It always felt a little ironic to me: the contrast between the sensitive nature of Asian culture and the culture’s disapproval of my own sensitivity.
Growing up, a phrase I hated hearing was “stop being so sensitive.” I’ve heard it more often than I’ll admit. In fact, my family would say this to me for a variety of reasons, from crying out of fear for an upcoming exam to reacting angrily to a joke that had ruffled my insecurities. I think part of the reason I hated this phrase so much was because I knew that I could never hide my emotions well, which made me believe I was weak.
My tendency to react strongly to the most minute details stemmed mainly from my childhood. Even as a little girl, my parents would tell me I had a flair for the dramatic. While my mom signed me up for drama productions and creative clubs as an outlet for my imagination, I would also find ways to express myself at home. I’d create intricate stories for my teddy bears to reenact on the floor of my bedroom. I’d lose myself in worlds I created in my backyard, dreaming up islands under trees with my sister as we folded bracelets out of leaves and foraged through masses of ivy.
In my eyes, the world was big and bright and brimming with possibility, but that also meant that I felt everything — a little too much, one might argue. When someone trampled on the home I had made for an ant at recess, I came home sulking; my fifth-grade teacher wrote ‘too much detail’ on the reflection I had written about spring break, which made me fling the pages into the trash.
So, yes — I was very sensitive. In some ways, my sensitivity was tolerable to others, but most of the time it came at a cost. Especially as I stepped out of childhood and into the harsh reality of adulthood, I grew to understand that people didn’t put my feelings as their top priority. Then, as I became more and more attuned to the intricacies of the Asian culture, I also subconsciously adapted to the culture’s unspoken rule that sensitivity is best when it’s hidden.
See, here’s the raw truth about Asian culture: Sensitivity must exist in a hidden state because criticism can be doled out at the drop of a hat. Gatherings at my house, for instance, would be met with at least a day or two of cleaning. We’d clean every room, including our locked bedrooms because my mom would worry that a guest might say that we were dirty or irresponsible. If one of my parents’ friends remarked on my clothing choice or makeup, my parents would remind me of it for weeks after so I’d know never to wear it again.
I’ve learned that I need to accept these sorts of comments and critiques, even if I must do so through clenched teeth and the muffling of my own “sensitive” emotions. It’s what’s polite. It’s what’s expected. I have learned that the phrase “stop being so sensitive” is intended to be helpful so that I won’t have to feel hurt when inevitably, something similarly devastating strikes again.
Still, it’s funny because I see sensitivity lurking in different corners of the room when I’m surrounded by my Asian community. It’s always there. I see it when our family friends quickly brush over certain topics so that they don’t have to talk about them anymore. I see it in the flush of my friends’ faces when other Asian parents ask them how they’re doing in school; what they do in their free time; if they are sure that their path will lead them to a steady income. I see it in my own parents’ polite smiles when others drop brutally honest comments about my appearance or academic performance.
Yet, even though I can see it — even though I know that sensitivity in Asian culture is only veiled — some part of me still believes that I am overreacting to every little critique when I am offended, that I am only being oversensitive and dramatic, just as I have always been. Some part of me tells myself that I do need to, in fact, stop being so sensitive when I have a reaction to one person’s side comment or another person’s glance.
I do believe there is strength in being able to overcome my own sensitivity. That’s why I’m not angry at my Asian side for teaching me how to calm down over the years, and how to realize that my confidence and fascination with the world should stem from my own observations and approval.
Still, I’ve found that there’s also strength in sensitivity. There is strength in the words I write on these blank pages for the world to read, words I know are filled with emotion and doubt. There is strength in that little girl with a large imagination who just wanted someone to listen. There is strength in me, even though I hate that I still tremble when I am criticized.
So, I’ll have to remind myself — it’s OK sometimes, Bella, to be a little sensitive.