Meet the Asian American Woman Who's Asking White Friends to Pitch In for Her Therapy

Rinna Rem's crowdfunding page doesn't play around. She links to articles and studies that show how racism-related stress can be detrimental to your emotional and physical health. Rem, a 29-year-old Thai Cambodian American woman, must also contend with the fact the second leading cause of death for Asian Americans aged 15-35 is suicide. And in case the potential donor is still unclear, she kindly suggests you visit your local library for more information. 

Rem's crowdfunding campaign is targeted at her white friends—she's asking them to pitch in to pay for her therapy. The campaign began with a small goal of $600, which would have provided six months of mental healthcare. But as her crowdfunding page received more attention, an onslaught of racist messages flooded her inbox. She said that the more hate she receives, she would match the vitriol by doubling her fundraising goal—which has just been increased for the third time. 

Rem cites living in Portland, Oregon (a city that's 76 percent white) as a factor contributing to the stress that impacts her mental health—the structural and interpersonal racism she sees and experiences is making her life tougher. Rem's health problems are compounded by a chronic condition called Marfan syndrome, where inordinate stress could cause her already enlarged aorta to grow and tear. After an Asian American friend of Rem's attempted suicide recently, she wanted to start a coversation about mental health within the community. She says that while all of the publicity for her campaign has been overwhelming and stressful (her friends help manage her crowdfunding page so that she doesn't have to read hateful messages that come through), she uses skills that she learned in therapy to manage the stress. “It's easy for me to ignore the trolls,” she said. “I'm a librarian. I know what's good to read and what's bad to read.”

AMY LAM: Your father just found out about this campaign and that you seek care for your mental health. Is this something you talk to him about?  

RINNA REM: It's a difficult thing to talk about. Maybe if I talked to my dad in Cambodian colloquial terms, like there's a saying about your heart being filled with water, your heart being filled with sadness.

That's probably the biggest struggle in my generation, the Cambodian Americans whose parents are refugees, we all have the issue of how to talk about trauma and mental health with our parents because they are so traumatized and have so much PTSD. 

There's another phrase that literally translates to: words that cannot leave. It means “the unspeakable.” It's just about trauma and sadness that's really hard to talk about. 

While my parents are ethnically Chinese, they are Vietnamese refugees. They came to the U.S. in 1978, the Vietnam war ended in 1975, so they lived through the war and stayed there post-war for years before immigrating. Growing up, I didn't know that my parents were going through this and it was hard. Because we don't talk about mental health, period. And my parents never talked about what they went through. Very piecemeal, very little details. 

It's like putting together a jigsaw puzzle throughout my life and I get one tiny puzzle piece every few years, by accident probably. 

These things inordinately impact each other because in our parents generation they don't seek mental healthcare. And in this fucked-up, indirect way, we're bearing that weight. I see a counselor, but my parents have no idea. 

My parents know now. Now that everyone on the internet knows. [laughs] 

When your dad found out about the campaign, you said he asked about the logistics of how it worked. Did he ask about what the money was going towards? 

He did. He said, “You have a fundraiser.” And I said, “Yes, that's to pay for my medical costs.” He said, “Oh, I thought you have free health insurance,” because I have OHP (Oregon's Medicaid). I said, “Yes, but this is for my mental health. And my therapist isn't covered under OHP.” And he said, “Okay” and he didn't really say anything else besides that. 

This is a nitty gritty question, did you say this to him in English? 

Yes. 

Does he know what a therapist is? 

I think so. 

That's the weird thing, I think I could say that to my dad and he probably wouldn't know what a therapist is and probably wouldn't ask. 

Well, now he knows I have a therapist. But he doesn't know that I've been diagnosed with depression, or take anti-depressants.

There's a big barrier. 

Yes, there's a big gap. I would need a lot therapy just to figure out how to communicate this to my parents. 

In your campaign, you discourage your friends of color from donating. 

They didn't listen to me though. 

Why did you discourage them from contributing? 

I know that a lot of my friends of color also go to therapy here in Portland to deal with racist shit. So I said, “You can save that money for your therapy.” 

I started the campaign as a very individual need that has resulted from a lot of systemic and interpersonal racism, so I feel a lot of the criticism is: “There's no point in your campaign because individual transactions aren't going to lead to racial justice and material equality.” But that's not why I started it. Of course, I want racial justice and income equality, but this campaign is for my personal need. I'm very literal when I said “white friends,” I meant my friends, because I never expected it to go beyond my own community. 

Why do your white friends have this responsibility to help you in this way? 

That's the tricky part because I'm asking for an individualized need which I know is not going to lead to a collective movement. But I'm asking my white friends because historically and collectively I do believe in reparations. Here's one chance where you can contribute to reparations, on a personal level, at least. 

A lot of my friends of color in Portland are dealing with racism in their own ways and they have their own individual needs too. And I know that my white friends benefit from a system and they need to recognize it. Here is just one way to help your friend who is not white and has not benefited from the same system. 

How do you feel about people of color who are critical of the campaign?

I'm fine with that. I've even had discussions with close POC friends who have mixed feelings about my campaign. However, I feel that a lot of the critique of my campaign confuses the fundraiser for an individual's needs—my therapy—with a campaign for racial justice and reparations. And I get that confusion.

I never started the fundraiser as a campaign to end material inequalities. However, those are things I want for POC: racial justice, reparations, economic equality. I hope critiques of my campaign shift towards how to best foster collective movements and systemic change.

A vast majority of the coverage that I've seen of your campaign has been framed as, “This person wants to receive handouts.” But from my perspective as a woman of color and a child of refugee immigrants, I thought, “No, this campaign is about the issue of receiving accessible and adequate mental healthcare. It's about raising awareness about the toll of white supremacy on the mental health of people of color.” There's different ways of understanding what this campaign is about. 

And it's big. I'm still unpacking it as it evolves too. Because it started as an individualized need where I was literally just asking my white friends. Now that it's big, it brings up questions of reparations, adequate mental healthcare, and what white people can do to help people who have been negatively effected by racism. 

When you started this, you didn't think it would grow this big. Do you worry that because it's grown to this level, that the stress from this can exasperate your Marfan sydrome condition? 

Yes, I do worry. But also while the stress is overwhelming, it's also just more racist stress. I learned that I can put myself out there and control how I present myself. But how people react to it, that's their issue. 

When you say, “it's just racist stress,” do you mean that because you've grown up as a person of color in America that we are inured to racist stress because it's a constant? 

It's always a constant and the hate that's being targeted at me is not new. It's just that now it's on the New York Post and right-wing blogs. 

How do you respond when people say that if Portland is too white for you, why don't you just move away? 

It's my home. I grew up here, this is where I became myself. My family is here, my dad is getting older and I want to be there for him as he ages and needs support. My question to those people are, “How does me leaving Portland address the problem of racism in Portland?” And also, why would I leave if weed is legal here now?

Did you have any surprising feedback? 

I expected the trolling because there's trolling all over the internet. I didn't expect this much attention though. I did not expect this national and international exposure, like the Taiwanese animation (above), which was hilarious.  

They really have your likeness down. 

They even got my top bun. [laughs] I both love and hate it. I just love absurdist shit and it is so absurd. I liked how I had these super power, like how I can turn into a tornado in a coffee shop and hang white men upside down from the ceiling and get all their money. I loved seeing myself spinning in a room full of money. 

What didn't you like about the animation? 

I'm very tripped up about the point of view of the narrator. It is in a Chinese dialect, but it seems like the narrator is a white man. 

Yes, because at the end, it says, “As a white man, who do I ask to give me money to get dance lessons?” 

I'm pretty insulted that the narrator can equate mental health and dance lessons. Dance lessons are easily available and there's nothing stigmatized about dance when there's so much stigma about mental health. 

Some people are saying that your campaign is more of a social experiment or performance art. 

It's become that way, definitely. 

But that wasn't your intention when you started it. You were sincere and genuine when you asked, “My own personal white friends, will you help me out?” 

The initial fundraising goal was pretty low at $600, which I felt okay about asking my white friends to raise collectively. I was sincere and genuine, I have therapy to go to and I would like to be able to go to it. 

I think a lot of people consider it art because they see my campaign and they feel it is a beautiful and powerful act. 

by Amy Lam
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Amy Lam is Bitch Media’s contributing editor. Find her at @amyadoyzie.

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