Sophia Ng stands next to a shrine at the 2019 Lunar New Year Parade in San Francisco. Born in Hong Kong, Ng emphasizes cultural awareness in her work as a mental health therapist, and often counsels members of the Asian American community. (Sonia Paul/KQED)
At first glance, Sophia Ng has all the hallmarks of a typical pageant queen: She has beauty, brains and charisma.
But last August, when Ng, 27, competed in San Francisco’s Miss Asian Global & Miss Asian America pageant, the longest-running Asian beauty pageant in the nation, she surprised her audience with what she revealed on stage.
“I was once in a suicide depression, and in my hour of darkness, I believed I was worthless and that life was not worth living,” she told the crowd at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. The audience that night was mostly Asian.
Later that evening, Ng was crowned Miss Asian America. It was the first pageant she had ever competed in.
At 5 foot 9 inches tall, Ng never used to wear high heels. But now, she is a pro. Since she has entered the pageant world, she regularly dons a gown, sash and crown to attend charity and community events, like this year’s Lunar New Year Parade in San Francisco.
But along with the networking and modeling opportunities, Ng spends her time doing what inspired her to compete in pageants in the first place: raising awareness about mental health, particularly among the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.
Ng is a mental health therapist, a profession she says offers an impact that’s deep but often struggles with reach. Until recently, she counselled students at elementary and high schools in San Francisco.
Earlier this spring, she embarked on a typical work day at Lowell High School — one of the most competitive high schools in the state.
As students attended classes and roamed the hallways during breaks, Ng met with her clients at Lowell’s Wellness Center, a place where students can come in for counseling and access community resources, or relax and sip a cup of tea.
In a small office in the Wellness Center, as a white noise machine hummed nearby to help protect privacy during conversations, one student told Ng about the painful relationship he has with his mom.
“She went on a rant,” he told Ng, referring to a recent incident involving him, his brother and his mother, in which their mother told them they were "useless."
“She also mention[ed] something like, 'you guys were a waste of giving birth' in Chinese."
Like this student, and many of the students she works with, Ng is also Chinese, growing up in Hong Kong. She says many students and their parents hesitate to seek out therapy, and that this may trace back to a culture in which shame and honor play an important role.
It's also seen in the parenting style, where they use shame and guilt to parent their kid, said Ng, who stressed that not all Asian American moms and dads do this.
Parents also worry that if their kids need help, maybe they’ve done something wrong as parents. But, she noted, people in the community are under pressure to present a good face to the world despite whatever their going through.
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In fact, Asian Americans are three times less likely to seek out mental health services than white people. And they make up only 4% of the U.S. psychology workforce, which is mostly white. That all influences the reaction Ng gets when students come to her for the first time, she said.
"They're like, ‘Oh, I expected you to be, like, a white person,’” she said.
A therapist she had as a teenager inspired Ng to do this work. Ng had been on her way to becoming a competitive athlete, when an accident during a basketball tournament crushed her leg. She was 16, and her whole identity at that time revolved around being an athlete.
“While I was still like, recovering physically, my mind definitely began to sort of spiral downwards,” Ng said.
Ng had a hard time getting out of bed and didn’t want to hang out with friends.
At her lowest point, Ng said she attempted suicide by taking a bunch of sleeping pills. That’s when she found herself in a therapist’s office, talking with someone who could offer the perspective her family and friends couldn’t.
“I think at that time, people in your personal life, they kind of have this ... need or urge to just sort of, like, get you out of that mentality ASAP,” Ng said. “So they tell you to be positive, they tell you to, you know, not think like that, and just, you know, things will get better. And I think those were not the things I needed to hear at the time. Because it didn't make me feel listened to.”
The night Ng won the Miss Asian America title and talked openly about her suicide attempt, a common refrain echoed among the audience.
“'Whoa, like, you were extremely vulnerable up there,'” Ng said, recalling the conversations she had after the pageant ended. The people she met knew what it meant for her to challenge the cultural pressures to keep those struggles quiet.
On a Saturday night, Ng was once again out as a beauty queen, this time at a dinner banquet in Pinole that was sponsored by the Chinese Association of Hercules. She was joined by two other winners of the Miss Asian Global & Miss Asian America pageant. The three of them were dolled up for the occasion in long gowns and flawless hair and makeup.
When it was time to introduce the women to the banquet attendees, Ng took the mic and spoke in both Cantonese and in English.
“My passion is removing the stigma that exists around mental health. And I’m currently doing that by doing a lot of speaking engagements, especially with college students, educating them about this,” she told the dinner guests, knowing the banquet was another platform for her, too. They burst into applause.
In the last few weeks, a lot has changed for Ng. She left her job as a school counselor because she is moving back to Hong Kong to be closer to her parents and her fiancé, who got a job in China. She hopes to someday start her own therapy practice, and launch a mental health consulting agency for companies and schools.
Ng's international move fits her new beauty queen title. She recently stepped down as Miss Asian America because she was crowned “Miss Global” in a worldwide competition — the second pageant in which she has ever competed. She says in this new role, she’ll continue to spread her message that it’s "OK not to be OK."