VIEWPOINT: Expert Discusses Challenges Facing Asian American Pacific Islander Communities
This month is National Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. In honor of this important celebration, CADCA´s Coalitions Online interviewed Ford Kuramoto, National Director of the National Asian Pacific American Against Substance Abuse (NAPAFASA). Here, he discusses the issues facing Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities and some of the challenges involved in trying to prevent drug and alcohol use among AAPI youth.
Q: Among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, what is the most abused substance?
A. If you look at all 30 or more nationalities that are considered AAPI, alcohol is by far the most abused substance.
Q. Recent national surveys have shown a disturbingly high rate of prescription drug abuse, is that a major problem among AAPI communities?
A. Yes it is. Going back to the early 1970s, when drug abuse became known as a community problem and there were many overdoses in Southern California, what we found was that quite a number of the overdoses were due to the misuse of prescription medications, mainly painkillers and psychotropic drugs, so it’s been a problem for some time.
Q. What are some of the factors that contribute to prescription drug abuse among AAPI communities?
A. There is a concensus among the community that Asians tend to prefer pills as opposed to injection drug use. We’re not exactly sure why, but some speculate that Asians, like some other cultures, are not comfortable with syringes and other types of western medicine. Another reason is that in the AAPI culture there is a lack of education about proper prescription drug use and there is an idea that sharing medicines is okay and harmless. In addition, because like in so many immigrant communities, many Asian youth are latchkey kids because their parents work two jobs or work long hours, so that creates an opportunity to experiment and get into trouble, and that’s often when kids will get into their parents’ medicine cabinets.
Q. What are some of the factors that contribute to drug and alcohol use in general among AAPI communities?
A. One of the reasons that youth turn to drugs and alcohol is because they are desperate to fit in. Many who come from immigrant families feel marginalized and are more susceptible to peer pressure from their peers at school. In traditional AAPI cultures, there isn’t much use and acceptance of alcohol, but when you come from a relatively modest low-to-medium income developing country to the United States, where alcohol, drugs and tobacco are widely available, youth feel they need to start adopting practices of their peers to become part of mainstream culture. Poverty also plays a big role in many AAPI families, because it means that the parents might not have much education and might have to work several jobs just to make ends meet. So, they are not able to function as a typical family should.
Q. What are some of the challenges or obstacles in trying to prevent drug and alcohol use among AAPI communities?
A. The diversity of AAPI cultures makes it much more complicated to reach out to them. There are about 30 different groups and about 100 languages and dialects within the AAPI community. In addition, there are significant cultural differences between someone from American Samoa and someone from a mountain village in Laos. It’s also tough to educate parents about the hazards of drug use and abuse. Their daily struggles and living conditions make it hard to get the message across. There is also an aspect of shame among some AAPI families. Parents don’t think their kids would do that and don’t even want to talk to you sometimes. Lastly, many AAPI parents put so much emphasis on doing well in school that many of the things that youth need, such as parental guidance and education about drugs and alcohol, tend to fall by the wayside.
Q. Is addiction discussed openly or is there a stigma?
A. It’s generally very hard for AAPI families to admit addiction and let anyone know about it. There is a lot of shame and people fear negative implications. Drug use rates among AAPI communities are not well documented, so it’s an issue that’s not very visible to our populations. What are somewhat more visible are things like primary healthcare issues, like TB, cancer, etc. so that’s what’s talked about more.
Q. What are some of the factors/reasons that contribute to the high rate of stimulant use among Hawaiian/Pacific Islander communities?
A. Many people in Hawaii feel that they need it to be more outgoing and it makes them feel more socially acceptable. Also, because Hawaii is a tourist economy, there are a lot of people who work for low wages and long hours in restaurants and hotels. Many of them use methamphetamine because they feel it will give them energy to work two jobs. Asian Americans in the states like California often use methamphetamine to study harder and get better grades at school. I talked to students at UCLA and some say they take methamphetamine just to make it through finals and get competitive grades. This goes back to the strong pressure they feel from their families to do well in school.
Q. What does NAPAFASA do?
A. At NAPAFASA, our focus continues to be on educating parents and youth and on trying to support and strengthen families. One of our main target groups are fragile immigrant families that are in transition, because they are inherently at greater risk of unhealthy behaviors.
Q. What is the significance of National Asian Pacific American Heritage Month?
A. It recognizes and celebrates a group of cultures and makes Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders feel good about their culture and where they came from. For youth, it’s extremely important because it helps validate who they are.
Ford Kuramoto, D.S.W., LCSW, is the National Director of NAPAFASA, a national membership organization dedicated to addressing the alcohol, tobacco, and other drug issues of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) populations on the continental U.S., Hawaii, the six Pacific Island jurisdictions and elsewhere. Visit www.napafasa.org for more information.