I’ve fallen a bit behind with posting about our friends in China. One of their posts got so much in the way of spam comments I had to take it off the blog and this meant my additions got out of whack. But I’ve just received this blog and thought it was so interesting that I decided to post it straight away. Here it is.
Last week I gave the second of two guest lectures to undergraduate English majors. I was told I could pick the topics but was encouraged to at least tell students about holidays in the West. Rich has made so many wonderful Power Point presentations throughout his teaching career here in Hohhot. I have exploited his efforts many times over this semester, and did so again for the first lecture in this mini series. But because I had just written an email about transitioning back home, I decided I wanted to talk about psychology. So many of these lectures have been, albeit informative, very superficial and fluff-like. I wanted to talk about what my professional life as a mental health provider has been about. Within the 90 minute presentation I showed pictures and talked about psychology, mental health problems, and treatment.
You see, the field of psychology in China is very new. The notion of going to a stranger for help with an emotional problem parallels American attitudes in the early 20th century. Actually, disclosing a personal problem to anyone but the most intimate of friends is eschewed by almost everyone here. When I was at UMASS in the Ph.D. program (1989 to 1993), one of our classmates (Xiao Ming) was from Beijing. At that time, his area of focus was career counseling/psychology. Vocational counseling was much more acceptable than psychotherapy in China. Now there are people interested in the field of psychology, and some who practice clinically, but again, it is very new.
This does not mean that there aren’t problems here Hohhot. There are. Although the people we have met, have told few if any, about their individual problems, they have opened up without much encouragement, to the American psychologist and retired elementary school principal this past semester. Generally, it doesn’t take much for most people to talk about themselves. Eye contact, a few gentle questions, some hmmms, and an honest interest in what is being said, and in no time you can know a great deal about a person. So, despite the fact that friends, staff and students have kept some amazing secrets from others who care for them, they have opened up to Rich and me. We have heard about professional dreams and frustrations, family issues, and emotional challenges. Most of our friends work in the same department, but feel quite unsafe about letting their colleagues know of personal challenges or life events. Secrets have included; 1) a marriage in which the spouse is from a different country, 2) a divorce, 3) being a victim of spousal abuse that resulted in a month long hospitalization, 4) depression, 5) anxiety, 6) possible psychosomatic issues, 7) substance abuse, and 8) a sibling with schizophrenia.
The most ironic thing is how many people within the English department at IMNU, have said they feel trapped, overworked, un-empowered and alone. The general feeling is one of dysthymia, or a low grade depression. Our friends are thoughtful caring educators who are very good at what they do. Yet, their enthusiasm is at an all time low. There seems to be a disconnect within this collectivistic culture. The group is suffering because there is an absence of support for individual members.
After a semester of observing those around us suffer through challenges in silence, I did what I believe we were hired to do. I offered a different construct on emotional problems to this young group. I told them about the commonality of human suffering and shared a few western ideas and options about helping people feel better. Many students were engaged in the presentation. A few looked like I had begun to open a wound. Some just fell asleep.
This lecture was a turning point for me, particularly in reference to “Transitioning” home. The topic allowed me to begin thinking and planning to return to the work I really have a passion for. It also was an experience that forced me to acknowledge that I, as an American psychologist, had little to offer to people here in Hohhot. When a student came up to me after the presentation, looking very sad and seeking help regarding her seemingly depressed peer who had no other friends and was spending increasing time in her dorm room not doing homework, I realized I had nothing much to offer. There were no real resources to suggest. The student’s English was only a smidgeon better than my Chinese and other than empathetic words of support I was at a loss. Asking a teacher friend at the presentation for ideas resulted in the student being directed to have her friend talk to another teacher. Not helpful at all. At that moment I was ready to come home. That foot that was planted firmly in Hohhot soil has begun to take a step toward the west.