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There is no pride in suffering. Stop asking Asians to suck it up

The other day, I was telling a friend about mindfulness, stress, resistance to stress and suffering, and he responded by saying these are such “American” ideas. By which he probably meant “Western”. His view? Asians don’t think much about “stress” and simply get on with it. 

All of which is true. Yet the notion that stress is a purely Western concept, viewed solely through a negative lens, while Asians experience stress with a detached acceptance, is an oversimplification that is dangerous and unhelpful for future generations. 

Stress: Western or Asian?

Pop psychology tells us Westerners are consumed by stress, while Asians have a healthier, more accepting relationship with it. This view is false!

The Influence of Culture on Stress

It's true that cultures shape how we understand and respond to stress. Research suggests:

  • Collectivistic vs. Individualistic: In collectivist cultures like many in Asia, there's an emphasis on interdependence and social harmony. Stress may be seen as a shared burden, managed together, potentially diffusing its negative connotations. Contrast this to the emphasis on individual achievement in Western societies, where stress can become tied to personal failure.

  • Stoic Traditions: Buddhism and Taoism promote accepting hardship, including internal struggle, with equanimity. This doesn't negate suffering, but encourages a less reactive, more mindful approach. We assume much of Asia subscribes to this approach. 

  • Language Matters: How cultures even talk about stress influences its perception. Some Asian languages have less pathologizing terms, focusing on discomfort that can be endured and overcome.

The Limits of Stereotypes

It's dangerous to romanticize Asia as relatively more immune to, or built to withstand, the ravages of stress. Consider these reasons:

  • Globalization: The Western model of relentless productivity is seeping into Asian nations. Look at China and India. What about Singapore? Japan's "karoshi" (death from overwork) is an extreme example, but the pressure to succeed takes an undeniable toll.

  • Mental Health Stigma: Even in cultures emphasizing acceptance, strong stoicism can prevent seeking help. Asian families accept obligations and their roles in life, but when the resentment builds Asians don’t necessarily talk about it or have family discussions on how to resolve the stress. Rates of depression and anxiety aren't inherently lower in the East, but may be underreported or masked by somatic symptoms (physical complaints without obvious medical cause).

  • Evolving Concepts: The Western medicalization of stress has both good and bad aspects. It legitimizes mental suffering, but can also push for quick-fix solutions, rather than addressing root causes.

What Does This Mean?

  1. Stress is Universal: The human mind doesn’t know if you’re Asian or Western. It just responds to stress. All humans experience it, though how we express and cope differs greatly.

  2. Nuance, not Opposition: There's wisdom to be learned from different cultural approaches. I often feel that the West could benefit from a less panicked view of stress that borders on overindulgence and naval-gazing. Asian societies, though, need to stop heroizing Stoic Suffering, Forbearance and Pragmatism.

  3. Individual Within Culture: Even within seemingly homogenous groups, experiences are diverse. A stressed-out young mother in Tokyo likely has more in common with her New York counterpart than with an older, rural farmer in her own country. Also, with so many Asian metropolises being commercial centres, Asians are professionalizing in similar ways to their Western peers. Our lifestyles, worldviews and habits converge, as do our stresses. We are more similar to urban Westerners than we like to admit. 

The idea of an "Asian immunity" to stress harms us all. It perpetuates “Asian pragmatism" myths, and risks dismissing very real suffering. Instead, we should acknowledge that Asians, too, need help and render the help when it’s asked, rather than asking our peers to suck it up. There is no pride in ignorance or in pride itself.

What’s the actionable takeaway? 

When you’re stressed, you’re stressed. Don’t be stoic or ask others to be stoic. Get help, or point that person to help.

Further Reading (Example Sources):

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