Jenny Wang talks mental health and Asian identity
On March 9, psychologist and author Jenny Wang visited Yale to give two talks on mental health and Asian identities, a lunch conversation at the AACC and then an evening one at 53 Wall St.
Linxi Cindy Zeng, Contributing Photographer
During a conversation at the Asian American Cultural Center on March 9, psychologist Jenny Tzu-Mei Wang opened up about the stigmatization of mental health challenges in AAPI communities and the inspiration behind her 2022 book: “Permission to Come Home” — a resource aimed at helping Asian Americans reclaim their psychological narratives.
The event saw attendance from undergraduate and graduate students, Assistant Dean and AACC Director Joliana Yee and several staff members from Yale Mental Health and Counseling. Event moderator Melodie Grace Liu GRD ’27 kicked off the afternoon by reading a section of the book that explored compassion, an entity that Wang referred to as the “final” and perhaps most “elusive” condition in the “search for home.”
That search for belonging has cemented itself as the core of Wang’s own pursuit of psychology, which started with self-introspection and the comfort of being open with herself.
“I’m a firm believer that my ability to be present with the people who need me really depends on my ability to understand my struggle [and] my wounds first,” Wang said. “I use this analogy a lot — like if I have a gash in my arm, and then somebody says to me I have a cut in my leg, I’m gonna have a hard time paying attention to the fact that they have a cut in their life, because I’m also struggling. And so until I can get to a point where I feel strong enough to carry my struggle, I’m gonna have a really hard time holding somebody’s presence [and] holding that space for them.”
Wang knew what the title of her book would be before she wrote the first word, and she fought to make sure that those four words made it to the final print cover in bookstores all across the country. The word “permission,” though conducive to some type of submission and allocating of power to an authority different from myself, is a paradox in her writing.
In a way, by making “permission” the first word of every chapter title, as in “Permission to Feel Rage” or “Permission to Question,” Wang hoped to communicate that the utmost form of spiritual, psychological and universal permission comes from within the individual requesting permission, and that the choice to live our lives unapologetically is one every person must remember to keep.
The word “home” then includes whatever new spaces or families that one encounters along the “developmental” road to self-discovery and healing, a universal journey that she said both the youth and elderly generations find themselves partaking in, even if not explicitly admitted. Sometimes, verbal discussion of past trauma, or concrete mental health tips and suggestions, are not the most familiar avenues of communication for AAPI adults — and achieving a productive healing session is a two-way street, she said.
“Modeling the … early stages of grief and mental health… doesn’t always look like: let’s sit down, talk about all your traumas, all of [these things] that the elderly spent a lifetime trying to protect,” Wang said. “Maybe it’s not the talking, [but] the being with. Let me watch a drama, right, let me do something that helps my body feel safe and [that makes them] feel safe with me.”
According to Wang, the immigrant experience has been so “colored by the ‘hard’” in media or historical accounts that the Western society forgets about the more poignant, beautiful moments embedded within immigrant struggle, and how acknowledging those moments can allow us to celebrate shared identities and slowly heal intergenerational trauma.
She remembered a time when her mother told her stories about skipping school as a child to pick mangoes off other people’s trees, or the times when she would chat with her mother as they prepared vegetables and washed rice together. These are memories that she saved and later found herself telling her own children, who were then able to develop a more complete, vulnerable understanding of their grandparents outside of what a disagreement may suggest about the other party.
Recognizing that parents and grandparents, the same people one might disagree with over queer identities, interracial marriage and non-traditional job prospects are humans with human hurts is an important first step to understanding the love they have for their descendants, Wang continued.
Growing up, Wang’s own parents frequently advised her not to wear clothes with print or to “be anything loud” — and it wasn’t until she was a little older that she started asking herself what it was that her parents wanted to achieve, and what those questions revealed about the trauma of immigration, expulsion, poverty and discrimination that previous generations endured.
Accepting that the two generations will never fully understand one another, or be completely transparent about their internal cracks and breaks, is a form of peace, Wang has come to learn, revealing that for the rest of her life, her relationship with her own father will also be a forever changing one.
“There will not be an endpoint where I’m like, we’re good, because the complexity of our relationship has been lifelong,” she said, drawing attention to the impact of making micro-adjustments rather than expecting sudden, large changes in attitude or behavior. “A few months ago, there was an intense conflict in my home, and he cried in front of me for the first time. And I remember thinking, oh my gosh, this is a breakthrough moment [that] you felt safe enough with me that after 40 years, you shed tears.”
Recalling that moment, Wang shed a few of her own tears in front of her listeners. An attendee then brought forward their own experiences being involved in an interracial relationship, and what it is like to have that part of herself rejected by their parents.
However, for the attendee, the similar moments of mundane and simplicity that Wang highlighted — such as washing rice and eating dinner together — have proven to be almost a form of “erasure” and “distraction” from the greater problems at large that never find resolution or verbal representation.
“I think our parents have their own histories, their own biases, their own perspectives that can carry into how they interact with us. And you’re right — especially with parts of ourselves that we hold so close, when they ignore them, it is extremely painful,” Wang said. “I think what I’ve seen and observed in my life is that at the end of the day, you are the one living your life.”
Wang then posed a rhetorical question to the room at large: How long can a person live in a misaligned way? It is when the seeker becomes the granter that one starts finding true self-alignment and new communities to honor identities rejected by the more traditional biological nuclear family, she said.
For Liu, one of the elements of the talk that stood out was the way that Wang managed to “really come into [her]self and work on [her]self in relation to doing work for the community.”
Over the years as a psychologist and therapist who began her academic trajectory as an economics major at the University of Texas in Austin before she wanted to pursue something more “life-giving,” Wang noticed just how few adults — despite the incredible climbs and milestones they have seen achieved in life — have “balance” in juggling internal and external needs. She looks forward to the day that communities everywhere can be open about incorporating wellness and interdisciplinary psychology into their everyday living, no matter their goals, pursuits and dreams.
“For me, Dr. Wang’s talk really underlined the importance of having honest conversations about mental health and of taking the time to understand how someone’s culture or background might inform their approach to mental health, lessons that I will definitely take with me as I continue through medical school,” attendee Sarah Ho MED ’26 wrote to the News.
Ho emphasized that customizing treatment to every individual in consideration of their background is an integral part to exploring equitable health care, feeling “lucky” that students like herself have “access to spaces” that host thought-provoking, albeit difficult cultural conversations.
And one day, her own two kids will too be sitting in a space like the AACC, Wang noted toward the end of the talk. A decade or so down the road when they are in college or graduate school, they will be asking the same questions — and that was what motivated her to be piercingly candid in her writing, she said.
She wanted them to “hear her voice” through the book long after the ideas for every word had been conceived.
The AACC is located at 295 Crown St.