I have had the privilege of co-facilitating groups (with very bright and talented interns) for international students at university counseling centers. More recently, I have had the opportunity to work on an individual basis with international students from Chinese speaking countries in Mandarin.
Working in Mandarin has been a privilege for many reasons, personal and professional. It has really impressed me that Chinese natives are utilizing mental health services at all given the stigma associated with it. After working with international students from China and other parts of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, I have learned more deeply about the challenges they face. While there are shared experiences by all international students, the bulk of what I would like to comment on will be focused on Asian international students in particular.
Almost 100% of Chinese students from China will say in our first meeting “but you know I’m not crazy.” Never-mind being Chinese, I hear this from clients no matter what part of the world they reside. But international students from Asia often emphasize this point. I would like to offer the idea that therapy can be for everyone.
For Asian international students, English language proficiency becomes key in adapting to the U.S. and to college campus culture. Often, Asian international students share with me that they were fluent in English language in their home country. However, upon arriving to the U.S. and participating in lectures or interacting with domestic students, some begin to feel self-conscious about their accent or realize that their writing skills in English are sub par to complete their coursework. Many Asian international students may start experiencing a form of social anxiety (i.e. avoid public speaking/presentations, fear of humiliation when public speaking). This is incredibly challenging for some students given that this may be their first experience with not performing outstanding academically. If you are one of these individuals, for what it’s worth, you are not alone. It happens so often that I can write about it in a general manner.
International students who are experiencing challenges connecting with their new environment in the US will often struggle with struggling. These students are usually quite accomplished and driven which is why they leave the comfort of their home country to pursue an education abroad. Thus to experience difficulties related to academia, which may be partly deduced to challenges accompanied with learning and writing entirely in English, finds them at a loss. For Asian international students, having academic difficulties can be an incredibly despairing first experience.
“To fail is an impossibility” “I cannot return home and face my loved ones” “I cannot tell my friends about this”
I often hear these worries communicated from Asian international students. Growing up with a traditional Chinese mother, I can empathize. I have understood this to be an issue with protection: protecting parents from worry, protecting my self image among my peers, protecting myself from failure.
Many Asian students experience incredible discomfort seeking help (Tung, 2011) and are conditioned to take care of things on their own so as to not worry parents. This works well in the home context. However, when students are far away from their comfort zone, exhausted from having to use a second language to function daily in the US, learning how to exist in a new culture, maintaining relationships half-way around the world, making efforts to develop new relationships, and so on, it is no wonder that students start to feel different. Students will often report that they “don’t feel like themselves.” This can mean a lot of things.
I am sure that many international students transition well and therefore some of what I have discussed may be inapplicable. However if any of this is relevant, rest assured that you are not alone. There is no shame in experiencing difficulties, not feeling like yourself, and it certainly does not mean you are a failure. It is okay to want or need support sometimes and it is better to seek it to ensure that you find a resolution sooner than later.
I am honored to have worked with international students and have found the majority of them to be incredibly courageous, gracious, strong-willed and humble. It is my hope that I can continue to be a support for them.