Discussing mental illness is taboo in my culture, yet I dared write about it
This is a First Person column by Lindsay Wong, a memoirist in Vancouver. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
"Hey, can I stay with you?" I said on the phone to my mother in April 2020 with some reluctance after looking at the negative dollar amount in my bank account.
Even before my debut memoir The Woo Woo was published by Arsenal Pulp Press, my relationship with both of my traditional Chinese parents consisted of screaming and frequent misunderstandings.
"Fine," my mother eventually said, sighing. And that was the extent of our conversation about me moving back home.
This was a topic my professors at Columbia's MFA program didn't prepare us for: what to do when you write a tell-all memoir about your family and then you have to spend a global pandemic cohabitating with them.
As a fresh graduate in 2012, I left writing school with a sense of hope for my future, and a finished memoir about my family's struggles with untreated mental illness.
The memoir title is taken from what we called those ghosts in my home. While growing up, my family believed that these Woo Woo demons would leap from person to person, causing all manner of problems, such as angry outbursts, fights, and bad grades.
Memoirists often joke that nothing is sacred or secret. We say that everything and everyone, including ourselves, is fair game.
When I wrote The Woo Woo for my graduate thesis, it seemed like the book would never get published because hundreds of literary agents rejected it.
But finally in 2017, just as I had run out of money, I got my first agent and my book was picked up for a small $6,000 advance.
In 2019, The Woo Woo was a finalist on Canada Reads, and my book became an instant bestseller.
Writing so candidly in the memoir was cathartic for me.
In Asian culture, mental illness is a taboo subject, and I had written a memoir discussing how my family didn't believe in depression or schizophrenia. How we blamed all of our aberrant behavior on 'ghostly possession.'
My family knew I was writing the book, but they didn't seem interested in it at the time. But the thing about putting all of your family secrets out in the open is that people start to feel comfortable giving you unsolicited opinions and judgment.
Watch | Fashion journalist Joe Zee and Lindsay Wong discuss her book for Canada Reads
"Are you in a relationship?" someone once asked. "You seem like you have severe intimacy issues."
"You shouldn't have children with your family history of mental illness," another stranger declared.
Women of colour writers are often asked questions about their physical appearance while white male writers are lauded for their craft.
"But you're pretty," a male moderator once said at a literary event. "How can you be the person you wrote about in the book?"
This was the kind of nonsense I was fielding, but I never really stopped to ask myself what types of inappropriate questions my family were getting.
For nearly a year, I toured the world promoting my book, living out of my suitcase in places like Bali and Hong Kong.
Although I was anxious about the book's impact on our family dynamic, touring meant I didn't have to deal with their feelings about how they were portrayed in it.
The pandemic ended all of my book touring gigs.
Broke and sick with likely COVID, my only real option was moving back in with my parents, to live with the very same people whose secrets and skeletons that I shared worldwide.
Silence at home
By the second month of the pandemic, I came out of quarantine on the second floor of my childhood home.
I soon noticed that my family would turn funeral-silent every time I clomped into the room. This all came into focus one day when I heard my mom talking on speaker phone with one of her sisters.
"Aiya, you know what that lying bitch said to me?" one of my aunties clucked on the phone in Cantonese.
As I rounded the corner into the room, my mom blanched and quickly said, "Shhhh, she's here. Stop talking!"
She hung up and stared at me.
It finally dawned on me that my mom, dad and brother were afraid to give me anything that could be written about.
Of course I was not going to write a sequel because it was more trouble than it was worth. But still, no one dared cuss or fart around me.
And yet, my relief was undeniable. This silence meant that I did not have to defend my version of the truth or weakly explain why I wrote a memoir. But it also made me sad that they weren't happy.
Later that year, at an extended family potluck, my parents found out that I'd been hiding six large arm tattoos. My parents despised tattoos, and I knew they'd be furious if they found out.
But when my cover was busted, they said absolutely nothing. They just stared at me with horror and disdain.
"Just leave, Please"
After our guests left, I shuffled into the kitchen to talk to my father.
"Want me to help with the dishes?" I said, trying to be helpful.
After a moment of silence, he dismissed me with a beauty pageant wave.
"Just leave," my father said, sounding tired. "Please."
Staring at his hunched shoulders, I felt confused about my topsy-turvy feelings.
This moment is when I understood that my Chinese immigrant parents' silence was neither cowardice nor fear. Non-speaking is just their way of very bluntly letting me know that they won't be giving me any more material for a second memoir.
All of this brought into stark contrast how my parents were raised to deal with shame, and the world I wrote this memoir in.
In western culture, it has become normalized to yell out your mental pain. Anyone who writes a tell-all memoir is considered courageous, and yet, in eastern culture, a valiant person silently endures all kinds of soul-crushing anguish. Which method was better? I certainly didn't regret the memoir because I am not someone who is good at suffering quietly. Ask my agent: I'm an excellent complainer.
And yet, it was stoicism that my parents exhibited when they did not lecture me when I showed up broke and jobless yet again, asking to move back in with them while I was sick with COVID.
Think of that pivotal scene in a silent horror film when you stumble on the hideous thing crouched on your doorstep, and you realize that this creature is related to you. Holy shit, you say. Your daughter is most certainly a monster, but you choose to let her come inside, anyway.
This was true bravery. This was familial love.
Lindsay Wong is the author of the best-selling, award-winning, and critically acclaimed memoir, The Woo-Woo and the YA novel, My Summer of Love and Misfortune. Her debut short story collection Tell Me Pleasant Things about Immortality is forthcoming from Penguin Random House Canada in February 2023.
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