My maternal inheritance is vast: we share the same laugh, same love for savory foods over sweet ones, same guilty enjoyment from cheesy romantic dramas. We’re also alike in the ways I secretly wish we weren’t. My mother and I navigate the world with the cultivated quiet of small mammals who’ve adapted to exist against all odds. “Natural people-pleaser.” “Overachiever.” “Conscientious.” I’ve gone through the motions of life eroding my own boundaries and desires for the comfort of others. This is how I’ll make it to another day. This is how the bough breaks.
For better or for worse, our parents and caregivers offer us our first and most lasting insights into the workings of being human. From the ages of three, when I first immigrated to the U.S., to eleven, I lived in a household of seven people. The men — my uncle and father — were omnipotent shades in the background. My cousin and I, the children, didn’t see them much. We just knew they were the ones to please — and the ones to avoid angering.
My grandmother, mother and aunt — the women — were the ones around to pick up the day-to-day pieces. We relied on them for everything and took it all for granted. They slipped into this hierarchy they had no say in building with the same tired smoothness they used to slip through the front door after a long workday (that often exceeded the men’s workdays).
The women knew the means to survival but not living. Perhaps seeing their conditioned acceptance to the blood-thick misogyny of everything in that house determined the philosophy by which I shaped myself: you are the sum of what you can do for others.
What Does Intergenerational Trauma Look Like?
In popular culture and media, we see an abundance of content related to “generational curses” that catalyze the protagonist’s journey. We’ve come to view them in the context of a set narrative rather than lived experience. The hero comes into their blood-ordained power for the first time. They grapple with it. They grow into it. They become the stuff of legends, and we can all applaud from the other side of the screen, fulfilled by the predictable satisfaction evoked by a happy ending. Intergenerational trauma is considerably more nuanced — there is no clear hero or villain, victor or victim.
I love my mother. That’s the one thing I can say with certainty. Most days, however, I don’t know if I like her — and I’m sure she’d say the same about me. This is because I’m acutely aware of the fact that many, if not all, of my mental health struggles can easily be traced back to her: my anxiety, terrible body image and depression.
Currently, I identify as a socially anxious introvert with an extraordinarily low battery for interaction. But the truth is, I was a relatively happy child. My home life was challenging, but I was insulated from much of the direct harm through the efforts of my mother and grandmother, for which I am forever grateful. In elementary school, I was a confident and outgoing extrovert who never had any doubts about her ability to make and maintain friendships.
However, things changed when my parents divorced. My mother and I suffered. Our relationship was rocky for all of my middle school and half of my high school years. She was always working to support the two of us. I lingered in solitude for most of my adolescence and felt abandoned because of it. Being an immigrant, a single mother, and a woman of color in a racialized and fractured society is obviously not an easy task to take on. My mother was stressed, but she wouldn’t communicate. Our interactions grew strained; I would feel anxious about her coming home and picking me apart. Among this wreckage, no venerated champion emerged — only mother and daughter standing side-by-side.
Using My Experience to Create Change
My experiences with intergenerational trauma inspired me in my third year of college to pursue a service-learning fellowship with Little Manila Rising, a Filipinx-based non-profit focused on bringing multi-faceted equity to the historically disenfranchised region of South Stockton. I devoted forty hours a week to the fellowship, the bulk of which was spent assisting in their Healing Pilipinx Uplifting Self and Others (PUSO) program.
Healing PUSO’s commitment to destigmatizing conversations around trauma-informed and culturally competent mental health care completely shifted my worldview. For many years, I thought mental health could be summed up simply by “self-care,” “therapy” and “diagnosis.” I had no critical framework for grasping the systemic factors at play, the importance of intersectionality or the psychosocial effects of inherited historical trauma and generational marginalization.
This newfound vocabulary enabled me for the first time in my life to name my experiences. It gave me the power to give them shape. More importantly, it grounded me in community. I felt so alone with my thoughts for too long. Now I know my complicated mother-daughter relationship is not an isolated one. Rather, it mirrors the struggles many immigrants and people of color face in being tasked with reconciling cultures, belief-systems and many generations of pain.
As I time travel through these words, revisiting the many phases of my life, I’d like to say that besides being older, I’ve also grown wiser through the years. I will turn 21 this year. At 21, my mom was working full-time in the city, alone and away from her loved ones, to support herself and help her parents. At almost 21, I’ve never understood my mom more.
Today, as a NAMI Next Gen Youth Advisor, I advocate as a representative of myself and the women who came before me who lacked the space, vocabulary and visibility necessary to incite meaningful and necessary change. I am privileged beyond words to occupy a role that I never thought was in the cards for people who looked like me growing up. Breaking cycles while breaking stigma — that’s what I’m here for.
Guiying (Angel) Zhong is a current undergraduate student at the University of the Pacific majoring in Psychology and English and minoring in Writing and Ethnic Studies. She is passionate about decolonizing mental health, promoting awareness about the importance of culturally-informed care and intersectional advocacy. She has served as a Climate Action Fellow for White Pony Express, a food recovery organization committed to ending food insecurity in Contra Costa County, and a Civic Action Fellow for Little Manila Rising, a South Stockton-based non-profit committed to bringing multi-faceted equity to the region.
Note: This article was originally published in the Fall 2022 Issue of the Advocate.