An Asian American’s Language of Mental Health: Empowerment and Understanding through Conversation

By: Cindy A. Nguyen

By learning the language of mental health, I empower myself.

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I never learned the word “mental health” in English (my language of primary expression) until my 20’s. It took nearly another decade until I actually began to understand what it even meant. I am still learning this word in Vietnamese (my language of communication with my parents).

However, language is more than the sum of vocabulary words. Language is context, subtle unspoken gestures, symbolic actions and its mis/interpretations. Language is when my mom made me canh khổ qua (bittermelon soup, my favorite) after I mumbled through tears that I needed to get mental health support.

Photo of Cindy A. Nguyen

My mother did not comprehend the precise words I used, because my second generation Vietnamese language capacity only permitted me to express something along the lines of the following:

  • “These days…it’s been hard for me. [Mấy ngày này…rất khó cho con.]”
  • “I don’t feel so good. [Con cảm thấy…không tốt.]”
  • “Tired, disappointed…I don’t understand why. [Mệt, thất vọng…con không hiểu tại sao.]”

Instead of saying with confidence, “I need to get help” the words tangled into a knot in my throat and never formed on my lips.

I was afraid that my mother would brush away my call for help with the platitude “Just endure it, persevere, work harder… [Con cứ chịu khó đi…]” I was afraid that she would not understand the weary and fragile state of my own mental health — words and concepts that I only recently learned carried the name in English, “depression-anxiety.”

“Doctor says I should speak to someone,” I whispered weakly. Out of fear, I surrendered my own agency to an authority figure.

I knew that her generation respected authority figures, particularly doctors, teachers, and priests. These figures had power, and at that moment I felt powerless. I felt devoid of any agency or will because I both emotionally and linguistically did not know the vocabulary to communicate what I needed.

Somehow through the broken Vietnamese and sobs, she understood. “OK, con [OK my child.]” She disappeared into the market and a few hours later comforted me through the gesture of making canh khổ qua — soup and silence.

An Asian American/Vietnamese/Third Culture Kid’s Cultural and Linguistic Language of Mental Health

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How do you address something when you do not have the linguistic and cultural vocabulary to talk about it?

I’m a third culture kid raised on filtered variations of Vietnamese Confucian duty, Catholic guilt, refugee survival, and the American individualist dream. Channel those values through a fragmented bilingual upbringing. Misinterpretation was the state of normalcy throughout my childhood, but more often than not, the silence was the default mode of communication between my family members.

My film on language, love, and memory — “The Undeniable Force of Khó Khăn

I was told over and over that when encountering difficulty one just needed to “chịu khó.” I interpreted this to mean persevere, endure and bear the weight of suffering. Given my parents lifetime of suffering through the Vietnam war, post-war starvation, continual sacrifice, and dangerous escape as refugees, “difficulty” became a permanent everyday part of life. The only cultural and linguistic tool to deal with difficulty was to “chịu khó” — accept it, endure it, normalize it. It was a necessary tactic for survival.

Still from my film on language, love, and memory — “The Undeniable Force of Khó Khăn

However, translated into times of comparative peace and security in an Asian American household, the survival tool of “chịu khó” remained a specter in each of our lives. As a 1.5 generation Vietnamese-American born in a refugee camp, educated in public school ESL (English as a Second Language), I lived between cultural and linguistic universes. We switched between languages and its cultural values, but often we left things unspoken and misunderstood. This meant that as family members difficulty or our own experience and feelings towards pain went silently suppressed or ignored. Sometimes ignoring and letting go fleeting feelings worked; but more often than not the issues seethed into every fiber of our mental and emotional states, a furious weight of torment underneath a fragile veneer of quiet strength.

Learning a New Language, Empowering Myself

Still from my film on language, love, and memory — “The Undeniable Force of Khó Khăn

Since that day, I have been learning the language and culture of mental health in the language of my primary expression (English) and the language of my childhood and cultural background (Vietnamese). By learning the language of mental health, I empower myself. I put words to feelings, thoughts, physical wellbeing and emotional states. By having the power of words and language, I could see more clearly through the darkness and tangled weight of depression-anxiety.

While learning the language of mental health and putting into practice self-care, I found myself in something called a self-compassion support group. There I was told that there was this thing called self-compassion— a seemingly magical tool to help you to listen before judgment. I initially thought it sounded like fluffy, new-age soft excuses for the self-centered privileged.

But then I just listened to others share in the meetings and witnessed the liberating beauty of listening. Others shared their stories of their inner demons, their struggles, their fears. By sharing stories, we created and practiced our own language of mental health; through language, we communicated and made explicable the inexplicable. We listened to others speak and through that listened to our own inner voice. We expressed compassion and understanding to others and sought to practice the same tenderness to ourselves.

“Self-compassion” was a word, a concept, a tool that entered my cultural and linguistic vocabulary to understand and unravel years of quiet, solitary suffering that I had accepted was a state of normalcy. New mental health vocabulary and the language of self-compassion helped to relieve some of the self-judgment, self-flagellation, and self-criticism that someone like me — a third culture kid of refugees, trauma, and immigrant survival — accrued over the years. This new language of mental health offered different world views and alternative everyday tools to help me to listen to my own needs and the needs of others.

Open Conversations about Mental Health [Sức khoẻ tâm thần and Sức khoẻ tinh thần]

Still from my film on language, love, and memory — “The Undeniable Force of Khó Khăn

While writing this essay, I had long conversations with my mom to help me translate the word “mental health” into Vietnamese. I used metaphors and concrete examples such as taking care of our own physical health, the importance of socializing and communication, and issues with my aging grandparents. I refrained from using general and weighted words like “sickness (bệnh)” but rather focused on concrete examples and how it manifested into each of our lives — the debilitating weight of purposelessness, a sense of dread and constant self-hate, and the tangled web of anger and sorrow.

Together my mother and I came up with the word and understanding of mental health as both “sức khoẻ tâm thần” and “sức khoẻ tinh thần” but she said that is not a commonly used Vietnamese word. The word still doesn’t exist in some dictionaries, but can be found in some progressive centers and opinion essays in Vietnamese. She then explained that in her childhood in Vietnam, when anyone discussed mental states people were either cast into the category of “normal (bình thường)” or “crazy (điên).” Even though the linguistic vocabulary was oversimplified into an intolerant construct of “abnormal,” she began to recall countless stories of undiagnosed mental health conditions. After discussing some of the stories and our own experiences, she commented that the word “sức khoẻ tâm thần, (mental health)” feels less foreign and “softer on the ears (nghe em tai hơn).”

These conversations need to happen. Among loved ones, friends, community, strangers, and most importantly with yourself.

Language is Power: A Vietnamese/English Glossary of Powerful Words and Phrases to Speak about Mental Health

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I made a list of words and tools that have empowered me to have a more honest and open communication about my mental health.

These phrases have helped me to communicate more openly with my bilingual, bicultural family, as well as others. I encourage you to make your own glossary toolkit of powerful words and phrases to communicate to your family, friends, loved ones about your mental health. The more we speak and have open-ended discussions about our mental health, the more we understand and empower ourselves and one another.

In these English-Vietnamese examples, I use the pronoun “mình” for “I” and “bạn” for “you.”

  • I need to speak with you. — Mình cần phải nói chuyện với bạn.
  • Please listen to me before you say anything. — Bạn nghe mình nói trước khi bạn nói đi.
  • I need your help. — Mình cần bạn giúp.
  • It’s been difficult for me. — Thời gian này rất khó cho mình.
  • mental health — sức khoẻ tinh thần (related to psychology) and sức khoẻ tâm thần (related to psychiatry)
  • depression — trầm cảm
  • anxiety — lo âu
  • suicide — tự tử
  • I’m worried about you — Mình rất lo cho bạn.
  • Remember to take care of yourself. — Bạn nhớ lo cho bản thân.
  • It’s OK to not feel OK. — Cảm thấy không ổn ư, điều đó không sao đâu.
  • You don’t have to deal with everything by yourself. — Bạn không cần phải giữ hết mọi vấn đề trong lòng một mình.
  • Let’s talk about this or please talk about this with others. — Bạn chia sẻ vấn đề với mình hay nói chuyện với người khác đi.
  • It’s not your fault. — Không phải lỗi bạn.
  • Is there anything I could do to help? — Có cách nào mình giúp bạn được không?
  • I’m always by your side and here to listen. — Mình lúc nào cũng ở bên cạnh bạn để chia sẽ với bạn.

With the help of my kind Korean mother-in-law, here are English — Korean translations:

  • I need to speak with you. — 나는 당신과/ 너와 말하고 싶어요/ 싶어.
  • Please listen to me before you say anything. — 무슨 말을 하시기/하기 전에 내가 하는 말을 잘 들어 주세요/ 줘.
  • I need your help. — 나는 당신의/너의 도움이 필요해요/ 필요해.
  • It’s been difficult for me. — 이 문제는 나에게 오랜 시간 동안 힘들었어요.
  • mental health — 정신적인 건강
  • depression — 우울증
  • anxiety — 걱정
  • suicide -자살
  • I’m worried about you — 나는 당신을/ 너를 걱정해요/ 해.
  • Remember to take care of yourself. — 당신/너 자신을 중요하게 생각하세요/ 생각해.
  • It’s OK to not feel OK. — 모든 것이 좋게 느껴지지 않아도 괜찮읍니다/괜찮아.
  • You don’t have to deal with everything by yourself. — 당신/ 너 혼자서 모든 것을 해결하실 / 할 필요가 없어요/ 없어.
  • Let’s talk about this or please talk about this with others. — 함께 이 문제에 대해 말하거나 다른 사람들과 말씀/ 말을 하시기를 권합니다/ 권해.
  • It’s not your fault. — 이것은 절대 당신의/ 너의 잘못이 아니예요/ 아니야.
  • Is there anything I could do to help? — 내가 당신을/ 너를 위해 도움을 줄수 있는 문제가 더 있어요/ 있니?
  • I’m always by your side and here to listen. — 나는 항상 당신의/ 너의 편이고 당신의/ 너의 말을 들어줄수가 있어요/있어.
  • I wish you trust me/ or open your mind to me.- 나는 당신이/ 너가 나를 믿기를 소원해요./ 나에게 당신의/ 너의 마음을 열어 주기를 원해요/ 원해.

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