“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
There is this phenomenon studied in Community Psychology known as the “expert mentality”. An expert figure administers what he believes is professional help to a recipient based off of what the expert perceives as the recipient’s needs and deficits. But in doing so, the expert unintentionally creates more deficits that necessitate more “professional help”. The expert consequentially responds to the newly created needs by prescribing another treatment, which would only give rise to yet another deficit, requiring another treatment. A detrimental, crippling cycle is inadvertently manufactured in an attempt to provide help.
Think of a doctor who attempts to cure his patient’s disease by prescribing a medicine. The patient faithfully takes his pill daily but the pill produces some deleterious side effects. So what does he do? He goes back to the doctor, of course. Aha, the doctor knows exactly what to do: prescribe him a new pill to take care of the first pill’s side effects. The patient diligently takes both pills but to his surprise, this new pill spawns its own side effects. So the doctor prescribes yet another pill (with more side effects!) to treat the second pill’s side effects. You get the idea.
In an attempt to address the patient’s deficits, the professional creates new ones, further harming the patient and digging him deeper into a well of cyclical dependency. In the end, the solution to the problem the medication was made to solve is to get rid of the medication itself.
We see this all the time in social work and non-profit attempts to aid underprivileged communities. “Professional”, college degree-brandishing outsiders come into these communities and start implementing programs (often without the people’s consent/cooperation) that they believe will be the solution to the community’s problems.
We, psychologists, have this strange obsession of pathologizing everything, especially things we see as deviant. We have a keen awareness of people’s life problems and we subconsciously start diagnosing their ish, even if we don’t know them too well. (Guilty). And as with individuals, we do same with communities. But there is something fundamentally wrong and unhelpful in our thinking. The problem is that we are viewing people by their deficits and needs, rather than their strengths and assets. Why is it that we let people’s deficits be more definitive of who they are than their strengths?
To take it a step deeper, the lenses by which we view their deficits are easily susceptible to cultural, gender, and worldview biases. For all we know, what we think are “needs” in other communities may not actually be real problems. Often times, these communities don’t actually think they need our help. Go figure.
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”.
Any community psychologist knows that the ultimate goal is empowerment. But we will never empower individuals and communities if we see them by their deficits. When we see them by their deficits and interact with them as such, we instill a debilitating belief in them that there’s something wrong with them. And the potent self-fulfilling prophecy does the rest.
God has long been at work remodeling my heart to love the socially-marginalized but I’ve always thought that I have a special place in my heart for that inner-city kid who struggles with school. The ex-gang member teenager. The father living on the street. As I digested these new concepts in my Community Psychology class last semester, I felt a deep sense of compassion for those who felt identified by their weaknesses rather than by who they fully were. And even more so for those who weren’t aware that this was happening to them.
For some reason, this time was different. I didn’t just feel sorry for them. It was a profound feeling of identification, as if I was sharing in their suffering. It didn’t take long for God to reveal to me the reason for my empathy: “That’s you, Justin”. This struggle I was discovering in underprivileged communities was a struggle I had already gone through. I felt for the inner-city kid because we had matching scars.
How could one from a stereotypical Asian-American, middle class suburb relate to the good Kid of the Maad City? I wrote an article titled “Memoirs of a Racially Confused Blogger” in my latter years of high school (roughly four years ago). Crawling out of a turbulent year of academic failure, my disillusioned self released a 3,000+ word, messy tirade on my scarring experience of Asian culture. I recently revisited this piece and thought about editing it to make it more cohesive but decided against it; I was angry and wounded and this rant captured my raw emotions while they were still fresh. I did not plan it but this article became my unofficial self-declaration of divorce from my own culture and people.
Rant TL;DR – I was not Asian enough. I was left to navigate the brutally competitive, cut-throat environment of highly-comparative hyper-Asians and everything in my environment was affirming my non-Asian-ness. Everything and everyone was a constant reminder that I was not enough.
For as long as I can remember, I have always had trouble reading. I still have vivid memories of my mom dedicating extra time to me to help me read quicker and more efficiently. I have a particular way of learning that is slower than others. But all the attention was given to the slowness. From the third grade until my senior year in high school, my parents sent me to more tutors and after-school programs than I can remember. To be quite frank, it made me feel like shit.
I was confused. “Why didn’t my friends have tutors? How come my siblings don’t have to go to this after-school program? Why aren’t they coming with me this time? (Why are you spending so much money on me?)” As I grew older, I began to catch on. I’m the problem child of the family. They were trying to fix me.
After years of tutoring, I can say with confidence that I learned nothing. Four years later and I don’t remember the Pre-Calculus. I don’t remember the SAT grammar rules. What I do remember is the insecurity and the pain of knowing that I was not good enough. In my parents’ attempt to “educate” me, my years of being tutored have only taught me one lesson: that there is something wrong with me.
Such is the nature of institutionalization. When a child grows up in a reality in which everything in his environment is reinforcing the fact that there’s something wrong with him, he will start to believe it. When someone’s neighborhood is saturated with outsider organizations (non-profits) attempting to “fix” his people/community, a great debilitating work is done on the soul. Good intentions are not enough.
Once it dawned on me that people were trying to fix me, the seed of bitterness was sown. Am I not enough for you? Do you not want me? Fine. I don’t need you. I’m done being your slave. And in one final act of defiance, my soul beat its chest and gave a last “fuck you” as it raised the double middle-finger to my own culture and people, once and for all.
I am unashamedly ashamed to be Asian American.
Yes, God has got a lot of work to do with me. I know. Save the rebuking comments. I’ve got quite a distance to cover before my heart learns how to forgive my culture. Jesus calls us into multiethnic community but He doesn’t call us to forsake our own culture in the process. Our pursuit towards multiethnic community cannot be an escape from our own personal cultural identities. But I’m currently in a place where I just don’t want to own my cultural identity because of how much pain it has caused me. I want to escape.
I’m becoming more and more convinced that Jesus brought me outside of my suburban hometown and exposed me to the inner city in such a time as this (college) so that the good Kid of the Maad City could show me that his scars were much like mine. I needed the Kid. I had to enter his story and decipher his struggle if I was to understand my own pain. God created us such that we, an unlikely duo, would live a symbiotic relationship with one another. The Kid and I must depend on each other to see God’s redemption in our identities and in our Maad Cities.
Who would have thought that our stories could be so intertwined?
“We cannot view them as deficits.
Rather than seeing them for what they don’t have, we must see them for what they do have, for what they are capable of.
They are not deficits. They have assets and strengths. They are valuable.
They may be broke, but they are not broken down.
After trying to find the solution to the community’s needs, we completely miss the solution that is right in front of us: the people themselves.”
–excerpted from my Community Psychology lecture notes [October 8th, 2015]
Update 1/6/2017 – This is part one of the Kid, a series recounting my story as an ethnically-confused (and slightly jaded) 2nd-generation Asian American. After much soul surgery, bloodshed, and cussing at the gods, I wrote a sequel 10 months later. You can continue the story here: the Kid, pt. 2.