1.2 (S1 | E2)

Eating Bitterness to Make Meaning

How does ancestral trauma from generations past transfer to a Third culture kid today?

In Episode 2, I’m speaking with Holly about the implications of living out generational trauma as a global nomad.

Trigger warning: suicidal ideation, trauma, abandonment

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Holly, Sen Zhan

Holly  00:00

As third culture kids, I think we often find comfort in being the outlier, but I feel like we can make something out of it, we can find other outliers to form a whole community of them, we can turn that into a strength.

Sen Zhan  00:19

The third culture is what emerges at the intersection between your culture of origin and the other cultures by which you've been shaped. Beyond Asian is a place for stories of global nomads with Asian roots brought up in diversity. Together, we explore the interplay of our pasts with our presence, and our relationships with the multiple cultures we move in. These are more than conversations about Asian identity, their portraits of whole people, what keeps them up at night, what their hearts longed for, and the impact they hope to have on their communities. I'm your host Sen. Jan, A third culture kid born in China, raised in Canada and currently based in Berlin. This series is a first step towards making peace with my own Asian background. And it's my hope that other third culture Asians will hear themselves reflected in our stories. How does ancestral trauma from generations past transfer to a third culture kid today? In Episode Two, I'm speaking with Holly about the implications of living out generational trauma as a global Nomad. So Holly, you and I met just a couple of weeks ago in Berlin at a podcasting meetup. And, and since then, I've gotten to know you a little bit. And I really wanted to have you on the podcast because I think that your story is fascinating. It's incredible. And there's so many more things that I want to ask you. Thank you. So maybe you can start by just telling us a little bit about how you came here to Berlin.

Holly  01:49

So I was born in Penang, Malaysia. And when I was two years old, my parents I moved to the US in California. I lived there. for a total of six years in Sacramento, and when I was six, we moved back to Malaysia. And then I lived there till I was 12. We moved to Shanghai. And then at 18, I moved to London. And then last year, I moved to Berlin. That's a sort of timeline.

Sen Zhan  02:20

So you've lived in a lot of different places. And all of this happened when you were still in your formative years. And so you would be like, the poster child for what we were we were talking about for third culture identity.

Holly  02:34

Absolutely. Yeah. I discovered that term. About two, three years ago. And I remember that I was, I was sort of reading up on it with my best friend who lives in Melbourne. And we were just reading it simultaneously and just sobbing and telling each other Oh, I've never read something that sort of identifies myself so much. And I feel like third culture kids who sort of identify themselves later on in life. With this term really sort of, for the first time, find understanding into like, why they are the people they are today.

Sen Zhan  03:06

Do you remember what were the aspects that stood out to you?

Holly  03:09

Well, I would always say My life has been a challenge of belonging. It's that sort of theme that is very prevalent among almost all third culture, kids, we almost always ask ourselves, like, whether it's at a very young age or teenagehood, or an adult life, like where do we belong? Who am I? What is my cultural identity? Who are my people? And these are themes that keep coming back again, and again. It's my life.

Sen Zhan  03:36

Do you remember when you were living in in these different places, whether it was in California when you moved or when you went back to Malaysia or when you were in Shanghai or when you were in London, any specific experiences or memories that showed you that you have a different perspective on the world? Yeah,

Holly  03:54

yeah, for sure. So I remember clearly when I moved back to Malaysia, when I was sick, My parents put me in a primary school sort of like a public primary school with other like, Malaysian mostly Malaysian Chinese kids. And the teachers called me a wild child because that was super Americanized and expressive and loud. And unlike all the other Malaysian Chinese kids who are sort of quiet and more obedient, I mean, we were all children, though we had we still had that, you know, spark Enos and whatever. And that was sort of my first experience, but I sort of quickly molded to become like everyone else. I would say, then, when I was about 1112, my parents slowly had a conversation about like, okay, I want to move to Shanghai. My dad had a better job opportunity there. But it was also prompted by the fact that they wanted to get me out of the sort of very toxic Asian education model, you know, like we were had in school. We were ranked number one to 45 who was the best who was the worst? And I was never affected by this so much. But all the other kids, their moms and dads would, you know be very stereotypical in the way that they would be like, Well yeah, my kid is learning the violin the piano, maths, English. Oh, well, my kid is learning science that is sort of outside of school. My parents were just like, No, we don't want our daughter to be in this sort of environment all the gossiping that went on backwards as well. I suppose they were a little bit more progressive. In contrast, everyone else having lived in America, progressive, whatever you want to call it is a different model. Didn't want to pressure their child so much. So yeah, then we sort of spoke about moving to Shanghai. And I, that was my first moment of like, saying goodbye to all my friends around me when I was 12 and then moved to Shanghai. There I had, like, definitely another culture Shock experience. What was that like? So it's interesting like it was, it's always a sort of tug between East and West. And when I was in Malaysia obviously was very sort of Eastern ideologies. And when I moved to Shanghai, I was sort of like, like sort of in between. Even though we were in China, I went to an international school that was very Western. In fact, it was called Western International School of Shanghai. And so I was this very shy, very awkward socially, a kid with like a friend, and I didn't have any friends and I read mangled day in class. Yeah, the first two years were very, very lonely. I didn't really know how to socialize with the other kids. But then, as I slowly sort of did, I became more westernized I became more open more expressive, but it wasn't a sort of typical model of being Western as well, like Shanghai was another extreme of it. Because, like all the kids started going, partying at the age of like, 1314. Okay, wow. And you know, they wouldn't check our IDs. We go to open bar all the time.

Sen Zhan  07:18

This was in Shanghai that the bars wouldn't check IDs are 13 year old and 14 year old.

Holly  07:23

Absolutely. Yeah.

Sen Zhan  07:25

That's incredible to me. Yeah, where were you at? 1314? Well, I was in Calgary, where, you know, the concept of drinking alcohol didn't even present itself to me until I was you know, 1718. And then I was like, I mean, I grew up in a very sheltered kind of, kind of family. So, I mean, when I turned 18, I didn't even want to drink because I thought I didn't want to, you know, get into that. Yeah, things changed, of course. But it took me moving to Montreal before I started to open up so Yeah, wow. So the the going out culture starts very young. Yeah. Okay, yeah,

Holly  08:01

yeah, I know it was, um, yeah, it was it was very extreme, you know, like I was just at home watching anime and then going to clubs where there were like 20 3030 year old men hitting on you and then, like alcohol like free alcohol or like really like dirt cheap alcohol everywhere. And then I quickly very quickly became a very rebellious teenager. And like went out a lot. And yeah, my parents were not very happy.

Sen Zhan  08:31

Yeah. Is that something that they expected when they moved to Shanghai? Were they aware of what the culture was like?

Holly  08:38

Absolutely not. I mean, they wanted me to be in a better education, which was, you know, my school was amazing. We were like, it was a proper community of people. But they did not expect their daughter to suddenly you know, were like, super straight. short dresses and four or five inch heels, like age of 15. Come home like Fox and then yeah, I think that was a complete shock to them. And that results into into a lot of problems. Um, and that was very, very tough.

Sen Zhan  09:17

Can you talk a little bit about what the effect was of being such a rebellious teenager in this, you know, more traditional Asian culture. I mean, Shanghai is still a very open kind of city because of how international it is. But comparatively, you know, if we compare Shanghai and Sacramento, it would still be two different worlds. Yeah. So So what was that like for you to go through that, that experience of saying, No, I don't want this I don't like that. This thing doesn't work for me. Like how did that play out in your upbringing?

Holly  09:50

I mean, so for myself, I was just trying to fit in, right. I was just trying to feel validated by everyone else around me because everyone was going out as well. And I had it, I guess, like, inner sense of loneliness that came on from, like before already this sort of alienation that I felt like, I've always been a different kid, whatever, and then going and not fitting in. So I tried my best to do that. And try my best to not be seen as like just the awkward Asian girl, which in this sort of westernized school environment was, like, just, I felt like just a typical stereotype of Asian people, the West, Westerners were cool. I mean, the Asian people weren't as cool. I mean, it was just wasn't just Western as well as basically non Asian. My friends would invite me to sleep over, and my parents wouldn't let me and I would ask why. And he would be like, because you're a girl. And that's just not what girls do in this Asian context. And I would rebel like really, really hard against them and like, start screaming and say no I'm gonna do I'm gonna do it, I'm going to do it. And my family, our people themselves with, you know, they come from this very, very traditional background. I mean, they didn't really expect me at all to act the way I did. So it results into a lot of problems between us like, my family has a lot of mental health problems, too. My dad coming from a background where his father was a heroin addict. And growing up with a lot of trauma, I think from that, and my mother, too. I think it was just a perfect breeding ground for a lot of toxicity to come up when the conflicts that I had did come up. I mean, it was a very, I would say from the age of like, 15 to really 1920 like, it was a very dark time. It was a very, very dark time in my family. Um, yeah, I would feel very, very alien. needed both from from my school community and my family, I have to sort of live a very double faced life with both of them on these two very extremes. And yeah, I would hide in my closet, hide in the toilet, and like call my school principal, call my best friends and tell them that I feel terrified and I feel scared. And that was a lot of my memory is as a teenager, really, very prominent one.

Sen Zhan  12:33

You talked about living this double life and I think a lot of us who identify with a third filter can really empathize with that. What were the some of the things that helped you cope with that, you know, to have one setting at home and then to have another setting during the day and to be traveling in between these two kinds of environments.

Holly  12:53

Um, it's an adaptation skill, if you like, as you said, like, all of us sort of learn at a very early age. Do I would learn to sort of not say everything to my family or lie. Very many times I would say I'm just going to sleep over it and I would go out and like drink until like I was like, you know, passed out in the toilet, like building a bench Do you have like toilet paper just like, you know really, really like intense shit like that. And, um, yeah, you and I and looking in hindsight as well, the sort of extremities that definitely came from the feelings of isolation that I had that I was not completely understood by both sides. I mean, like, as I said before, my family never properly understood why their daughter was acting out in these ways acting out try to fit it in. on the western side. They couldn't understand why my family were so like, hold on to me so strongly, and it was very tough to maneuver between them like When I was dating new people or really like when I invited people to my house or when I had, like, very escalated conflicts with my family. I would be terrified, like, genuinely terrified, and like, my friends wouldn't quite understand that dynamic. So it was very, it was very, very lonely. And it made me very, I mean, it gave me very negative traits later on in life. I think growing up across different countries, you look at relationships differently. And you build your routes around with people differently to you know, like being an international school was like, very normal for like your best friend to suddenly be like, I'm going to move my parents are moving and moving back to Sweden. I'm moving back to Italy, whatever. And then suddenly, like your whole life changes and you know, you have to form new relationships, etc, etc. So when I was growing up in Shanghai, I would, you know, go back to Malaysia like two or three times every year for like Chinese New Year, every summer holiday etc. And at this theme would be really large as well alienation towards my family in Malaysia that never left Malaysia. I was so obviously different to them to the way I dress, the way I express myself the things I liked. Other people would be like, Oh, she's looked down on me for the, for those things too. And, you know, say I'm trying too hard, or they're all also like lots of like, toxic narratives like oh, you gain weight. It really added on to the feeling of alienation, insecurity I had, and then there was just this feeling of like, nothing is permanent. And especially when I grew up in a light of like, I don't trust my family, I they're not a safe place for me. They would criticize me and attack me for things that I do. I did because I didn't simply didn't understand. And a lot of them, like, between them, they had so many issues too. Like, I just grew up with this feeling of like, I have no safety net in the world wherever I go. And this was, you know, like the theme that really came on with abandonment, like a feeling of like, I can't walk alone by myself, I can't go home and that by myself, I can't do it. Like I need someone to be with me. 24 seven. What do you think was the effect of those years of darkness on your later life? So, I mean, a lot of it wasn't super conscious. Of course, at the time, I think it's rare for you to be conscious as a teenager, and I just had this feeling that I want just wanted to get out and I started associating everything that happened that was so immensely toxic in my family, which I don't completely want to mention, but I just I will say that it was it was very, very toxic. It was it put me into fight or flight mode constantly, that my automatic response was like, I want to get out, I want to get out and like fuck Asian culture, fuck being Asian, I don't want anything to do with this, etc, etc. You know, with the encouragement of a lot of like teachers around me and stuff I decided I wanted to pursue a filmmaking career when I was 17. And I went to the UK to pursue that. And I mean, the first year of being UK was amazing. I had won this award for one of the first films that I made, and I got into this like, very, very cool relationship with this person I feel very connected to. I made so many friends I traveled a lot. I was just like, skyrocketing. But the second year I was there, everything sort of crashed, and I felt like really the trauma that came from before my family started to come up. And it first came up like I mean, I didn't I didn't have the book. capillary to put on what it was what was happening, but I would like sit home on the couch and my hands and legs will start to tingle. Like the sensation of like when it goes like really numb. Now it just filled with the fog that is like what the fuck is happening and I would notice a pattern would happen every time I really like felt abandoned by the people around me. I started to become aware that that was a theme, whether it was friends of mine that like no one had time to hang out with me, or a relationship that I had where, you know, the person naturally needed space. I couldn't deal with it, or projects that have failed like this sort of became a really large theme like I abandoned. Yeah, I moved on and progressively became worse within my relationships with people around me. And that manifested, for example in like me going to, you know, a friend's house and having dinner with them. And then Seeing how happy their family was, and not knowing what was going on, but like, removing myself in the situation going into the living room just sobbing. Like, why do they have such a happy family? Why Why? Why did I grew up with so much fear? Why did I grow up feeling so alienated? Why? Yeah, it's so it became worse until I was really like, truly like, suicidal every day.

Sen Zhan  19:25

It sounds like when you went to London, and you started a new life, kind of like leaving behind these things that you wanted to get away from?

Holly  19:33

Yeah, it wasn't really just. Yeah, it was it was different. There's a difference between that like, putting it in a box and putting it away and pretending it never exists. Rather than dealing with it, it was just escaping.

Sen Zhan  19:47

Yeah. Yeah, compartmentalizing.

Holly  19:50

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Yeah. And so you know, the feelings that I had growing up of abandonment, all those fears and came up, so strongly and yeah, perhaps I could elaborate on that a little bit more as well.

Sen Zhan  20:04

What were the events that happened after you were in London? You know, you said that things started to progressively get more prominent, you know that what we were able to compartmentalize before started to come out?

Holly  20:19

Yeah. So I think I would act out in like many different ways with my abandonment. And like, I feel Yeah, deeply ashamed of a lot of these things now, like I would infringe on you know, the relationships I had and their personal boundaries because I was like, No, you cannot leave me You cannot like keep me alone, etc. But normally you have to deal with like being alone sometimes in your life. And another sort of theme that became like increasingly prominent through my years as my bachelor's came slowly came to an end was my visa. So the UK is quite famous. among people who know the UK is immigrants, immigration policies for being very anti immigration, it's really difficult to get a work permit after graduating, especially coming from media background with it, the industry is so oversaturated already. And you know, it would be so much money to apply for a visa like a friend of mine spent like 4000 pounds on like a partner visa, and things like this. And as the years went on, that slowly became like more and more prevalent. It was beyond just kind of like, Oh, I'm not secure by myself and in the relationships that I'm in. I can't breathe the people around me. It's also like, Fuck, what do I do, like, I might not be able to stay here. And during the time as well, my family decided to move away from Shanghai because my dad found another job in Taiwan. And so we sold our house in Shanghai and it was at the same time where I was going through a burst up from, you know, someone I was hanging on to really strongly and really depending on and thinking about, like, Okay, my bachelor's and how do I stay in the country and, you know, continue these relationships around me and the projects that I'm doing, and my family being like, Okay, well Sell house in Shanghai. And so I felt like I was losing everything at once. And everything was an endangered, sort of, like everything I had. And I started to live like 24 seven in like fight or flight mode, where my whole reality became like, I don't want people to leave me like I want to feel safe. I don't want to leave either. And that projected itself in a lot of very different ways, as well. And anyone who struggles with abandonment, knows this very well, like the pain is physical. It's very visceral, it's very like you lie in bed and your whole body's in Pain like it feels like like that. It got to a point where I was thinking about throwing myself in front of every bus that passed by, where I really like people around me started to be like, maybe you should see therapists and then I kept holding off that idea for a very long time. Like, no I don't need I don't need that like that that's or like, I'm not bad enough to go because I would you know, get better and then get worse again, I feel suicidal again and feel better. And like really drained the relationships all around me as well. Like, one of my best friends in Australia was like, you should speak to my mom. She is a like wellness coach. And from there on, I started to sort of like look at everything that happened to me in the past, like the darkness that was there and my family the sort of growing up as a third culture kid and pieced together pieces of like, Why do I feel this pain so strongly like, and it was it was very difficult to deal with anyone who thinks therapy is a walk in the park is wrong. I mean, it's very, very difficult and very visceral. And, yeah, I mean, I would very clearly say that to therapists that I had, like, saved my life. And sort of like give me the tools to walk out of the place I was in which I felt like I was cursed and it wasn't worth living.

Sen Zhan  24:26

It sounds like when you were there in London, you had friends who could recognize the struggles that you had and also had avenues to refer you to. So when you went to see this wellness coach, when you started to go to therapy, that's when that's when you got the help that you needed. It makes me think a lot about what happens to people who don't have those access the access to those resources, or they still have that stigma of going to see a therapist hanging over their heads, even even though they have very, very clear mental health. issues.

Holly  25:00

Yeah, and this is a cause I feel like very, very strongly. But obviously there's the stigma, which is like, you know, beyond this world, depending what societies your needs exists in Western societies, but even more strongly in Asia, like what does mental health? What's that? Luckily, my mom, she, she had more of an awareness to this. Well, she was half supporting half. Not really understanding, but she was very, very depressed herself to the point where she was hallucinating. So she helped me out with the resources to get therapy, but people that don't I mean, it doesn't have to be therapy can be many other ways of dealing with issues and trauma as well. But yeah, it's, um, it causes a lot of problems. And I think when I see sort of, like, older like, family members, whether it's from my immediate family, or from other people's families, I always feel like a sense of such sorrow because it feels like All of them have inherited such have endured such difficult lives, Asian people that growing up in these conservative societies and coming from like really like truly like poverty, I'm speaking for the Chinese like, it breaks my heart to see people trapped in the same circles that they're always in. So

Sen Zhan  26:20

well, you had mentioned that your grandfather had an addiction to heroin. And, you know, just looking back in history, we know that heroin is a substance that is in the same family as, as opium. And during that time, you know, the, the Opium Wars were caused by the British coming into China and forcibly introducing a substance into the Chinese market that caused a lot of people to be addicted. And I wonder with that example of the historical influences on individuals living their lives at a certain time, what are the things in history that you think affected your family that influenced them to to live the way that they live? To be expressing their own trauma in the way that they were expressing it.

Holly  27:05

Yeah, it's um, it's funny you asked me this, like ancestral trauma is a sort of more recent term that I become to see in like, so many different facets of society. I've always meant wanted to look more into opioids and how, you know, they directly impacted the Chinese but also the cow. They were brought on to Malaysia. I remember going to a therapy session, and my first session in my first session, the therapist told me as I was sort of crying and telling her like, all the inner pain that I was experiencing that and she said something like this hole in your heart that you feel the sort of emptiness and yearning for belonging and for something outside of yourself that you look so desperately for external things like people, relationships, projects, whatever, it's a fill. Your grandfather probably had this hole in his heart too. And he filled it with heroin. And then your father inherited the same hole in his heart to that he didn't know how to deal with so he projected extremely with anger. And I think that sort of lineage and the way that she described that just caused me to just like leave the room and sob in this way that I hadn't, like ever like, cried in a very long time. Because it made so much sense. I'm sort of starting to ask more questions to my family, about their history, and it's very, very interesting for sure. My great grandfather, I learned was from Guangdong, in China. And when he immigrated to Malaysia, he was put in prison and he was killed because he was fear to be communist. And so my grandfather inherited all of his money. Then started all these, like, crazy businesses with it, like illegal alcohol businesses and etc, etc. And I, I don't really notice the specificities of like, the ways they acted out. But, you know, like, my mother grew up in such a traditional way where, you know, she and her six siblings were lined up after school every day. And my grandfather would look through their school books, and if he saw a storybook, he would throw it across the room and be like, you're only allowed to study

Sen Zhan  29:53

well, despite the fact that he was running illegal alcohol business and yeah,

Holly  29:57

I mean, I was moving and then he You know, run off with my mother's eldest sisters, my mother's oldest sister's friend. And then like, left the family in poverty again. Um, and I feel like these sort of very intense like, dynamics, and then my other grandfather like, you know, heroin addict coming home and beating everyone up. And everyone lived in, you know, a small room maybe the size of like, I don't know, like 20 square meters, there was a whole house like that intensity of, you know, whether it was that the parents and their need to control things really like, what is it like for generations of people to grow up like this? What is it like to grow up in such poverty? What do you have to experience and what do you have to give up and what survival techniques Do you have to bring up like, if you look at Asian societies like envy such a huge thing? People gossiping and like, you know, envying about wanting new goods and, you know, rice or traditionally and like now it's become this new money thing where like, everyone's like, I want to buy Gucci, you want to buy coke etc, etc but because it's new and for generations, thousands of years you didn't have this at all. I feel like I've gotten to a point now in my adulthood where I've come to really forgive my family. I mean, not forgive entirely, but sort of really understand and forgive as well because we had conversations about it, the contexts in which they came from, and, you know, the lineage of hardships that Chinese people have been through to explain why they were acting the way they did. In Chinese, there's this very common phrase, I don't know if you know it

Sen Zhan  31:50

to cool. Mm hmm. Yes. Eat bitter.

Holly  31:55

Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And, yeah, it's almost becoming Like this thing where like, you have to eat bitterness. You have to go through bitter things in life too. It's just part of being Chinese. Mm hmm.

Sen Zhan  32:09

Part of being a human being.

Holly  32:10

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. The Chinese emphasize it so much, you know, it's like, like parents grew up and say, oh, like, this child hasn't gone up

Sen Zhan  32:20


Holly  32:20

bitterness before, like, like, they're just spoiled. Like, no, like, it's much more complex than that. Yeah,

Sen Zhan  32:28

yeah. Yeah. There's this idea that if you haven't gone through a period of lack in your life or have lived through poverty, then you don't know what life is truly about. And you don't know who you really are until you've gone through that. That kind of deprivation, almost,

Holly  32:45

yeah, deprivation is spot on. I think,

Sen Zhan  32:48

yeah, I want to ask my parents some years ago, what they saw as my strengths. And I was expecting them to say something like, Oh, you know, you're really you're really creative. You No, you're really independent. You can learn anything you want. And the first thing they both said to me, they were like, you know how to eat bitter? Wow, such a compliment. I guess so. I mean, I you know, now that we've had this conversation, I suppose so but back then I was like, that's what you have to say to me that I know how to suffer. Compared to my sister who because I know I was born in China, and we went through the immigration process relatively early compared to other immigrants, whereas my sister was born in Canada, so she was born in a much better situation. Yeah. And, and they were saying, like, with my sister in mind, they were like, you know, your sister hasn't eaten the same kind of bitter that that you had. So I guess we'll say that that's your strength. Okay. And I even know that what I ate as bitterness was nothing compared to what the both of them had, had eaten and live in in their lives and the same thing compared to both of their their sides of parents. I wanted to ask you, again about this psychologically cut. yourself off from Asia, from your family, from your culture, and how that played itself out in your everyday life.

Holly  34:09

My family situation was so toxic that I fully disassociated myself from it. And also, I'm not talking about just like sort of communication wise but also, mentally, every time I had an argument with them, and it were really really escalate, I would start to feel a sense of panic in me. But after I hung up the phone, within five seconds, I would forget every single detail what happened, why we even fought, and I learned later on that this is a the brain's psychological way of protecting yourself from feeling pain. It's just to forget when you do that repeatedly, you lose all the connection. You know, to the other party is just you just cut yourself off from it and yeah like I think I identified a lot of people you know like I always say this like I'm from Malaysia but I grew up here there and because I'm not truly Malaysian I feel like it's I see in a very different light now but like, I want to be more Malaysian but I don't know what that means anymore because I cut that off. A long time ago, I looked down on it, I pushed it away and like, I'm not Malaysian and I barely know anything about my country. I want to, I'm trying to, I'm trying to ask more questions about it. But yeah, I mean, I go back to Malaysia and, you know, walking the streets and people would be surprised that I was Malaysian. And I felt a sense of alienation from that too, and I cried and just think I'm not, I'm not, you know, not a local here, not a local they're gonna fuck

Sen Zhan  35:59

and tell A little bit more about belonging What does belonging mean?

Holly  36:04

belonging to me means a safe place. I think I put all these terminal terminologies all around it before, which kind of was like, you know, belonging is looks like this belonging looks like that above me looks like a house looks like a country that I can stay in it looks like a group of friends. It looks like feeling a peace with myself, but really belonging for me is feeling. I'm safe, and I'm secure where I am. And it took me a very, very, very long time to get there. And I think things started to change a little bit. When I shifted a narrative in my mind that was originally like, I used to tell myself I didn't belong anywhere and noise. I tell myself I belong everywhere. It was that narrative switched how cognitively, but I also had to, you know, get my visa sorted and work through all my mental health problems and, you know, work through abandonment and they call it re parenting the inner child, where that small part of you that lives in your childhood, who is afraid you make sure that she's not afraid anymore.

Sen Zhan  37:26

It's a lot of both cognitive and unconscious work, I think. So you were mentioning, leaving the culture behind leaving Asia behind, leaving the family behind and I've gone through something very similar when I was growing up. I felt like the only way to be free to be myself was to leave all of my, my Chinese upbringing. Back in Canada back in Calgary, and to to really just be as as non Chinese as possible and also to be very rebellious. You know, But I wanted to ask you how you navigated this, you know, and what is the difference between going away from the culture of the family versus going away from the culture of the place, the culture of the actual culture, you know, and how do we differentiate between the fact the culture of the film that we grew up in, and the culture of the location that we grew up in.

Holly  38:22

So I definitely, you know, when I set myself off, fuck being Asian, Asian culture, I was mostly definitely associating with my family, and the ways in which it was very toxic between us and their, their ideas of how I should be, I definitely merge those things together. But after I sort of like, slowly through time, repaired my relationship, my family, spoke about everything that happened, and then worked on you know, letting go of expectations and communicating more on both of our sides, which I'm very, very grateful about, I began to think less about this is all Asian culture and more about like history and trauma. And what really helped was this other guy who I ended up dating, who was half Malaysian Chinese, like me, and half Italian. He had, you know, studied Asian history. And when I was dating him, I felt somewhat very ashamed because I was like, you know, you're half Asian, I'm Asian, but you know, so much more about Asian that. I don't know anything. And he shared with me so many different perspectives of what it was like in his family. And, you know, like the historical events that happened in Malaysia when the Japanese bombed Malaysia and like they kill 40,000 people had no idea this happened. And asking him about like, why is it that Asian families are the way they are and the way they act? Or why do they not talk about their past Why do they not care about history? What do they only care about their children studying economics and business and being a doctor, like, why is that? And then it slowly started to make sense, like, again, that ancestral trauma, how hard Chinese people had to fight to live? And then what results there as cultural behaviors? So to go back to your question before like, I could very well see like as an adult more approaching him with a more neutral emotionally neutral perspective that my family inherited some of these things and they didn't was some the challenge some as well. And they also suffered from a lot of the things that were prevalent in their culture, too, that is toxic for them to like, people wait shaming them, or like saying that they've grown older, or gossiping. Like it's such a big theme in my family, and I hate it so much, but it's interesting to see where it comes from. And then when I was studying politics, I did a master's in international Relations after my filmmaking course, back on what you referred to with looking at Chinese tourists, etc, etc. It was also very interesting on this point. I feel like I became very anti China when I was at university, I have studied how China did all these things that we didn't learn about when we live in China, because of course, it's censored, whether it was a cultural revolution, Tiananmen Square Massacre, that you've told me about before, too, with your family and how they experienced that, or just anything like really like the weekers concentration camps. I hated China for everything. And but again, the guy that I was dating challenge that, and he was like, don't put the two together, you must look at who you're criticizing, criticizing the state, the culture, the people. And I sort of asked the question like, why, why do Chinese people support the government so much? Why is that there's this book that was written from very journalistic point of view about different people and their experiences of the Cultural Revolution. I understood finally that people support the government so much because they were in poverty. And their government, despite all the human rights abuses did lift them out from there. And the violent nature of that poverty that cannibalism the in poorer parts of town and the mass kill murder, like people are so happy to get out from there. And then it gives a very important light to like, okay, it's not an excuse, but it's so important to understand these things.

Sen Zhan  42:29

And and I think this is something that I'm still working on, on understanding is that everyone does things for a reason. Things in history happen for a reason, patterns happen for a reason. And we may understand, like, intellectually, why those things happen, you know, cause and effect. But does it help us to forgive just because we understand.

Holly  42:52

It's a very interesting one. And I think it is up to the individual. Really, I forget My family, and they forgave me. Because we had a conversation and we met each other at an equal level about it. I also recognized for myself that the anger I was harboring inside of me, that came from a place of abandonment that I was projecting to every thing around me, wasn't healthy for me. It held me back as a person. And I decided that I wanted to let that go. It does not negate or dis acknowledge the fact that there are so many things that are wrong, you know, fundamentally, psychologically, but it was a personal thing for me to just like, this anger does not serve me. It's not making me grow. And I wanted to find a way to not feel so triggered when I was speaking to people who triggered me because I felt like it was more effective in building bridges and mental health is truly like I feel like a lot of things go back down to that our relationship with ourselves. are reflected in our relationships with others, whether that's a micro level of families relationships, or on a macro level with society.

Sen Zhan  44:09

And these topics will not be going away anytime soon. In fact, they're only going to gain more and more attention in the mainstream mental health will I have seen it in you know, I used to work in mental health and I in the years since then I've seen it become less and less stigmatized. in mainstream society. There's been things like text based therapy, online therapies, access to all kinds of different therapists with different kinds of backgrounds and specialties, like that kind of thing. just didn't have the same coverage as it did you know, even 10 years ago when I was working in the field, even if we simply talk about the technology of the internet, you know, to just connect the right people with the right people that already has such a big benefit in people who need to receive into health services because the barrier to access is one of the things that stops people absolutely, yeah. Not to mention anything about the need for mental health in an Asian cultures or other cultures where we just don't we don't have the the instinct and I really, I'm trying to understand why because for me going to therapy was a very natural conclusion that I made. I was like, I have some issues, and I need to work on these issues. This thing called therapy exists. So I'm going to go and do it. You know, and I think that's one of the advantages of having lived in a Western culture. You know, a lot of people were going to therapy that was they were ahead of us in terms of d stigmatization, and so I am still trying to understand what is the the resistance in Asian culture to mental health?

Holly  45:45

I think it has a lot to do with trauma as well. Perhaps the people that are screamed the loudest, I don't need help. They're the ones who need help the most. But somehow confronting everything is so difficult, you know, yeah, that's why a lot of people live in denial.

Sen Zhan  45:59

Yeah. It's like, once you start looking at one thing, you know, it's like you start cleaning your closet, you're like, Oh, I was just gonna do this one thing and then one thing leads to another and then before long, you've got everything on the floor, you're like, Wow, I didn't know I had so much.

Holly  46:11

Absolutely, yeah. But, you know, I think a more helpful narrative to sort of encourage everyone would be like, you can come to a place where you fully accept every facet of yourself and you know, the mistakes you've made, the things you hate about yourself and you are capable of cleaning it up. I feel like that's not a narrative that we come across that we we say now, like, you know, mental health is important. While we all need help, and there is not enough of that like, but we can get to a place where we are much better and it's not so painful and it's not so scary to look at all these things and you know, we can they can make us better people can make us better people to the people around us too. And that's so valuable. If not for yourself, do it for the other people around you.

Sen Zhan  46:55

Yeah, excellent point. Yeah. Yeah. It's like Boosie, you know, when you meditate. don't meditate just for you. You meditate for the people around you. Because when you're when you're a better person, you know everybody benefits from that.

Holly  47:06

Yeah. I mean, I really got a lot of this from Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl Hmm. Have you read that book?

Sen Zhan  47:14

I have? Yes. Well, the first half I read first, yeah, second half is still getting there. The book is about Viktor Frankl is a Holocaust survivor and he in the color class had lost his entire family. They had all been killed. And he was one of the few survivors who emerged from the Holocaust and he made his life over again. And he found new meaning in, in this post Holocaust post war world, which is something that a lot of people were not able to find. In fact, I think about Esther Perel, and you know, her parents Esther Perel is, you know, for for people who have never heard of her, she's this. Yeah, she's a she's a relationship coach. She's a sex therapist, and she was the daughter of Holocaust survivors and she says, That there are some people who come alive again and there are some people who simply are not dead. And Viktor Frankl to me is a man who came alive again and simply didn't just continue to not be dead after the Holocaust.

Holly  48:15

And he absolutely attributes that to, you know, the search for meaning in the human life which can be found in vocation, or sort of like a higher mission of yours, or could be found in you know, the relationships that you attain and like, these are the people who like live you know, after the Holocaust and during when they were still in concentration camps. And the final one being, you know, people who were able to eat bitterness people were able to make meaning but not just eat bitterness make meaning from the suffering that they had and sort of, you know, that in itself is, is meaning and When I was very, very, very depressed in London, I think this book was really like one of the only things that got me through. You know, I found a sort of solace. And, you know, this kind of thing of like, not just like, there's always who, there's always someone who has it worse than you, because I don't like to think about it in this like way, but it's looking at people who have gone through, you know, unimaginable atrocities that have come out of it alive. And I find so much respect in that. I find so much meaning in that and it was very comforting to, to read that and that's sort of like my life philosophy at the moment. I feel like when people meet me, for the first time, a lot of people tend to romanticize and glamorize the fact that I live in so many countries. They were like wow You must be so open. So adaptive. So, you know, socially, like, great, and you must have no so much knowledge. And I'm like, Yeah, absolutely. But it's true. Yeah. And I feel that and I'm proud of that, but you have no idea what I had to go through for that. A, you have no idea that like, I had to, like, I had to fight to have a home and I kept losing it over and over again, wherever I built it. And, and I would sort of, like, go into this very alienated, vindictive place of resentment where I'd be like, stop asking me that, like, You're making me feel even more alienated and just look at everything that I didn't have a nobody really truly like knowing what it was like to sort of face the barriers that I've faced, because I couldn't go back to my, you know, family in China or Taiwan. Either way, I had to apply for a visa to go there as well. I was only there for a maximum of 30 days. So the only place we go to is Malaysia, which I haven't lived in and feel so culturally disconnected with, and I haven't been there since I was 12. The only sort of people that I found solace with was with a lot of people who had refugee status and had been displaced. I was sort of able to look at them with admiration and respect and go like, Okay, if you can do this, and go through much worse than me, I very much Canada as well. And I think that was also what drew me to working with people who had refugee

Sen Zhan  51:34

status. And you spent some time visiting a refugee camp some years ago. Yeah.

Holly  51:40

So in 2016, I, my ex boyfriend took me to Cali, which is a refugee camp between France in the UK and France, on the border, and it was a home temporary home to more than 12,000 asylum seekers from many different countries, Syria, Sudan, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, etc, who were trying to get to the UK or trying to apply for asylum in France. And I sort of went there, you know, as a filmmaker and not having much knowledge about why people were leaving their countries, etc. From there going on a long, sort of, like few year journey of like, really like getting into politics through with those people. I was volunteering in Cali, I volunteered in Athens. I went to Beirut and worked with a refugee school there. I came to Berlin and shot a documentary in a refugee camp here. I became obsessed. And what I had very little knowledge about was the fact that I was obsessed with this because I could somehow relate to displacement. And it's a very touchy thing to say because I don't want to put myself in this same category as people who've had to go through that out of respect, but at the same time, it's really displacement and the lack of a home, and the lack of feeling safe and the barriers that immigrants have to face. So it started to become a theme in my life too, with my visa. So I found anger and solace both in the experience you know, we were talking

Sen Zhan  53:23

about Viktor Frankl and the importance of making meaning out of suffering, what's been the meaning that you've been able to derive from the suffering that you've gone through?

Holly  53:32

I'm very fortunate, or I know myself how hard I work to, to have the outlook that I have today, in which I am thankful for every experience that I had. I'm thankful that I'm a third culture kid, and I had the experiences I had with displacement. I'm happy that I had, you know, all this turbulence in my family. I'm happy that I had to go through abandonment. because it gave me so much empathy. I feel like I can sit down with most people I meet nowadays and really hold space for their experiences, whether they've gone through different things that I hadn't gone through, whether it's sexual assault or so many different things, and I'm able to sort of touch upon the basic feelings of fear and isolation and loneliness and knowing what it's like to be in a very dark place. And I'm able to Yeah, listen to people, acknowledge them, and give them like warmth and love and hugs and light. And I really value that and you know, as something that was always very helpful for me that no one ever taught me I just kind of like made up myself was when I am in a dark place. I would write a letter from my future self to myself. I've done that to really where did you learn Not to do that.

Sen Zhan  55:00

I think that for me, we did kind of like similar kinds of activities like writing a letter to our future self. And that I just took that idea. And I was like, well, we could do lots of things with this. Yeah,

Holly  55:12

absolutely. I journaling really helps me like sort of process everything that I've gone through and make meaning out of it. And I think a lot of the time I would write for my future self to my current self and say, I know you're terrified. I know that, you know, this pain seems like it'll never end but it's going to help you in the future. It's going to prepare you for living your life to the fullest and reaching your sort of higher potential as a person, whether that's, you know, in relationships or my career or, you know, living the life that I want to live, like with the adaptation skills that I need. So this was always I think, something that gives me a lot of comfort, like okay, I may not see where this ends, I Still feel suicidal. But I know that there's gonna be some meaning behind it afterwards, I want to send a hug to all Asian people out there, I want to send a hug to all the third culture kids out there too. I really deeply feel all of you. And, you know, all of our journeys are very different. But they're also very connected. And you know, you're not alone. And you will find a way to work through this. Keep looking for meaning and things. keep expanding outside of yourself and keep asking more questions and things will make sense. As third culture, kids, I think we often find comfort in being the outlier. We get comfortable with it. We're like, yep, I'm the front. Yeah. And we call it with that. Yeah, we're gonna own it. And we're like, yeah, like it's cool, like, but there's something inherently bad about being an outlier, which is that you're always going to be an outlier. You're never going to have that inclusion and that belonging that other people do. Cuz you're an outlier, because you find comfort in that. And that really like jogged my heart on a little level. But I feel like we can make something out of it, we can find other outliers too. We can form a whole community of them, we can turn that into a strength and I really come to a place in my life where I believe in that now, and,

Sen Zhan  57:22

and I would add on to that, which is that, yes, we can certainly find belonging in all the other outliers, you know, kind of like, yeah, I kind of like The Breakfast Club or kind of like the x men if you want to be a science fiction nerd. We all have our special powers. And I found also that I don't mind being an outlier so much anymore, because I also over the years have just grown really comfortable with who I am. Yeah. And so I'm always coming back to myself, no matter where I am in the world. And I've also been very lucky in the people that I've had around me and also due to the you know, the increasing power of the internet. I find myself have connected to people around the world if they're not with me physically, and they become my community. And so I kind of have a community all the time, wherever I go, they're always with me. And I'm always with me. And I feel like I can make friends, anywhere I go, because of this adaptability that that i've i've had as a third culture kid. And I also have such a great faith in the world. I have such faith in the fact that there are good people everywhere you go, and, and most people want to help you. Yes, of course, you're going to have difficult experiences with some people, but most people are, are human beings who understand what it's like to be a human being and they might not be perfect, they might not give you everything that you need. In fact, that's very rarely the case. But if you like aggregate all of the goodness in the world, and you just you know, you learn also how to take care of your own needs. I found that it's out been incredibly liberating to to just own my existence as an outlier. And slowly, you know, through through this podcast and through meeting people like you, I have seen that actually, there's a lot of outliers out there. And, and, and

Holly  59:17

so many people feel like an outlier doesn't even have to do with culture. Like it can be like sexuality. It can be like, something we classify as weird and I don't know there's there's so many things that make people feel alienated from a large group. It's something that we can actually touch base with each other more than we kind of are to think naturally only on Asian everyone else was not an outlier. But this person, the person next to you is an outlier because I don't know like they have experienced rape before or they have a disability in this way. And they feel this way too. And there's a universality to things like these Yeah.

Sen Zhan  59:57

To feeling like you're the most different one in the group. Yeah. Yeah,

Holly  60:00

Yeah, there is. And you're absolutely right. I think learning how to come back to yourself, but also to bond with other people around you open up, etc. Never give up on finding those communities. It is a very beautiful experience. Yeah,

Sen Zhan  60:16

yeah, I think this is the note that I would love to finish up on, which is don't ever give up looking for your community because they are out there. And if they're not out there, you will make it for sure. You're not the only person like you who exists in the world. And even if you know you, you're very unique, very special, different circumstances. There's always going to be people who want to support you just a question of being persistent and finding them. You'll belong somewhere. Yeah, this is like this is the third culture version of the It Gets Better video from Dan Savage. Like it gets better guys, don't worry. One day YouTube, maybe making a podcast about your life. Beautiful, awesome. So thank you so much, Holly. Thank

Holly  60:58

you so much.

Sen Zhan  61:00

Looking forward to hearing what you get up to in the next little while. Thanks for listening to beyond Asian stories of a third culture. I hope you enjoy this episode. We have a preview of our next episode coming up for you. Before we roll it, you can find any resources referenced today in the show notes. If you resonated with what you heard on the show today, follow our Facebook page to get updates and what we're working on and our Facebook group to add your voice to the conversation. Got the perfect third culture Asian guests for us get in touch on our website beyond Asian comm or simply email us at beyond Asian podcast@gmail.com. We'll be back with another story soon. In the meantime, you can subscribe to our show on Spotify, Apple podcasts spreaker and nearly all your regular podcast watering holes. We are a growing podcast and therefore need your support and reviews to keep bringing you more stories like this. I'd like to thank Mulan soon our creative strategist and lead designer ciccio Coppola, our 3d Designer Remy Ferrari pour our developer and Alexandra Heller, our Director of Marketing for helping to bring this podcast to life. Most importantly, I'd like to thank our growing community of courageous guests who have generously shared their stories with us. Beyond Asian stories of a third culture is hosted and produced by me, your Chinese Canadian third culture kid in Berlin, Sen Zhan, here's what we've got in store for you next time.


So like all other invisible hindrances, there's a misconception that it's not as debilitating as it actually is. What do concussion polyamory and setting boundaries have to do with each other? In Episode Three, I'm speaking with Lindsey who shares how recovering from a head injury taught her how to navigate boundaries with her chosen and biological family members. Me I think I look at having multiple partners and living a polyamorous


life just to be a net benefit for having more support and more community like it's just more family members taking care of you. I think honestly, everyone should see a mental health professional even for like standard checkups. So you To the doctor for a checkup, why wouldn't you go see a counselor or a psychologist or something? And I mean, stress has been the biggest impediment to recovering well, I'm just grateful. I'm, you know, coming to these lessons now as opposed to another two years from now.