When Wealthy Fujianese Americans Struggle

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Warhol’s Mao

The New World Mall is an unapologetically utilitarian building sitting in the center of Flushing, Queens.  On a typical Sunday, you may find this structure towering over a sea of pedestrians; a scene I often try to avoid if not for the palatial dimsum restaurant atop the concrete enclosure.

On the surface, the restaurant has all the standard appeals.  You’ll find an army of steamy metal carts roaming through the narrow openings between tables, families fighting for the waiters’ attention, and porcelain plates clamoring away.  But more than anything else, my family was enamored with the success story behind this particular restaurant.  A story that’s resonant with many Fujianese migrant workers who cobbled together every penny they’ve pinched to pursue their entrepreneurial endeavors.

While stuffing my face over a plate of durian pastry, I unscrupulously asked my mom why didn’t she ever invest in a business of this size?

“Because I invested in sending two kids to college instead.” she said with a smirk.

She has a way of cutting through people with her words.

“Besides, why do you care? You’ve got a cushy job that pays you well.  Don’t waste your time with restaurants.  Your dad and I had to endure this so you don’t have to.”

This comment haunted me because it encapsulates the irony of Fujianese Americanism.  The grit and discipline that developed out of hardship in building a good life is shaved away when it comes to what we wish for our children. What if a good job is the only thing that’s preventing us from living a great life?  What if wealth comes with unintended consequences? It has long been studied that economic mobility not only brings comfort and power but also gluttony, apathy, risk avoidance, greed, and even our modern psychological maladies.

Suicide, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other alarming conditions are not just confined to the poor.  In a society that believes that money can buy our well-being, upper-middle class youngsters and wealthy suburban women are two groups most likely to suffer from depression and suicidality [Tribe – Junger].

This is particularly relevant for the next generation of Fujianese youngsters who may find themselves in the upper-middle class without any context of the struggle that led to their condition.  Some may argue that the higher rates outlined above is merely due to the fact that wealthier people have greater access to mental health services.  And that’s true to some extent but what Junger points out is that as Americans become wealthier, they also begin to dissociate themselves from their communities, breaking themselves away from their tribes.  This alienation is a source of psychological angst.

Too Much Safety Can Kill You

Growing up in a struggling Fujianese immigrant family, I remember sharing a single bedroom apartment with 4 of my cousins under the care of our grandparents.  The irony was that I never felt poor or needy.  In fact, the most nostalgic memories I have were the gloomy Saturday mornings we shared watching cartoon. But as we get older and accumulated more wealth, we moved further away from one another.  We can afford strangers to babysit for us so we no longer need our neighbors or relatives.  Our yards get bigger and fences get taller.  We hire security guards to watch our gated communities.  We don’t ask our neighbors to borrow sugar anymore but instead we ask for recommendations for a psychiatrist.  This level of wealthy alienation is the reason why the next generation of Fujianese Americans will struggle greater hardship than their migrant parents did.  Evolution did not prepare us to be permanently safe.

We Feel The Safest When We’re Needed The Most

So where do we go from here?  Should we all just keep our kids in crime-ridden neighborhoods and substandard schools?  The key (I think) lies in how we connect with our communities.  Months following the 9/11 terrorist attack, rate of suicide in America decreased noticeably.  When interviewed, Junger suggested that such events (however terrifying) have the uncanny power to pull people together and even give folks a reason to live.  The central thesis is that we need our tribes.  We have a primal urge to feel needed and to identify with our tribes regardless of our socioeconomic status.  The beauty is that there are tribes all around us.  Whether is volunteering for the local food pantry or organizing events with your neighbors for a local fundraiser, the opportunities to connect and build a tribe is readily available.   The next generation of young Fujianese Americans will inherently struggle with this as they’ve been taught to not invest in activities with no direct financial return. Moreover, as we continue to assimilate and adopt American Individualism, many of us will operate with diminishing collectivist mentality.  This indirectly pushes us to deal with our hardships without the support of a tight-knit community while combating the stigma of seeking professional help.  Your biggest struggle is to fight against that intuition and to embrace the communities that surround you.

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