The stigma that entails mental health has been an undeniable aspect of Asian communities, acknowledged by both those who support and those who challenge that mindset.
Especially amongst the youth, the expectations of how to behave and perform has created a culture of competition, frequently accompanied by misery, as the expectation to excel coupled with the dismissal of mental health becomes too much to bear.
Though this traditional mindset has become an object of scrutiny in more recent times, it is still an undeniable presence for many students who still bear the pressure of the relentless Asian culture.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the nation has been put under lockdown, leaving us with more time on our hands than we could have ever imagined.
While this time apart from normal routines is the consequence of an unfortunate event, it has also become an opportunity for many people to pause, catch their breath, and take care of themselves.
Yet, within Asian communities, has quarantine been a time of relaxation and self-reflection, or has it become another contest for productivity and achievement?
In an attempt to explore how quarantine may be affecting students in terms of their academics-related stress, I asked seven Asian high school students from La Cañada High School about their experiences so far.
Notably, most of the students seemed to be spending their time just catching up with school work, exercising, indulging in hobbies, watching movies and reading books, or even just binging TV shows or YouTube videos.
Multiple students described their fulfilling sleep schedule, which was almost double the amount they would get on a normal school day — one student even jokingly told me that they were getting 14 hours of sleep everyday.
“I go out everyday (while social distancing, of course). I like to go hiking and I also go skating because I recently bought new skates,” sophomore Seojin Yun said.
It seems to be a common theme that people, whether it be adults or students, are taking this time to teach themselves or learn something new, now that they have the time.
A couple people even mentioned keeping a journal so that they can keep an account of these unprecedented times. Though school and relationships are important, it was interesting to see how some people prioritized documenting this unique experience and reflecting on it, rather than solely focusing on personal goals.
As a general pattern, contrary to expectations, many students seem to be leaning towards spending quarantine time as an opportunity to unwind and get caught up.
Surprised by their answers, I then confirmed with the students whether they considered this time to be more relaxing and laid-back or more stressful than before.
While a couple students denoted anxiety from the overall effects of the virus and concern for those around them, most students seemed to consider this time as a break and a time to relax.
“It’s been quite stress free since I’ve been doing pretty much nothing and my grades and extracurricular don’t matter since they’re fixed or canceled, respectively,” freshman Elyse Hwang said.
With schools and organizations in disarray from the sudden and progressing crisis, many districts, including La Cañada, have put grades on hold for the time being. Though it’s implied that students should still be keeping up with classes, it’s easy to see why students don’t feel as pressured academically now versus regular times.
“I’ve been more laid back in terms of scheduling, but it’s been mostly stressful with the constant disturbances around me and having no freedom,” sophomore Kiani Batsle said.
Instead of being school-related, the stress that students did receive — if any — seemed to be from not being able to go outside or interact with friends.
Finally, I asked each of the students whether or not they felt more pressure to be productive and use this time to “get ahead” of other students, in order to try to get a grasp of whether the stereotypical competitive nature of Asian students still applied during this time.
“I don’t necessarily feel massive pressure, but I know it is right for me to take this time as an opportunity to improve and get ahead or catch up on things,” sophomore Phoebe Luo said.
Students continue their studies, and mostly use their extra time to take care of themselves and try new hobbies, rather than challenging or overworking themselves.
“I don’t really feel pressure, I just try to do what I want to do,” Jimin Yoo said.
However, there were also differing responses — in reference to her conflict over what she should be doing or feeling.
“To be honest I don’t really know. I just want to do what I can and get things in order, and since I think it’s hard to get a clear definition of either of those things, I think I’ll just try to make the next day better in either way,” Kiani said.
There were even students feeling like they were “falling behind” and not doing as much as they should.
“I think that there’s something about just not having as much to do because my normal schedule is thrown off. I feel like I’m getting a lot less work done. I don’t really know what other people are doing, but I think I should be doing more,” sophomore Connor Lee said.
While some students may feel more leisure with lax academics and extra time, it’s undeniable that there’s a sense of needing to be productive during this time.
Personally, this is the way I’ve been feeling for the past few weeks. The first couple days of quarantine were similar to those of everyone else’s — I got to catch up with assignments, avoid studying for tests, take time to finish reading books, and most importantly spend more time with my family.
However, as days passed, I started feeling this growing sense of panic, almost to the point of hysteria, that I needed to be doing more.
After all, this extended period of quarantine has graced most people with more time so much extra time, and because this opportunity will (hopefully) never come again, I feel the need to be productive and more ambitious.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to teach myself two new languages, sign up for as many online courses as I can, learn a new instrument, improve my art skills, read a book each week, expand my writing to a more creative and personalized craft — just to name a few things — all the while emailing teachers, even writing extra essays, and studying as if I have a test in every subject.
Compared to the normal school day when I could use assignments as an excuse to put off something, the urge to overachieve looms over me more now, and I’ve been feeling much more stressed than ever before.
Being in a competitive environment and constantly pushing myself to my limits has been a norm for me — not because of exterior pressure, but simply because I thrive off of learning and achieving.
But as much as it is a personal characteristic, I also think that it’s a product of the stereotypically Asian mindsets I’ve seen in people around me — more so with the media, peers, and generalizations than with my parents.
And at some point, this ambition can become overwhelming, and I don’t have a way to moderate it. I’ve always been under the impression that I should be strong and independent, and that the ups and downs of my mental health are just phases or exaggerations that I have to get over.
If I’m being honest, I still harbor that habit of prioritizing other things before my mental health. But with quarantine providing more time to reflect on how I’ve been doing, I’ve realized that my neglect of mental health has taken a toll on me, and I’m feeling more burned out than ever before.
Though I can’t speak for everyone, most of the students I conversed with gave me the impression that they were content with where they were, just doing things that made them happy and keeping up with normal routines as much as they could.
When I confronted the observation, I asked a couple students about their thoughts on productivity and mental health during this time.
“Mental health always comes first. If you’re not in a good state of mind, then you don’t have the headspace to be ambitious or take advantage of this opportunity,” sophomore Colin Wang offered.
I still struggle with seeing the value of mental health over other aspects of my life, namely my achievements and academic life.
However, I’m starting to see that it has a greater impact on my productivity than I had anticipated, and that things have been backfiring more often than not due to my continuous hesitance.
Because my experience differed so vastly from that of other high-achieving students that I interviewed, I was taken aback. I had thought my tendencies were due to the stereotypical Asian culture, but based on other people’s accounts, I’ve noticed a gradual shift in a lot of people’s mindsets regarding self-care and productivity during quarantine.
My personal experience is certainly not everyone’s, and that’s apparent even in the contrasting experiences of the peers I thought would be most similar to me.
Yet, I think there is something to be said about re-evaluating quarantine as an opportunity, not to “get ahead” or be more ambitious, but first keeping oneself in check and allowing breathing room, even when it seems unnecessary.
While the stigma around mental health, especially within Asian communities, continues to manifest even in modern generations, it was uplifting to see that more people are starting to see the value of self-care.
Through exploring the effects of quarantine on the productivity of several Asian students, I was able to get a glimpse of that shift, which I hope will be something that increasingly embeds itself in the strain of Asian culture to produce a more understanding and accepting future.