This is one of those stories that I file under the category of “if I didn’t see it and hear it myself, I would never have believed it.”
Student: Cindy* (She/Her), Age 14
Unlike many of the students who have shared their stories with me, Cindy approached me a few days after a mental health lecture I delivered in her school. She did not have the courage to speak to me with so many other people around but told me.
“I heard you speak about the effect of culture or religion when it comes to the stigma surrounding mental health but I’m not sure you realize how bad it actually is. ”
I’m not Asian and so Cindy didn’t believe I could fully comprehend the magnitude of the pressures placed on students like her.
“People think it’s a stereotype but it’s not. The Asian culture is terrible for the undue pressure put on students but it’s not something that we can talk about. We can’t evel allow ourselves to think about talking about it. And not just publicly, inside our own families...it’s taboo.
I’m living with a foster family right now. I was removed from my home by the city’s Child and Youth Care Services when my father threatened my life because I didn’t get good grades.”
I’ve heard many stories of struggles with parents – and sometimes even violence – when it comes to students failing to live up to scholastic expectations, but this one surprised me. She continued…
“My average mark after the first semester of Grade 9 was 87%. It was one course (English) - one test in fact - that brought my average down. English is very hard for me as we only moved to Canada when I was in grade 6.
I knew my father would be angry with my mark but also knew I could not hide it. They were waiting for me to come home with the report card - they keep strict track of all my tests and report card dates and always wait to see the results.
When saw the mark, he started yelling like I’ve never seen him yell below.
He screamed about the same old things like the sacrifices they made to give me a better life and how I owed them success to honour the family and pay them back for what they’ve done for me.
I didn’t argue. I was too afraid.
After a quiet dinner where no one spoke, he took me to the 2nd floor balcony of our home, picked me up and held me over the edge with my legs. He promised that if I didn’t come home with a mark over 95% in the next semester, he would drop me next time.”
To protect this student, I’ll not share all the details of what happened next other than to report that a neighbour who saw what was happening called the police and Cindy was removed from the family home. The case is before the courts now, and Cindy lives with a foster family until the situation is resolved.
Cindy was not suffering with any mental health concerns prior to this incident and claims she still isn’t, yet after a long conversation I learned that she’s not sleeping more than a few hours a night, doesn’t socialize with friends outside of the classroom, and doesn’t feel comfortable walking home from school alone.
She knows what her father did was wrong but won’t admit to suffering from any PTSD or other mental health issues resulting from this horrifying experience and the subsequent forced separation from her parents.
Despite the high drama, this is not an isolated case.
The pressure many families place on students because of cultural norms and expectations or a result of some misguided sense of “payback” for the sacrifice immigrant parents have made in leaving their countries of origin to make a better life for their children is unimaginable. Yet, it’s common.
My first reaction after listening to Cindy was to hate her parents and wish them some harm for the harm they threatened on her.
But, while it’s easy to judge parents who behave this way, I’m going to encourage you to avoid it. Coming from an immigrant family myself, I can attest to the pressure to excel as a means of justifying the massive sacrifices many of our parents have made.
I excelled in school and won many sports and academic awards, yet wasn’t the top student – something that I was always reminded of when I returned with a 2nd place award.
While I disagree with the practice, harbouring resentment and ill-will towards parents who do this doesn’t help move the issue forward.
Rather, I suggest we all open our minds and hearts to how many people are conditioned and raised by their parents and family, try to understand the reasons for it, AND have the courage to talk about it.
When confronted with the loss of a child (be it to suicide or forced separation such as this story), most parents have their eyes opened and regret their actions and words.
So, I challenge all of us who have lived through such experiences or live through them now to talk publicly about the pressure, why we feel it, and why we behave the way we do. By engaging the wider community and making it OK to share such experiences, we may have a better chance to ensure Cindy’s story is less common than it is.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE
Cindy’s story is one of the hundreds of similar stories shared with me over the years. You’re not alone.
If it’s an emergency and you or someone you know is planning on hurting themselves, please call 911. If you’re struggling, you can find other resources here: Canada | USA
*To protect the student, the names and locations listed in this story have been changed.