Reporting on health taboos in Asian immigrant communities

Published on
February 4, 2011

By now, I have finished all of the three stories of my Hunt Grant project. The three stories look at different health issues in the Asian community, including  HIV/AIDS, suicide and senior abuse. But they are similar in the way that they are all about cracking through the stigma that keeps the victims in silence.

I have shared some of my experience of finding sources for the HIV/AIDS story in a previous entry. At that time, I didn't know I would be facing even tougher challenges in the next two stories, the suicide story in particular. The scholars I interviewed told me it is tough for them to find people to talk with as well because few survivors and family members want to open their wounds again. Also, the myth that talking about suicide with suicidal people would push them further to the edge makes scholars very careful. Scholars did not want to share their sources with me. So after I interviewed many scholars, social workers, psychologists and some family members of people with depression, I still felt that I didn't have a strong anecdote.

A breakthrough came when I accidentally found a blog entry by a young toy designer named June Shieh that documented the author's personal experiences of fighting against depression and the trauma of losing her mother to suicide. I met June, and surprisingly found her to be a joyful young lady, full of inspiration and dreams. She wanted to share her suffering with readers because she believes -- and I agree -- that silence only makes things worse.

June is a second generation Asian who grew up in the U.S. This may have helped in her openness. I still think that people who grow up in traditional Asian cultures might not be as open. But I hope the story has at least shown them how dangerous it is to try to hide their depression and suicidal thoughts.

What struck me most when reporting the senior abuse story is that victims are so protective of their predators, most of whom are their adult children. An old man I interviewed was beaten many times by his son -- when I talked to him, the wound on his face was still visible -- but never reported it to the police because he didn't want affect his son's future by giving him a criminal record. And when he recalled the happy times he spent with his son when he was younger, the old man smiled like a child himself. This almost put tears in my eyes. Being Chinese, I understand how much Chinese parents want to scarify for their children. They often make it clear that they wouldn't hesitate to give their lives for the children. But it is really sad to see this cultural virtue working for abuse.

None of the seniors wanted me to use their real names. They were still hoping to mend broken relationships with their children and live together like a loving family again. This is also a big challenge social workers face-the usual restraining order doesn't often work in this community.

This story caught the attention of the team of senior abuse cases at the Manhattan DA's office. They told me that they've been trying to reach out to the Asian community in New York City, but they still do not get as many complaints as they do from other communities. A workshop the DA office held in New York's Chinatown a couple of days after the story was published highlighted the silence of abuse victims.

Also, a few days later, a well known retired Chinese professor from the City University of New York called me and told me her story of becoming the victim of senior abuse. The case is still under investigation but her story, which ended up in our newspaper, has undoubtedly caught the community's attention on the issue of senior abuse once again.

And for me, it is the best reward to see that the stories have had some effect. Also, I feel I am now addicted to doing stories that can give a voice to people who are normally silent. It's not an easy thing to do, but once you manage to do it, all the frustrations of reporting on taboo subjects make the successes even more rewarding.