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Reflections as an Asian American and a Psychologist during COVID-19

By Ya-Shu Liang, Ph.D.

May is both Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month and Mental Health Awareness Month, so during this time each year, I often reflect on my identity as both an Asian American and a licensed psychologist, thinking about what I have done and could still do for each of these communities.

Last May, I moderated a panel discussion on Asian Pacific Islander (API) mental health at a local state university and continued working to decrease mental health stigma in our API communities.  This year, May 1st marked Day 47 of California’s shelter-in-place order, which came in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  One week earlier, I had been interviewed by a local TV station about an anti-Asian sign posted at a restaurant just 2 miles from my home, and the day after that, I had spoken on a panel for a group of Asian American professionals, addressing not only the stressfulness of these challenging times, but also how to manage the added stress of facing xenophobia and racism amplified by the pandemic.  What a change compared to previous years!  I felt like we were regressing!

But I get it. I understand people’s anger and frustration toward this sudden pandemic, the many abrupt changes to our lives, and the sacrifices we all must make.  As a psychologist, I understand that people are on edge and, when people are on edge, they often look for something or someone to blame.  It might feel good in the moment to externalize one’s existential angst, and because the virus first appeared in Central China, many people have lashed out at Asian Americans.  Sadly, this is not the first time Asian Americans have borne unjust blame.  There was the Chinese Exclusion Act of the 1880s, then the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII, and then the Muslim bans after 9/11 in this century.  Asian Americans are viewed as ‘perpetual foreigners,’ and ‘foreign’ things are often seen as scary and easy to jettison if they are inconvenient to us.  In other words, history’s tendency to repeat itself has been weighing heavily on me.

During the first weeks of the pandemic, I had not done much for my communities, especially the API community. I had felt silenced and inhibited by the xenophobia and racism that many, if not all, Asian Americans could sense in the air.  It was the fear of being told to ‘go back to your own country’—something I had occasionally felt before becoming a U.S. citizen.  In retrospect, the xenophobia and racism hit too close to home, and addressing xenophobia and racism to alleviate my discomfort seemed utterly selfish.

Naming these feelings and listening to others in my communities helped me emerge from that place of feeling hindered and restricted.  Slowly, I began to hold community check-in sessions with API students on my campus, my fellow mental health providers, and my API sisters from the San Joaquin Valley.  As I did, I heard similar stories over and over, full of fear and doubt, but at the same time, hope and a desire to build a better place for all people and for our future generations.  In their stories, I found the strength to address these injustices, both WITH them and FOR them.

Here are a few of the things that have occupied my mind over the past two months.  I have been thinking about my friends who avoid going out except to buy food at Asian markets.  I have been thinking about my Asian American student who talked about strategizing with family members before they went grocery shopping, discussing what to do if they were attacked, verbally or physically.  I have been thinking about elderly members of our local Asian refugee community, whose trauma has been exacerbated by the pandemic.  I have been thinking about my uncle, cousins, and friends who are Asian American frontline healthcare providers.

I still think about them, and they are my cornerstones.  Now, I think about what I can do to help others understand the impact of racism and xenophobia.  I focus on the spaces where I have an influence, such as in my academic program, with my board members, and in my community of local mental health providers.  I lean on my knowledge of multicultural and feminist psychology to guide me through this.  I use my community organizing skills to develop workshops, presentations, and healing circles.  Now I am not doing this only for myself but also for my students, staff, and faculty on campus, as well as our community residents, API or not.

As I ponder how best to continue building spaces that are inclusive and infused with social justice, I wish to ask: How about you?  What can you do to address and change social inequities and injustice?  How can you use your roles in society and your resources to build spaces that are welcoming, understanding, and inclusive for the people around you and in your local and professional communities? 

About the Author

Ya-Shu Liang, Ph.D. is director of the Clinical Psychology PsyD Program for Alliant’s Fresno campus.  She teaches courses on clinical supervision, eating and body image issues, data analysis, and research methods.  She also engages students and faculty in creating projects that are community-minded and advocacy-focused.  She has won awards for community leadership and is passionate about increasing mental health literacy, especially in California’s San Joaquin Valley, which she calls home. 

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