When a gunman killed eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent, at three spas in the Atlanta area on March 16, 2021, something shifted deep inside of me. I still looked like the same woman on the outside—a dark-haired, brown-skinned, 34-year-old woman—but I felt exposed, keenly aware of and self-conscious about the color of my skin. I was suddenly Asian.

As the daughter of a Thai father and Chinese mother, I’ve always been aware of my heritage, but like many second-generation Americans who were brought up in mostly Caucasian communities, I strove to assimilate in white spaces. In public, I found solace in not drawing attention to my roots, in letting my ancestry be a quiet part of my identity in order to fit in with the majority. That chameleonlike part of me disappeared in early April 2021, when I found myself bawling uncontrollably in the shower one night. When I came out of the bathroom, my husband asked me what was wrong. I replied: “People are killing people who look like me.

In the months that followed that mass shooting—which brought attention to the increase in racism toward members of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities in the United States since the onset of the pandemic in 2020—I looked at the world with suspicious eyes. Every attack I became aware of, from the assaults on elderly individuals in Chinatowns in New York City and San Francisco to the threatening comments sent to a Japanese restaurant owner in Arvada, conjured mental images of my mother and father getting pushed into oncoming traffic or being bullied at the grocery store.

But my thoughts weren’t just consumed by the well-being and whereabouts of my family members. I became anxious about my Asian American identity, about how I was perceived and seen by others, and about my place in the communities associated with my background that felt somewhat foreign to me. I didn’t know what was happening in my psyche, and I didn’t know who to turn to.

I soon found out I wasn’t alone.

“You look like you’re trembling inside,” said Masako Suzuki as we stood in front of the brightly lit, dessert-stocked counter at Beard Papa’s off South Colorado Boulevard. It was a sweltering day in July 2022 and Suzuki, a licensed professional counselor who specializes in treating individuals struggling with mental health issues related to self and cross-cultural identities and immigration, insisted on buying me a treat after I had interviewed her. My eyes welled with tears, and my voice cracked as I told her how hard I thought it would be for me to write a reported essay about the mental health of AAPI individuals in the post-Atlanta-massacre world.

A few minutes earlier, we had been next door at Jaya Asian Grill and discussed what Suzuki called a racial reckoning among Asian Americans, including many of her clients, after the mass shooting. “Because of [the gunman’s] objectifying of Asian women as sexual objects and fetishizing their exotic sexual features, [he was] dehumanizing individuals who are part of communities that we belong to,” says Suzuki, who moved to the United States from Japan in 1995. “So that erupted a lot of clients to recognize that: I am so Asian. What am I gonna do with this? I don’t feel safe.”

After the March 2021 tragedy, Suzuki saw a rise in appointment requests at her private Cory-Merrill practice, which serves a 70 percent Asian clientele. Like other individuals who experience or witness trauma, some felt uneasy after the event about activities they used to undertake without hesitation, such as riding public transportation or pumping gas, for fear of suffering verbal or physical abuse. But the shooting also pushed many Asian Americans, me included, to confront the burdens we perhaps unknowingly carried as descendants of immigrants and refugees.

Incidents of hateful rhetoric and violence directed at AAPI individuals aren’t new; in fact, examples of AAPI racism have been particularly abhorrent in the Centennial State. In 1880, a race riot decimated Denver’s Chinatown, a five-block stretch of Wazee Street then called Hop Alley. During World War II, more than 10,000 Japanese Americans were interned by the U.S. government at Grenada Relocation Camp in southeast Colorado. When COVID-19 arrived in the United States, politicians like former President Donald Trump and U.S. Representative Lauren Boebert from Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District publicly used racist terminology such as “China flu” and “kung flu” to refer to the novel coronavirus, which experts say contributed to an uptick of xenophobia.

As a result, Stop AAPI Hate was established in March 2020. Since then, the national reporting center has documented 11,467 hate incidents in the United States, spanning the action spectrum from microaggressions to verbal harassment to physical attacks, including 130 within Colorado’s borders. This past March, the FBI reported that hate crimes in the United States had risen to their highest level since the federal government began tracking the data in 1990. Of the 10,840 bias-motivated crimes reported by states and local jurisdictions in 2021, 746 targeted people of Asian descent, a 249 percent increase from 2020 and the most ever recorded in a single year. The numbers are likely higher, though. Most hate crimes go unreported, especially in AAPI and Native Hawaiian communities, due to fear of being unheard or dismissed by police, according to data released in the past year by Hate Free Colorado and local law enforcement and advocacy groups.

Suzuki was right. I was trembling inside. But it wasn’t the bleak statistics and news reports that bothered me. And, honestly, it wasn’t even the memories of my parents, who owned a gas station in Wheat Ridge from 1983 to 2018, being told to “go back to their country” by disgruntled customers that were causing my teary episodes. The thing was, I wasn’t sure why I was so devastated and confused post-Atlanta. I couldn’t help but wonder: If I’ve always been Asian American, why did all these feelings take so long to surface?

I’m ashamed of the memories today. As an adolescent, I remember joking with classmates about my heritage and other Asians. I’d laugh when friends referred to me as “mini-Mulan” or “Lucy Liu” and agree that the Chinese joint around the corner from our high school probably served dog. I once referred to my parents’ native Thailand as Soy Sauce Land, and I recall deliberately hiding my mom’s homemade Thai food from my college roommates to avoid questions about the contents of the containers. In short, I made all things Asian about myself seem as other to me as I imagined they were to all of my white friends. That othering, in my mind, made me more Caucasian.

Sang Lintakoon, a child and family therapist at Be and Belong Counseling in Westminster, explained to me, in stark terms, what I had been doing. “It is sad that at a young age, you learned how to make your identity more palatable…. We became experts at being white.”

Lintakoon’s upbringing as a first-generation American raised by ethnically Chinese immigrants from Southeast Asia—and her personal journey in therapy—fueled her passion for helping others navigate life between various racial and cultural identities. She says Asians, in particular, have been so good at blending in and being the so-called model minority that we’ve often brushed off both microaggressions and outright racism. For much of our lives, we’ve shrugged our shoulders and felt safe in the white world—until Atlanta. “The Atlanta shootings,” Lintakoon says, “gave us the permission to acknowledge the racism we experience.”

It also may have given some of us a reason to re-evaluate who we really are—and who we want to be going forward. But there isn’t, of course, a good road map for locating an identity you tried so hard to leave behind.

When I was promoted to food editor at 5280 in April 2021—a few weeks after the Atlanta tragedy—representing the Asian community through my presence and news coverage became a responsibility I bestowed upon myself. Because of the increase in anti-Asian hate, I felt an urgency to highlight AAPI issues and stories, and I also wanted to honor the sacrifices my parents had made to secure what I now saw as a privileged role in society.

In the months that followed, it wasn’t uncommon for strangers and acquaintances at media events and social functions to say things like, What is it like to be 5280’s first Asian American food editor? The magazine is so lucky to have you. I never knew how to respond, because inside I felt like an imposter in the media, in the AAPI community, and in my own life. I was grateful for the opportunity to represent my community, but years of assimilation had left me ill-equipped to do so. Every mistake I made or negative thought I had felt like one step closer to failing at my dream job. Even worse, I was worried about failing my immigrant parents, who voluntarily worked long hours and endured racism along the way to ensure I had the opportunities in life that would allow me to be here.

Before I met Suzuki, I’d heard the term intergenerational trauma, but I didn’t truly understand its meaning, let alone its relation to my life. The concept refers to a transmission of the traumatic or oppressive effects of events—which can encompass adverse life experiences endured by specific cultural, racial, or ethnic groups—to subsequent generations. When older immigrants and refugees were confronted with high-stress or life-threatening situations—for instance, living in a Japanese internment camp during World War II or fleeing war-torn Vietnam in the 1970s—many responded by minimizing or suppressing their emotions. “It’s part of the trauma response,” Suzuki says. “[Our] parents and grandparents are conditioned to numb their emotional reactions because, back in their era, there were no resources, no platform to support them through.”

My parents were classic minimizers—and still are today. When someone made fun of my mom’s accent or called her an “Asian bitch,” which happened occasionally when I was growing up and which I remember well, she would downplay the hurt. “That’s just the way things are in America,” she told me. But the ways family members cope, or fail to cope, with trauma can set precedents for younger generations, leaving us unprepared to face how we perceive ourselves and the potential consequences that come with living as members of minority communities in the United States.

Aurora-based psychotherapist Nancy Lee assured me that this blurry chapter in my existence was likely temporary. Lee—who was inspired to become a counselor by the adversity she faced as a young Korean immigrant and her interest in the use of psychology to understand her personal mental health issues—launched her own practice seven years ago. She now serves clients across the state, about 50 percent of whom are Asian.

Over the past few years, she has helped people deal with identity stress: events that can cause one’s sense of self to shift in positive or negative ways. These incidents can range from managing the strain of being a new mom to adapting to a new city or workplace. While many of these changes can be normal parts of the human experience regardless of ethnicity, Lee says the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, a surge in xenophobia, and ongoing political strife have caused marginalized communities like the AAPI population to experience an increase in identity stress since 2020.

The Atlanta shooting clearly opened a floodgate of identity stress for me, stress that was exacerbated by my new job. I admitted to Lee that I had never thought deeply about my heritage until then and that I didn’t understand what that meant or how to present myself. I wanted to embrace my roots, but I didn’t know how to be the “first Asian American food editor” at this publication and the AAPI community member I thought everyone expected me to be. “It’s inner conflict, not understanding yourself and the world around you,” Lee told me. “You’re navigating it, you’re working through it—and you’re going to come out of it.”

Although I didn’t know what coming out of it looked like at the time, Lee’s words were comforting. I felt like she understood exactly what I was going through. And, to a certain extent, she did: Lee immigrated to the United States from Korea before kindergarten in 1978 and grew up in Chicago without any Asian American role models to guide her through school, her career, or motherhood. “I would say I’ve been confused for the vast majority of my life,” she says.

While interviews with therapists like Lee, Lintakoon, and Suzuki left me emotionally drained, I left every encounter feeling validated. Because they are professionals well-versed in issues that have an impact on AAPI individuals, I didn’t have to overinterpret the pressures I felt to excel at my workplace or the failure to understand the way my parents processed racist experiences, which I felt I had to do earlier in the year during a string of unproductive appointments with a therapist who isn’t trained in issues of Asian identity stress or multigenerational trauma. To sort out my issues, I knew I needed to find a culturally responsive practitioner.

Before I found the therapist I’ve seen weekly since last October, I contacted two others from a crowd-sourced directory of more than 30 Asian, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander therapists and psychologists that Lintakoon shared with me. (There’s a similar number of listings for therapists who practice in Colorado on the Asian Mental Health Collective website.) The local choices are limited, which aligns with national statistics: Only five percent of the country’s therapy workforce identifies as AAPI, according to the nonprofit Mental Health America, while the Pew Research Center reported in 2021 that Asians now make up seven percent of America’s population. The directories are helpful, but getting an appointment with a professional you like and who meets your needs—and budget requirements—can take time.

For a lot of Asian Americans, taking those steps can come only after conquering the reluctance to receive mental health care in the first place, an obstacle Lee says is heightened in the AAPI community due, in part, to the shame associated with needing help and a mistrust of American systems. “We’ve all experienced microaggressions at the doctor’s office, and we’ve all wondered, Hey, are they stereotyping me?” she says. “A lot of times, [experiences like that] end up creating more stress for us or maybe making us not want to access the care, like putting off a physical for another year or finding a better doctor…. It’s that extra struggle. It’s that extra stress.”

Each AAPI community, subgroup, and ethnicity also faces its own unique issues—which white therapists often aren’t trained to tackle—such as the impact of high poverty rates on the Hmong population or the trauma of living in the United States as an Afghan refugee when your country continues to feel the effects of a 20-year-long war. The vast diversity of the population makes securing mental health services that are tailored to specific needs especially challenging. But professionals like Lee, Lintakoon, and Suzuki, as well as non-Asian practitioners, are increasing access to culturally responsive care by specializing in matters faced by AAPI clientele in graduate school or opting for additional training through the American Counseling and Asian American Psychological associations.

In the past year, several other support initiatives have emerged and gained momentum: In July, more than 60 people attended the first Building Community Resilience: Mental Health Summit at the Community College of Aurora. For the free, one-day event open to Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders, social-justice-supporting entities such as the Colorado Asian Culture and Education Network and Community Organizing for Radical Empathy coordinated to host workshops addressing topics such as generational trauma and the importance of self-care.

This spring, Asian Girls Ignite (AGI), a nearly three-year-old organization with the mission to build strong communities of AAPI girls and women, celebrated the milestone of having more than 120 youngsters in grades six to 12 participate in its programs. Last fall, Lintakoon hosted an inaugural racial identity processing and support group for AAPI adults, which featured discussions on belonging, grief, and other topics. She hopes providing compassionate spaces for participants to share their own experiences promotes healing and helps them feel less alone. Lintakoon quotes psychologist Peter Levine: “Trauma is not what happens to us,” she says, “but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathic witness.”

On a Saturday in August, a parking lot in Aurora was studded with tents for AGI’s first annual ElevAsian Night Market. At the fundraiser, patrons shopped for goods and nibbled on bites produced by local businesses led by AAPI women, such as crispy-bottomed dumplings from Yuan Wonton, daal-making kits from Maia Foods, and colorful mochi from Taeko-san Takeout. Inside a nearby building, more than two dozen of AGI’s founders, participating students, and festivalgoers gathered on seats surrounding a small stage to share anecdotes about their positive experiences in the program.

I sat in silence as girls shared stories about exploring their identities and building friendships at team-building events that made them feel less alone—opportunities to connect with other young Asians that I wish had existed when I was a kid. Although I had come as a reporter, my eyes watered, but this time they weren’t tears of sadness.

When the mass shootings in California’s Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay claimed the lives of 18, most of whom were Asian, this past January, I was shaken by the news. But, unlike the Atlanta tragedy, the events didn’t leave me feeling helpless. Since March 2021, I’ve figured out how to manage my feelings, thanks to the help of my therapist, who has given me the tools to process stressful life events, sort through the guilt and pain I feel about what my parents went through, and find a comfortable place in between my Asian and American identities. I will always be tied to my roots, but I don’t have to be chained to them. I can find my own way.

While therapy has been integral to my evolution, the relationships I’ve established—through the local food world and social media—with other individuals who’ve encountered similar struggles have made an even greater impact on my life. One interaction stands out to me: In December, an argument with my mother triggered an emotional episode in me at the opening of a bar. At the event, I told a friend who is of Filipino descent that my parents must think I am weak for not being able to handle everyday stress when they’ve endured so much more pain. He replied: “You are exactly what they wanted you to be.” I knew he was right. Intergenerational trauma can be painful, but many of those who came before us struggled in hopes that their children, and their children’s children, wouldn’t have to.

Words like his—and those of many others—get me through the rough patches. In fewer than 18 months, my network of two Asian friends has grown to a cohort I can’t even count on two hands. We don’t see each other all the time, but I know they’re there. Despite the struggles, I’m thankful for the journey I’ve been on. I wish it hadn’t been sparked by such unimaginable horror, but the Atlanta shooting set me on a different path. The loss of life is a reminder to me to nurture my own, no matter what challenges lie ahead.

This article was originally published in 5280 Health 2024.
Patricia Kaowthumrong
Patricia Kaowthumrong
Patricia joined the 5280 staff in July 2019 and is thrilled to oversee all of the magazine’s dining coverage. Follow her food reporting adventures on Instagram @whatispattyeating.