Hika's Story: Eating Disorders in Asian Culture
By Hika Kukita, ANAD Volunteer
Hika (Hee-kah) Kukita is a Japanese cisgender straight female from a middle SES household. In addition to being an ANAD volunteer, she is finishing up her second Bachelor’s degree in Psychology at Linfield University in Oregon. After graduation, she will move on to a Masters of Social Work Program at Portland State University. Hika aspires to work with young folks in the minority groups in a mental health field as a social worker, and specifically in the community mental health setting to empower them, help them to find strength in themselves, and navigate their lives despite the systemic oppressions they face in their everyday lives.
My eating disorder story is pretty complicated but what is different from the stories that probably many people here in the US have is that I did not go through the treatment for the most part. When my ED was the most powerful, there were no treatment facilities like the American ones, so I stayed at a psychiatry ward in a hospital and received “treatment” by a psychiatrist. No therapy, no nutrition counseling. I had been flirting with quasi-recovery for a while until I finally made my mind to commit to recovery.
At that time, I was fortunate enough to find a HAES dietitian while I was studying abroad in Seattle. They were kind enough to see me on a sliding scale since I did not have insurance. They helped me a lot, while I was doing the work to unlearn diet culture and my fat phobia by myself, using the resources on social media (thanks to fat activists and recovery advocates as well as ED specialists).
Recovery took a while and I was not able to receive emotional support from my immediate family but thanks to supporters from different area of my life, I was able to get to the point where I am now, and I do not think about food, body, and body movement in the way that I used to when I was struggling. It is very freeing. Not only did I gain weight, but I gained connection with others, healthy relationships with food and body movement, confidence and more!
At the same time, I acknowledge my thin privilege that made me not “have to” deal with the oppression that people in larger bodies are exposed to daily and that makes their recovery even harder as well as my financial privilege to be able to access to the support that cost money though I am not coming from a high class family. I am still learning how to take better care of myself and become whole. Like many people, I am a work in progress and it is a damn amazing thing! Using my experience, I would like to keep empowering people who are in a rough chapter of their lives and be supportive of them.
Shame, Stigma, and Linguistics
Shame plays a big role in preventing Asian people from seeking treatment. Like mental health stigma in many Western countries, having mental health issues is associated with being weak. Self-discipline and will-power are highly valued in many Asian countries (at least my country Japan), and having a hard time doing “normal simple things” that many people can do without actively trying because of the mental health struggle is, for many people, hard to fathom. Those who have mental health challenges are seen as weak and even though it is not verbalized, you get the sense of being judged as “less than …” Some people, like family members, even put them into words. My mother did. They say that out of “concern” not much for the individuals struggling but rather for themselves, thinking about what other people (neighbors etc.) see themselves having a person with mental health issues in the family.
Mental health is still a very taboo topic at least in Japan. Many people do not talk about “negative stuff” because it disrupts the “harmony” or the space for interpersonal connection, which is highly valued in many countries with relational culture.
Many people in Asia still think of stereotypical “looks” when it comes to ED. There is no space for those who are not female and do not fit into the “categories” and are struggling with ED.
There is also a lack of vocabulary that captures the mental experience is very hard for those who struggle to even understand and talk about what they are going through. For example, I do not find the same equivalent kind of translation for “overwhelming” in my first language. I remember when I did therapy for the first time in my life, I was so amazed and felt a sense of relief, being able to actually externalize my mental health struggle, and finding vocabulary to it.
Different cultures, different foods
When I was in the US, I did not have a problem trying out the meal ideas written on the “meal plan”, although I remember I craved my cultural or Asian food in general and I did not know how I could apply it to my meal plan. Because there were no Asian food options in the meal ideas I received. Well, except for rice!
When I went back to my country, I had a hard time figuring out how to follow the meal plan and practice the plate-by-plate approach because Japanese meals are not plate based. Typical Japanese meals consist of: some sort of main dish, side dishes along with a bowl of rice and miso soup.
There were no meals like this in the book, so I almost panicked. I did not have this kind of struggle when I was in the US because I was an adult. I was able to make a decision on what to eat and also I was living with a white host family. However, younger children who are struggling with an eating disorder and are still depending on their Asian American parents can experience this particular challenge.
It is very important to see others who look like me and share my background. The eating disorder experience itself is very isolating. It is still nice to see other people who are in the recovery journey in general but there is something that only people from diverse cultural backgrounds get with each other. The struggle that is particular to BIPOC. I experience it each time I lead the BIPOC support group.
Seeing people from your race and ethnicity in the eating disorder recovery space definitely makes people feel less alone and more hopeful. More recovery warriors of color and more clinicians of color please!!!
Speaking of which, we also need to have more Asian folks in eating disorders studies and more Asian clinicians representations in the field. More education on Asian culture regarding mental health, value system, and food culture. Amplifying the voices of Asian recovery warriors and/or Asian people who went through ED.
Tips & Resources
To fellow Asian folks out there struggling, it might be extremely challenging to have parents understand your experiences and mental health struggles. I remember once I stopped trying to make my parents understand mental health and what I was experiencing, not giving up but letting it go, allowing myself to be okay with it despite the sad feelings coming along with it, I felt some sort of sense of relief. Yes, it is totally valid that you want to be understood by family and it is not that they do not care about you, sometimes, mental health related anything is what takes a hot minute for them to understand because they grew up in an environment where mental health was very stigmatized. It is not possible for them to understand (I believe and I hope ) but it might not be a “right time” for them to expose themselves to change from a very stigmatizing place to a completely understanding place. You might want to, but you do not need to put your 100% into making your parents understand you.
Parents are not only people who are your support system. There might be other people who can understand you better and give you the support that you really need to get through the recovery process. Parents might eventually be more open to the mental health topic but maybe not. My mother was not able to when I was struggling the most. But she slowly became less allergic to the topic since she was exposed to more people fighting mental health challenges. It was like she peeled her mental health onion layers very very slowly. Though her mental health acceptance did not catch up with my recovery journey, and she is still not completely okay with the topic, She can hold mental health related conversations with me for a good minute. Letting go can be hard AND it can be very helpful. Know that parents are not the only people who can support you.