Having had the opportunity to read about shame in academic literature in more depth and detail, I became increasingly interested in learning about shame in relation to different cultural backgrounds, especially migrant and minority-ethnic groups in light of my past research projects. I wanted to read something nuanced with regards to the development and understanding of how shame manifests itself and the wider, diverse cultural influences surrounding this concept. Eventually, I came across the book titled Asian Shame and Addiction: Suffering in Silence by Sam Louie.
The author focuses on addiction as a mechanism for coping with negative emotions associated with, and alongside, the shame that is driven throughout Asian culture. It is worth noting that the author is based in the USA; therefore, references to ‘Asian’ culture tend to relate to Far East Asian traditions, but there are many relatable similarities with South Asian, and wider migrant experiences as well.
Shame is presented in contrast to honour as a foundation for community identity and creating a sense of belonging. Shame is also contrasted with honour in relation to behaviours that focus on the individual. There are many theorists that present a myriad of arguments in relation to emotions, shame, and how they are experienced; yet, this author presents their personal perspective through lived experiences.
The author details the challenges they faced in their day-to-day life and what it means to interpret concepts of pride and honour, whilst contrasting them with humiliation and shame which might arise should they behave outside of socially acceptable cultural norms. The author describes how ‘Asian’ names are associated with the legacy of their ancestors and an individual’s behaviour determines whether they successfully honour their past, or not. The author emphasises that every time a member of their community heard their name, it was immediately related to the accomplishments of family members from past generations, and presented themselves as a reminder for how any decisions, even personal choices, would either uphold their family’s prestige or bring dishonour, subsequently shame. This sentiment has strong associations with literature on Pakistani and Indian communities where surnames and caste systems continue to influence an individual’s social status in their community, the ability to form relationships, and establish expectations on how individuals should behave ensuring they do not bring shame to their family or wider community. For example, Western post-modern interpretations of shame have focused on shame being experienced by the individual; while, in comparison, East and South Asian cultures interpret shame experienced by a collective group of individuals socially tied together by shared values, norms, cultures and long held beliefs centred on honour. Interestingly, the author connects personal experiences of shame with those of assimilation to US society and cultural norms and continues to outline challenges and struggles faced in childhood. This internal conflict between Eastern and Western interpretations of shame is an example of how individuals may fit into workplaces and wider community settings, but continue to encounter micro-aggressions which in turn impact honour/shame and self-identity (i.e. the every day self or the true self as discussed in the book).
As a consequence of trying to manage the internal conflict between honour and shame, the author resorted to a particular addiction which was contextualised in terms of culture and religion: sex addiction; specifically, the use of pornography, where the author uses his addiction as an example of how an individual can acknowledge their behaviour and emotions and use psychological methods such as therapy to manage or overcome them. Of particular interest are the ways in which the author describes ‘Masculinity and Shame’ based on interactions with father figures who exemplified appropriate behaviour for men in the community (e.g. avoiding physical affection), as well as familial dynamics that influence development of an internal narrative (e.g. being too embarrassed or ashamed of parents’ professions and concealing them from friends or not seeking parental support during moments of stress) that are used to determine shameful or honourable actions of self and others.
The book is not an in-depth or detailed analysis or breakdown of shame and diversity in culture, however, it is a unique presentation of an individual’s experiences and presents itself as an example of how deeply rooted an emotion as powerful as shame can be. The book shows how shame can be at the epicentre of an individual’s attention and focus, or thrive subconsciously, emerging subtly through behaviours, actions, and relationships. The book presents an opportunity to understand how shame can be deciphered through different lenses and perspectives, and how shame can be overlooked as a small part of daily life, but could have significant impact not just on oneself but close others too.
Farina Kokab is a Research Fellow at the College of Social Sciences at the University of Birmingham