When my grandpa died a few months ago, peacefully in his own home and in the presence of his family, I was sadder than I expected to be. For weeks I would randomly burst into tears and I didn’t understand why. He had what I would have considered a ‘good death’ so I didn’t know why I was having these periodic breakdowns.
As time went on and I had the mental clarity to reflect on my feelings, I realised that 1. I was looking at his death from a clinical perspective rather than a family member’s. 2. I was just grieving. And 3. It wasn’t just sadness, it was a great sense of shame.
Shame because for as long as I can remember, I wasn’t able to communicate with my grandpa. I couldn’t speak much of my own language, so my conversations with him were limited to asking him how he was, and what he had eaten that day. And although he did have dementia which got progressively worse over the years, the language barrier was a huge driving force for our lack of meaningful conversations. There were lots of things that I would have loved to ask him, but never did. Things that I didn’t have the curiosity to ask about when I was younger- like… where did he grow up? Did he ever meet his own grandparents? How did he meet my grandma? Just, everything.
The grieving process activated a deep sense of shame that I had internalised for so long. It wasn’t just shame about losing my language, but of losing my culture. It is something that I can barely articulate even now because those feelings have been quite confusing to contemplate. As a child growing up in the 90’s, I wanted so badly to fit in. I wanted to minimise the deluge of racism that I was already accustomed to. All I knew at that age was that I didn’t want to be a ‘Ching-Chong‘ or a ‘Cat-eater‘ or a ‘Chinky eye‘. I just wanted to be normal. So speaking English exclusively, and eating sandwiches rather than Pork-floss on rice was what I did to fit in.
Growing up as a first generation Asian in a Western society was a dichotomy of two completely different worlds. And looking back, I realise that in the process of trying to succeed in a Western society, a lot of changes occurred in me gradually and unknowingly. Over time I became more and more focused on myself as an individual, rather than seeing myself as part of a family unit. Over time I learned to be louder and more assertive, because I would get singled out for being too quiet or shy- and although I was taught to be subservient, my main reason for being quiet was because I grew up trying so hard to blend in and not draw attention to myself in order to avoid getting bullied. Over time, my ideas about life changed and didn’t align with cultural ideas. Gradually, I had unlearned a lot of the things that I felt made me ‘Asian’.
When I graduated and returned home to work in my community, it was the first time that I truly felt proud of myself. I thought, ‘wow, I actually made it.’
But when my parents and I ran into their acquaintances, they had other opinions about how I turned out. The number of them who commented on my inability to speak our language was astonishing. There I was having just graduated and gotten a job, and yet all people could comment on was how my parents should have taught me better.
I couldn’t win. On the one hand I had achieved the stereotypical immigrant dream of becoming a doctor, but on the other hand I was a complete failure for being white-washed and unable to communicate with my people. I would brush it off and think, ‘haters gonna hate‘. But inside, I did feel like a failure.
In a way, I wasn’t Asian enough to fit in with my own Asian culture, and yet I was too Asian to ever fit in the West.
The awkward in-between of not belonging anywhere meant that I have struggled to navigate ‘finding’ my identity. I have had to accept the loss of my language, the loss of connection to my elders and the loss of whatever else I haven’t yet considered. And while feeling the weight of that loss and shame, I have had to learn to give myself permission to celebrate my ability to adapt to the rigid dichotomy of the East and the West, and succeed in the unique opportunities presented to me in the West that I would have never gotten in the East.
So today I’m embracing the fact that I am different. I don’t belong in the two groups that I grew up trying to fit into and I’m okay with that. I pay homage to my ancestors and never forget where I am from. I live to honour them. And in the same breath, I live with gratitude for the life that I have, the ideas in my head that I have the freedom to express, and the beautiful multi-cultural country that I have the privilege of living in. I am empowered by this knowledge, as well as the realisation that the only expectations and norms I need to meet now are the ones that I make for myself. And there is no shame in that.
3 thoughts on “How to deal with grief and other feelings”
I found your blog through your post in CCIM and this post has resonated with me so much (and made me cry). My grandpa was recently diagnosed with advanced cancer, and I had those exact feelings of grief and helplessness – wanting to spend as much quality time as I could with him, learning more about his life in China in an era that has been so different to mine, but not being able to because I couldn’t communicate exactly what I wanted to say or fully understand the depth of his answers. And shame for not having been more curious earlier. You described exactly what I’ve been feeling. I’m glad for the rise in these representations of a hybrid east vs west upbringing in media, and I’m glad I stumbled upon this post! I’m a final year med student who’s also considering GP – I’ll be reading the rest of your blog with much interest 🙂
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Hi Sophia! I’m sorry to hear about your grandpa. But also glad that this post resonated with you. Thank you for taking the time to read and reply. It is comforting to know that although we have felt isolated in not belonging in the east or the west, and have struggled with confusing feelings of loss and shame, there is a whole community of us out there who can actually relate to each other. I hope you’re enjoying your final year of medical school, it’s an exciting time 🌿
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Wow this post is very detail-oriented, it’s like reading my thoughts and feelings aloud of which I didn’t have the words to say. I think at some point of all of us lives we tried to fit in but “that thing that makes you/us ‘not fit in’. We should be proud of it. Nurture it. Because that’s your/our extra in the ordinary” …it’s not too late to talk to him…
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