The author (front) and her family (Photo: supplied)

Baba, I understand that the trauma you faced as a refugee fleeing the Vietnam War can’t be compared to the struggles that I face as a middle-class university student. Mama, I know when you were my age living in New Zealand you were the only Asian person in your school, living in a difficult household. I am fully aware that the adversity you have both suffered is unimaginable, but I will not minimise my issues just because they are not visible.

Depression, which (to my knowledge) there is no word for in Vietnamese, is hard to explain. It extends beyond just “being sad”; it has been so constant in my life that it has become my normal. I promise I am trying my hardest to get over it, but some days it just feels impossible, and you deserve to know that I am struggling. My friends have told me that if I need help, I should feel OK asking for it, so I would like to seek therapy.

I know that I am always able to talk to you guys, but there are people who are trained doctors who can help me to get better. There is also medication that they can prescribe to me, that like Panadol for my brain, might help to ease the mental pain.

There is also no word for “mental health” in Vietnamese, and I think a lot of Asian parents are uninformed about what mental health is. In our culture, many people believe that if you are failing at something, you are simply not trying hard enough. But while I am hard-working and diligent, I am not a superhero, and these issues are ones I cannot tackle alone.

It will not be easy to hear this, but to say I’m struggling would be an understatement. Most days, leaving my bed feels like the most challenging thing in the world. Heating up food can be exhausting and even smiling feels foreign. But I thank you for the countless bowls of sliced fruit, and the gallons of Chinese medicated oil you give me, because these gestures give me hope that each day will get easier.

Baba and Mama, we all have growing to do. You have taught me to respect my elders and I am showing it by teaching you about an issue you have yet to be educated about. An increasing number of young people across the world are suffering from the same issues as me, all of them with different but equally valid reasons to feel the way they do. For many Asian children especially, it has been ingrained in them to focus on academic success above their social and physical wellbeing. A huge amount of pressure is placed on them from a young age to work hard, and more so because the western society they live in treats them as second-class citizens. Asian culture places an emphasis on overcoming hardship – a result of our long history of battling not only against colonial oppressors, but in our own civil wars as well.

I can’t imagine how many people have never been diagnosed with mental illness because their culture has dismissed the very concept of it, but I am not letting that happen to myself. Struggling with this illness is hard enough. To have your struggle minimised, or even completely disregarded, is agonising.

Baba and Mama, I suffer from depression.

Let’s talk about it.

Need to talk?

  • Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.
  • Lifeline 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE).
  • Youthline 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email talk@youthline.co.nz or online chat.
  • Samaritans 0800 726 666.
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
  • Depression and Anxiety Helpline – 0800 111 757 or free text 4202



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