I Couldn’t Tell My Parents That This Country Made Me Sick


After a lifetime of lying to my parents about the racism I’ve
faced in this country and my anxiety disorder, I’m finally
being honest with them and with myself.

Posted on October 05, 2017, 14:16 GMT

Maggie Chiang for BuzzFeed News

This summer, after a long but not particularly
alarming period of decreased appetite, I stopped being able
to eat altogether. Who isn’t a little less hungry some
I had been telling myself. I rationalized like a
champion. I didn’t do much today anyway, it’s no big deal to
skip dinner, I’m just not hungry!

What might have worried me then, if I’d taken the time to
think of it, was that even in the lowest times of my adult
life, my appetite had never been the thing to suffer. Years
ago, when a long-term boyfriend dumped me unexpectedly and
moved out of our shared apartment, I was devastated beyond
measure, and crying from morning till night…into my
breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If I was ever stressed or
anxious, I’d always been able to stop and eat an omelet
before getting on with it.

But this time, several days passed where I wasn’t getting
hungry, ever. Occasionally I had pangs of hunger, but the
thought of food became suddenly repulsive. I started to get
nauseous as soon as I woke up, and it wouldn’t subside for

One morning before a scheduled dentist appointment with a new
dentist (I had just broken up with my dentist of 15 years,
because I hadn’t lived in Iowa for six of them), I woke up
somewhat more anxious than usual and threw up for most of the
morning. It scared me, and triggered my first panic attack in
almost a year. Somehow I made it to the dentist, said nothing
of the incident, had my teeth cleaned, and returned home. I
wasn’t hungry for the rest of the day and night, but for the
first time I was fully worried about what was going on. Did I
have a stomach bug or strangely mild food poisoning? Was I

I tried eating the next few days, small bland foods, things
that I thought wouldn’t trigger my growing nausea. Nothing
stayed down. When I tried to sleep, the combination of
feeling starving and nauseous brought me to tears. It took
hours to drift off because head rushes and vertigo made me
get up and walk around the apartment until it passed,
sometimes until early in the morning. My cat was freaked out
by my behavior. I was too. I was developing a headache that
just wouldn’t go away, and I felt like I might faint for most
of my waking hours.

My cat was freaked out by my behavior. I was too. 

A doctor confirmed that I wasn’t pregnant, I didn’t have a
stomach ulcer (yet), my blood work and liver/kidney function
were normal, and it didn’t seem to be food poisoning or a
viral infection of any kind. She asked if I had been stressed
lately, to which I at first flippantly responded, Sure,
aren’t we all! It’s 2017 in America and everything is in the

She was patient with me, and she asked again, “Have there
been changes in your life recently? Do you feel worried about
anything in particular?”

I told her that I guess I was. My cat had been sick, which
was expensive and emotionally taxing. My partner was abroad
for a writing residency, and much of my built-in support
system gone with him. I hadn’t been able to turn my luxurious
summer off from teaching into the miraculous output of
writing I had originally imagined.

I didn’t say a lot of other things that ran through my head:
I am often afraid to go places because about half the time,
someone yells something racist at me on the street. This has
only increased since Trump’s election. I am reliably mistaken
for a student at my various teaching jobs because I’m not a
white man in a tweed jacket. I am a good writer, but people
tell me that my work gets published because writing about
“identity” is hot right now. I so badly want to be taken
seriously. People keep asking me where I’m “really” from.

My doctor assured me that given my history of anxiety and
panic attacks, all of my physical symptoms were just being
caused by underlying stress, and that I should try to relax.
She prescribed me an anti-nausea pill and an anti-anxiety
pill, to be taken as needed if I felt another panic attack
coming on. I tried the anti-nausea medication, but it just
made me constipated for three days (not ideal when your
appetite is already out the window) and didn’t do much else.

My symptoms got worse. I was vomiting more and more, and only
able to keep down a hundred or so calories a day. I was dizzy
and nauseous all day long, reduced to watching Top
alone on my couch, secretly hoping that it would
make me hungry. It had the opposite effect.

Friends checked in on me, but there wasn’t much they could
do. They googled relaxation techniques, and kindly texted me
the results. They offered to go with me to find the perfect
food that would stimulate my appetite again. They took me to
the grocery store to choose meal replacement shakes, hoping
for a flavor that wouldn’t make me sick. They talked to me on
the phone for hours while I was at my lowest, taking time
away from their own plans to get me through a panic attack. I
felt increasingly isolated and afraid. My partner stayed up
late with me most nights, on account of the time difference,
listening to me cry and talk about my symptoms on the phone.
It all helped, but none of it slowed my deterioration. I had
increasingly weird and disturbing thoughts, some of which I
still haven’t told anyone about. Mostly, I worried over the
same question. How could this be happening? All this, because
I was anxious?

I’ve had anxiety for as long as I can remember. It’s
become a core part of my identity, and I tell people things
like “Oh, I’m just a nervous person” or that I’m “type A.”
Not that these are particularly untrue, or that at times the
way I am doesn’t yield productive (“good”) results.

I’m always on time to the airport, often hours before
departure, so that I have time to sit at the gate and run
through my list of reasons that the flight is going to be
perfectly fine and safe. I have a meticulously organized
calendar, and I double- then triple-check everything from
movie times to the confirmation number after I make an online
purchase. Things I’ve planned out usually go well, if only
because I’ve run through the situation a hundred times in my
mind the night before, at the cost of a few hours’ sleep.
Well worth it, I’ve always thought. My apartment is spotless,
because I can’t relax in it until I’ve finished another round
of deep cleaning. At my job teaching poetry to graduate and
undergraduate students, I have perfectly timed (and
color-coordinated) lesson plans, thoughtfully written and
prepped. None of this is bad. I am organized, ambitious, and
always prepared.

I’m also an immigrant, the older of two kids. My parents and
I came to the United States from Shandong, China, in 1989, my
mother and I following my father, who came to pursue a PhD in
molecular biology at Cornell University. My father, who had
prepared (and hoped) to move to the US for many years, had
learned English from an early age and was welcomed into a
graduate studies department headed by a Chinese-American
scientist who would become like a second father to him. My
mother had a tougher time. She didn’t speak any English,
couldn’t work until she did, and was taking care of me alone
in Ithaca, New York. She eventually took evening English
classes. She was lonely beyond measure, but she was strong
for me and eventually for both me and my sister, who was born
here in 1993.

My mother eventually picked up work at an all-women garment
factory sewing dresses and was paid per completed garment,
which meant that each day she would push herself to the
absolute maximum of productivity. It took its toll on her
body and her spirit. It wouldn’t be until decades later that
any of us would say aloud that the conditions and pay at that
place made it a virtual sweatshop.

There was no need for an explicit insult. Being Chinese was

We eventually moved to Iowa, where my father had gotten an
entry-level job in his field, and my sister and I started
school. Growing up in an almost all-white suburb brought with
it the racism you might imagine. In middle school, kids who
knew my name would choose not to use it, instead calling out
to me as “Hey, Chinese!” when I passed them in the hallway.
There was no need for an explicit insult to follow. Being
Chinese was enough. Plenty of people in my life have called
me a chink, it’s just that for a while nobody knew to use the
word. It’s simpler that way, when you’re a kid. The
observation of fact is all you need: “Your face is flat!”
“Your eyes are tiny.” It didn’t help that we were struggling
desperately with money, and in an affluent suburb this was
impossible to hide. Once a boy came up to me at my locker and
sneered, “Hey, Chinese, do you only have like two shirts???”
before laughing uproariously and walking away.

Did he know that it was true?

For a few years, I loved participating in my school’s show
choir (if you’ve watched Glee, you understand the
popularity of show choir/glee club in the American Midwest).
It made me feel talented, special, and accepted. You had to
audition to be in it, and it involved being able to dance and
sing with some proficiency. There were overnight trips and
rehearsals, where for hours I felt normal, the same, and

But thinking back on it now, I and the only other student of
color in the choir (out of 30 or so of us) never made it out
of the back row for a performance. It was competitive,
waiting for the choir director to post the standing
arrangement for each new number. Who would be front row AND
center? Who would be barely noticeable there in the back? All
the other students got turns in the front or second row,
while I spent my entire time there in the very back. I
thought it was because I was tall, but there were tall girls
up front too. I didn’t dwell on it, because I was just happy
to be there.

I hid all this expertly from my parents — or even if I hid it
sloppily, my parents’ own desire for everything to be OK
closed the circle of belief. I told them that everyone
treated me kindly at school, and “never made me feel
different from them.” I told them I was loved (I was, by some
precious few friends) and that I was never subjected to
racism. I lied to get out of things I didn’t want to do, for
fear of ridicule, and for the most part my parents believed
the lie.

This lie of well-being is something at which, over the years,
I’ve become a bit of an expert. It comes naturally to me now.

I broke down and called my parents on a Wednesday
night, after about a week of not being able to eat at all.
All my life, hiding my suffering from them had seemed like
the logical choice. But I was too exhausted to be logical
anymore, and maybe that helped me finally pick up the phone.
I was crying in my bathtub, which is the place I’ve always
gone when nowhere else feels safe enough to exist.

My mother answered, and though I tried to insist I was just
calling to chat, I couldn’t hide the pain in my voice. I told
her everything, and I apologized for waiting until it had to
come in such a desperate and startling way. I didn’t have any
defenses left, and I bought a plane ticket that night to come
home, leaving the next afternoon. I threw up for the last
time in the bathroom at LaGuardia Airport, and my father
picked me up in his minivan as soon as I landed in Iowa.

I fell asleep against the window within minutes. The first
real sleep I’d gotten in over a week.

The refrain of my existence in this country comes from
my mother, how she would tell me over and over that in this
life you will always have to “work twice as hard as them to
be taken half as seriously.” And of course she didn’t just
mean this life; she meant this life in this country. This
life away from the life that almost was. This life that you
did not choose, here, in this new and dangerous place. I
don’t fault or resent her for telling me this, for making me
believe it. I don’t fault my parents for wanting me to know
the truth of their life, which was also quickly becoming the
truth of mine, though I hid it the best I could.

I remember wanting to sign up for a club when I was younger —
soccer maybe, or dance, or ice skating lessons. My parents
never stopped me. Instead, they agreed, and added that yes,
of course I should go out for sports, and when I got there I
should not let the other kids treat me as less than, not
allow them to make me feel different or Chinese or Other and
that I should play soccer (or whatever it was) with the
confidence of a totally normal kid who has every right to be

I believed that I could spare them the pain of being exactly
right about growing up in this country.

I don’t blame them for saying any of this to me, either. They
believed it to be necessary, honest, loving. They didn’t want
me to believe the lie that life “here,” in this new place,
would ever be so easy.

This is how I first learned to lie about my life and my
health, and refined it into an art. I didn’t want any of my
parents’ pessimism to come true, and I believed that I could
spare them the pain of being exactly right about growing up
in this country. I also believed that I could spare myself,
that I could lie myself into something better. That this was
fundamentally how hope worked: a truth you forced into being
with sheer belief.

From then on, everything was OK, always. Nobody ever picked
me last and told me it was because I was an ugly Chinese.
Nobody ever copied my homework in class then called me a
Communist. Nobody ever started a LiveJournal group dedicated
to finding out if “Asians have sideways vaginas,” sending me
links to the hurtful posts. Nobody ever pulled their eyes
into slits when they passed me in the hallway, and nobody
ever made me feel less than human just by looking me in the
face and mouthing Chinese, exactly what I was, and
could never escape.

When I stepped into my parents’ house after a
45-minute car ride from the airport, it was filled with the
smells of my mother’s cooking. Ginger, garlic, soy sauce,
steamed breads. My mother put down a small bowl of congee in
front of me, and when I began to cry, she motioned to remove
it, afraid that I was responding to sudden nausea from the
smell. I told her that no, I was starving. I wanted to eat,
and I felt confident that I could. I ate the whole bowl, and
then another.

My mother sat down next to me at the kitchen table. She
brought out little bowls of sauces, condiments, and pickled
vegetables from the fridge in case I wanted to add something
to my bowl, offering me item after item in case it sounded
appealing. Finally, she asked me, Cong Cong — my
Chinese pet name — why didn’t you call us earlier?

Why do this all on your own until now?

The Chinese have a million and one remedies for
physical ailments. Whether you’ve broken your leg or have a
cold, there is an herbal concoction to drink and some
combination of food and medicine that will fix you right up.
Mental illness and depression are a different story.
Illnesses “of the mind” are taboo, uncomfortable, and — worst
of all — deeply shameful subjects for many Chinese and
Chinese-American families, my own included. If you feel sad,
go for a walk and visit a friend. But what if you feel sad,
always, for weeks and months on end?

I keep going back to a question the doctor asked me, after I
had described my symptoms and admitted that sure, I was
probably anxious about a handful of things. “When did this
all start?” she asked.

I understood the question. When did you first start feeling
nauseous, anxious, what was the first day that you threw up?
The short view is that at some point, worried about my cat
and feeling a little out of sorts from my partner being gone,
I ate a little bit less each day and things slid downhill
from there. I panicked the first time I threw up, and that’s
the little dot on the timeline of when this “anxiety episode”

I’m beginning to understand that this country made me sick.

The long view is one I’m still getting comfortable with, and
it comes further into focus with each conversation I have
with my parents, each meal where I’m able to eat a little bit
more and open up to them about the lifetime of lies I’ve
told. Does the long view start with that first lie? Does it
start with that first inherited fear, the first decision to
spare my parents the knowledge that my childhood was not free
from the worst fears they had for me?

I’m beginning to understand that this country made me sick,
and I, in trying to hide my pain, let it multiply.

The lie has unraveled quickly over the past few months. It
hurts my parents to learn, years later, some of the cruelties
they thought were unfamiliar to me. The ways I’ve had to
learn, with varying degrees of success, to balance my health
and my immigrant ambition, my desire to be seen as enough,
productive, and worthy of love. My willingness, even now, to
work twice as hard to be seen as some fraction of “as good.”

I’m beginning to experience a tenderness towards the limits
of my body, and the limits of my ability to protect my
parents from the trauma this country was always going to
inflict on their children. I’m learning to let myself heal,
to give up the belief that I’m not meaningful if I don’t
succeed and look good doing it, and to be as truthful with my
family as they have always been with me. My body and my mind
are not my enemies, and the lie of assimilation and
acceptance is not my savior. My country has never cared if I
am well, but my parents always have. I do too. ●

Wendy Xu is most
recently the author of the poetry collection
Phrasis from Fence
Books (2017), and her writing has appeared in The Best
American Poetry, Boston Review, A Public Space, Poetry, and
widely elsewhere. She is the poetry editor for

To learn more about anxiety disorders, check out the
resources at the National Institute of Mental Health here.

And if you need to talk to someone immediately, you can reach
the National Suicide
Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and or the
Crisis Text Line by
texting HOME to 741741. Suicide helplines outside the US can
be found here.

This is part of a series
of stories about mental health. Read more here from Oct. 2 to
Oct. 8, 2017.

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