Finding My Voice: Navigating Authenticity as an Asian

As an Asian raised with collectivist values, I struggled to find my voice. Expressing my true thoughts and feelings didn't always align with keeping harmony.

I often wondered, "Can I really be my authentic self if I do not openly assert my individuality?"

Pop culture frequently equates authenticity with freely articulating your inner world. But my experience was more complex. I often felt muted by familial and cultural forces beyond my control.

 

Cultural Conditioning and the Sound of Silence

I grew up hearing things like "Don't talk back" and "Keep problems inside the family." Essentially, the cultural narrative is: Speaking up disrupts harmony. Understandably, these conditioned me to silence my opinions to avoid conflicts. I internalized that subordinate role, believing my duty was to put others first, not express my true self. These relational patterns continue today, more common than we think.

I remember a client once told me, “preserving harmony is so important in my family that they are even willing to sacrifice honesty with each other. What we end up losing is more than that: warmth at home.”

Understandably, I used to feel inauthentic within these constraints. Authenticity scales would characterize me as inhibited and overly concerned with others' judgments. By those standards, I lacked "the unobstructed operation of one's true, or core, self in one's daily enterprise" (Kernis & Goldman, 2006).

My silence signalled I was denying my real voice.

Or was I?

My research into the lived experience of fellow Asians revealed a more nuanced inner reality. We often feel tension between deference to family and personal autonomy. Yet, we don't experience this as inauthentic. Honoring relational harmony also feels like an expression of self.

As one participant described, "Speaking up would jeopardize my parents' trust. I'd rather show care implicitly through actions, not confrontational words."

Another shared, "I contain certain feelings to avoid rocking the boat. But that doesn't make me fake. I'm being true to maintaining family ties."

 

Harmony in Diversity: Reimagining Authenticity

What western notions of authenticity overlook are the collectivist values informing our choices. Silence can signify respect and conflict avoidance can demonstrate care. We aren't passive victims, but agents navigating complex loyalties. Our inner world isn't straightforward self-expression, but managing dialectical demands.

This resonates with existential philosopher Heidegger's conception of authenticity. He recognized that we are always already embedded in social contexts we did not choose. Authenticity isn't about following our personal desires, but owning our cultural "thrownness." We uniquely inhabit our communal identities.

My participants described this dynamic poignantly. As one said, "Belonging comes with responsibilities here. That's just reality, not inauthenticity. I try to integrate my individuality within existing bonds." Another noted, "Conforming feels natural to me, not forced. But so does finding my own way."

Silence Can Be Golden

I realized external judgments can't pronounce others inauthentic. Only we can determine if we are acting or being in accordance with what is good for us as an individual rather than falling in with others and society. We have to hold the nuances and contradictions of our experience, not reduce ourselves to absolutes.

This insight empowered me. Now when I occasionally defer my self-expression to preserve harmony, I do so consciously. I act from understanding, not blind obedience. My identity encompasses both speaking up and staying quiet when appropriate. I've made peace with the dualities I embody.

Of course, discernment is still needed. Sometimes silence stems from learned helplessness, not free choice. Old dynamics may require courageous confrontation. Existential therapy provides tools to build that confidence.

With gentle guidance, I'm learning to respectfully engage in needed conversations. But the key is evaluating my intentions, not blindly asserting my individuality. Speaking my truth is pointless if done rashly.

Authenticity isn't a fixed destination, but an ongoing journey of aligning values with action. I've come to trust my inner compass more than external metrics.

So now I know: my voice doesn't need to shout to be real.

Authenticity can speak softly too, in its own tongue. I am no less myself in honoring the relational web that shaped me. My identity integrates both individual and collective notes into a harmonious chord.

At last, I feel comfortable in my own skin, silence and all.


Reflections: How Did I Become an Authenticity Researcher?

For a long time now, I have always wondered if authenticity and being Asian are compatible.

Having grown up in Singapore and coming from a traditional Chinese family, I’ve been taught to greet my elders and respect authority figures. We have a saying in mandarin, ‘ 入得厨房 出得厅堂’. It means that an ideal woman is one who can perform diligently in all household chores and yet act as a proper lady who knows how to dress elegantly, has graceful and polite manners and is able to hold mature conversations in social settings.

Training starts at a young age. And through my clinical experience, I notice that I am not alone. An experience I share with many of my clients are the unhealthy labels that we carry with us since childhood: Crying is shameful. We are selfish if we do not share our toys. Talking back to our parents is a sign of disrespect.

The common message across these labels is that we should care for others above our needs.  

This is where I struggled with the modern idea of authenticity (see article). If being authentic is defined as staying true to ourselves, essentially being congruent, sincere and transparent, how attainable is it for Asians who ultimately values collectivism over individualism?

It made me wonder if authenticity is only reserved for the western world. I had a hunch that it was not exclusive to only certain groups of people. It should be a universal human value.

I had another belief: It is when we throw the baby out with the bath water, pitting being true to ourselves against being around for others, that problems arise. Looking back at my own life and with my clinical experience, I notice that anxiety, depression and other mental health struggles arise when we perceive the tension between having our voices heard and experiencing a sense of belonging with others to be unsolvable. However, our true voice and our sense of belonging should not be an either/or experience but a both/an.

Even then, there were still many other things I did not know.  How will authenticity look like in an Asian society? How can I be true to myself without throwing away my Asian roots? Should I respect my needs first or others? After all, Asian values like harmony, benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, loyalty, and filial piety are not undesirable.

It is with these burning questions that led me to become an authenticity researcher 5 years ago. I hope that my work in attempting to conceptualize an Asian interpretation of authenticity, starting with millennials, will contribute to the mental health of the young people in Asia.


Authenticity: Is Being True to Ourselves Enough?

What do you think of this necklace?” the wife asked. It was a thin silver chain with a dark, large stone encased in silver.

 “I think it’s gaudy, something my grandmother might wear,” the husband replied.

What is your first response if you were the wife?

The husband here is Dennis D. Waskul, a professor at Minnesota State University. Interested in the topic of authenticity, he designed his own Garfinkelian social experiment, where he would be completely honest to himself and others for an entire day. This was his authenticity project.

Authenticity is a buzzword these days. We use it in the field of leadership, tourism, experiences, food and many more. We cannot deny it has become an important value in our society. Even for those of us who do not explicitly use the word, phrases like “be true to yourself”, “be who you really are”, “follow your heart”, “be yourself” or “express the real you” will not be unfamiliar.

Behind these phrases is an assumption that our inner self is the true self and the outer self is just a mask. To be authentic is to make our outer self more congruent with our inner self.

I grew up in this culture as well. I believed it. However, simmering beneath the surface was always some kind of anxiety, guilt and doubt. I often found myself struggling to express myself to others with full honesty. My mind would tell me that it is okay to be honest with what I thought but my body screamed, “Danger!” What became easier for me was to wrap uncomfortable truths in pretty packages – I often wondered if telling these truths as they were might upset the people I was talking to.

So just reading Dennis’ day of expressing his true thoughts cracks me up endlessly. Yet, I am aware of my own anxiety around it as well.

It makes me question if the consequence of authenticity is pushing people away for the sake of being true to ourselves. Is this how it should be?

Here is another snippet of Dennis’ day.

Dennis, are you busy right now?”

“Ah, well, actually YES.”

“Oh, I’m sorry…. Hey I have a student in the office right now, one of my advisees. He is having a hard time crafting the method sections for his qualitative study. I’m wondering if you’d be willing to meet with him, help work through his problems, and get ready to collect data. Could you do that?”

“I could but I don’t want to. I have enough students of my own. I don’t need to take on yours as well…. I am very busy, and you’re asking way too much of me.”

Well, excuse me!” she says in a tiff, as she turns and walks away.

Clearly, I understand where the humour of it comes from. Few of us speak with so much honesty and transparency and it’s refreshing to hear others speak like that.

However, this invites us to rethink what authenticity truly means. Giving Dennis credit, he was being sincere. Sincerity, according to Lionel Trilling, author of Sincerity and Honesty, refers to a congruence between avowal and actual feeling. We would then need to ask ourselves if sincerity and authenticity are actually the same thing.

I’m ending this first article here, with more questions than answers because authenticity is deeper than what it seems.

I’m hoping that through the next couple of articles, you and I can explore different sides of authenticity. And as we emerge out of it, we can see authenticity in a new light. This time with more clarity and understanding.

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