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Beyond Borders: Caught Between Two Cultures

Ambi: music of South Asia

In his downtown apartment overlooking the Chicago River, 34-year-old Suresh Unni pages through an album of family photos. 

UNNI:  This is my brother Dosh with one of his best friends that he went to grade school with.  They're at the Jerry Springer Show, in the audience in Chicago. 

HAUSMAN: What possessed them to go to the Jerry Springer Show?

UNNI:  It was just kind of in their nature.  They had a lot of fun together, and  thought it would be a unique experience. 

Suresh, Dosh and their older brother Ramesh grew up in Northern Indiana – sons of a doctor and his wife who moved here from India in 1970. 

They had many relatives and close Indian friends, so it wasn't hard to preserve their culture, even as these Hindu boys attended Catholic School, made friends with classmates and watched American TV shows.

Suresh says Dosh was popular, easy going and funny, a ladies man who once made his girlfriend hide in the basement when his parents returned unexpectedly. 

UNNI:  So when my parents came home, y'know my dad wanted to play ping pong with him and it was in the basement, so they went down there for like a half hour, and when the game was done and they were walking upstairs, he told her to leave, and my mom was standing upstairs in the kitchen and saw her running down the driveway, and he was busted.

After high school, Dosh enrolled at Indiana University.  But during his sophomore year, he had some hard times.  A close friend was killed in a car crash, and on a trip to Boston, Dosh was beaten up by some racist thugs.  He decided to drop out of school and asked Suresh to come and get him:

UNNI:  We drove home, and I just remember him crying at the time.  It was very difficult seeing him go thru that.

Dosh said he felt like a failure and worried that his family was ashamed of him for dropping out. The family pressed him to meet with a psychiatrist, but Dosh secretly stopped taking the medicine prescribed for him.  Still in early December, he seemed better, so his parents went off to visit relatives, and Suresh left for class.  A few hours later, he got devastating news.

UNNI:  I called home and talked to my dad, and he told me that they went to my uncle's, and when they got home they walked to the basement and found Dosh, and he had hung himself.

The tragedy and the mystery of Dosh Unni's death sent Suresh on a quest – to understand why a kid with so much personality and promise would take his own life. Suresh got in touch with Dr. Aruna Jha, an assistant research professor at the University of Illinois College of Nursing. 

JHA:  Suicide is affecting all our communities, so we need to get past the stima and come together to talk about it. 

Jha founded the Asian-American Suicide Prevention Initiative in 2005, the first organization of its kind in the nation.  It's brought together more than 100 mental health professionals and volunteers to address what Jha sees as a crisis. 

Asian kids are at increased risk for depression and suicide, because they're caught between two very different cultures.  Asians teach strict obedience to parents – even when children are grown, while American culture aspires to raise kids who become their parents' equal:

JHA:  Kids are being told, for example, on university campuses, that you're adult now -- you should talk in your own right as your own person, so the cultural conflict that they experience is when they go back home.  They have to revert to the Asian norm, which is "You don't talk back to me." 

She says young Asian women are more vulnerable than men, and studies do show that Asian girls are more likely than their non-Asian peers to attempt suicide.  The same may be true for boys, but Jha says it's hard to know:

JHA:  Many times suicides are masked in the context of an accident.  Y'know how do you know that it wasn't an actual suicide when somebody drove their car and rammed it into a pole? 

Asian teens may also be troubled by the fact that their appearance will always set them apart.  This twenty-three-year-old man, a Korean-American who calls himself Andre Wu, still remembers classmates calling him a “chink” when he was eight:

WU: All of a sudden I became very aware that I was not part of that world. I could never be fully accepted. 

And, he says, the culture expects Asians to be quiet and brilliant -- to excel in school and choose careers in medicine, law or business.  So do Asian parents, and if kids are drawn to other fields or are not gifted students, they may bring shame on the family:

WU:  Because on paper we're failures.  If your child doesn't reach that status, it reflects poorly on your parenting and on you.
He doesn't blame Asian parents.  They mean well, and often they suffer too when cultures collide. 

Ambi: counseling session in Thai

At Asian Human Services in Uptown, more than 12,000 immigrants share their fears and disappointments in 26 different languages.  This woman, 66-year-old Dara, was divorced when her two sons were young. 

She raised them by herself in Thailand, but when they reached adolescence they wanted to join their dad who had moved to Chicago.  So the kids left, and it took seven years for Dara to get permission to immigrate.  By then, her sons had become Americans. 

DARA:  I want to be close to them, and then when I came here, I met them, I feel so disappoint.  They talk to me in Thai -- nice, polite, gentle, but over here they're, "Hey, Mom, whoa" -- like that. I feel so, so, so sad.  They have a girlfriend, and they live with a girlfriend now, and then after that they married. and then I suffer, suffer until I got sick. I cannot eat. I cannot walk. I give up.  I want to die.

Fortunately, Dara got counseling.  She now has her own apartment, has made friends and is happy with her new life in Chicago, but Asian-Americans are the least likely ethnic group to seek mental health care.  Aruna Jha says the Asian-American Suicide Prevention Initiative or “AASPI” is gearing up to change that – to teach immigrants about resources beyond the family:

JHA:  Not one of the Asian countries has a formal health care service delivery system the way we have it in the United States or let's even just talk about Illinois. If Asians are not going to come to the service provider, we need to figure out ways for the service providers to reach out to them.

AASPI is now designing a website, has launched a blog and is planning a series of public workshops in Chicago and around the country to let Asian communities know about cultural differences, risk factors for emotional problems and the fact that in America it's okay to ask for help.

For Chicago Public Radio, I'm Sandy Hausman.

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