Thursday, October 7, 2010
What Brings Pata to The Breaking Silences Project
In 1973, I used to sit at my mother’s large wooden desk and look out at the snowy landscape and wonder what it would be like to walk into it and freeze to death. I was twelve years old. And, I was depressed. I have been struggling with depression much of my life. When I was sixteen, I attempted suicide and was hospitalized. I am forty-nine now and depression is still part of my landscape. So, I come to this project with my own history of mental illness and personal experiences to share. I also have a bone to pick.
Although I have been in the “mental health system” for over thirty years, I have often felt an outsider. I wonder what it would have been like to have a therapist ask the question: so how do you think your cultural heritage affects your mental health? Or what stressors are exacerbated by cultural factors? I did not even think about how culture affected my mental health until I started studying diversity issues in college.
When I heard about the NAMI statistic, my first reaction was, “oh, I didn’t know that!” My second reaction was, “oh, that makes sense to me.” The sense it made was on a personal level – I was that 16 year old Asian American girl on the brink. However, it made me curious too. What are the other stories of Asian American girls and women who struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses? What would it be like for a young woman to hear the voices of others who have suffered and survived? I know that if there had been a book of women’s voices, I would have felt less alone.
So, The Breaking Silences Project emerged from the intersection of a number of energies. For many years, I had contemplated working on an edited book of stories of Asian American Women and our experiences with mental illness and the mental health system. Obviously, this interest sprung from my own experiences, as well as my awareness that stories like mine were not part of the “literature” on mental health. However, I did not act on this interest until I met Christina Chan.
Introduced by a mutual friend, Chien-Chi Huang, we started our collaboration by working on a workshop on body image and diversity for the National Organization of Women’s 2010 conference. We are both interested in issues of body image and the role it plays on women’s lives. In talking about the pressures of the dominate culture’s beauty ideals on Asian American women we ventured into talk about issues of self-esteem and mental health. When I mentioned by interest in working on an edited book, Christina shared that she has wanted to do a theatre piece on the same important subject. Thus, a new collaboration was born.
The passion I feel about this very personal issue, spurs me to use my skills as a writer, educator, scholar, and mental health activist to do something to break the silence.
Pata Suyemoto an independent feminist scholar, writer, educator, and mental health activist. She has a PhD. in education from the University of Pennsylvania and did her research on multicultural education and issues of race and racism. She has spoken and written about her struggles with depression. She is a volunteer for Families for Depression Awareness and in March 2009 she was profiled in an article in Psychology Today about managing one’s depression. When not doing scholarly work, Pata is an artist, Reiki healer, avid cyclist, and bicycle riding instructor.
What Brings Christina to The Breaking Silences Project
I first heard about the high rate of suicide and depression among Asian American girls and women at a meeting for Asian Professional women. Dr. Josephine Kim was the invited speaker and her presentation was titled “Matters of the Heart and Mind: The State of Asian American Women”.
My initial reaction was shock. Asian American girls are killing themselves and getting depressed in record numbers. I thought, “How can that be?”
As a Chinese American woman, I want to do something about this. My work in theatre is about giving voice to the Asian American experience, in particular to Asian American women. This is a community I most identify with.
The idea for a book was planted several years prior to hearing Dr. Kim speak, when I was contacted by a literary agent. He wanted to know if I was interested in writing a book about the experiences of Asian American women. At the time I had no idea what I would want to write about. Plus, I did not consider myself a writer, even though I am a playwright. In my mind, writing performance pieces is different from writing to an audience of readers.
But I knew I had to do a theatre piece on the statistic. Then I was introduced to Pata Suyemoto by a mutual friend. We collaborated on co-creating and co-leading a workshop for the NOW convention. The workshop was on Asian American women’s struggle with body image. We had a great time working together. Pata is a writer and poet. She had been thinking about creating an edited book. So here we are envisioning a book and play.
I bring to the project some skills: organizational, interviewing, teaching and acting. But my biggest asset is my intention. I have a strong desire to help Asian American girls and women to find a way to heal. I had never heard of these statistics before and I’m sure many other people don’t know either. What are the stories behind the statistics? As an actor that’s what I do: tell stories. Stories unite people. Let’s not be quiet, demur about the suicide and depression rate. Let’s shout it out and break the silence.
Christina R. Chan is an actor, playwright, teaching artist, public speaking coach and community activist. She is a member of SAG (Screen Actors’ Guild). Christina received her acting training at Trinity Rep. Conservatory in Rhode Island and The Royal National Theatre in London
Christina has created award winning solo and two person performance pieces on the Asian American experience. Her passion is in getting Asian American women’s stories heard.
When she is not doing theatre, Christina’s other passions are her family, bicycling, cooking, shopping at farmers markets and volunteering as a trustee at her son’s school, Cambridge Friends’ School.
According to a National Alliance of the Mentally Ill fact sheet:
• Asian American women ages 15-24 have a higher rate of suicide than Caucasians, African Americans and Latinos in that age group.
• The Commonwealth Fund Survey of the Health of Adolescent Girls reported that Asian American adolescent girls had the highest rates of depressive symptoms of all racial/ethnic and gender groups.
(See first entry for more information and details about the project.)