BY CINDY J. HUANG
This piece was published in the 30th print volume of the Asian American Policy Review.
But perhaps all of this – the frustration, the seemingly endless seeking of answers to the “missing link” in my communication with my mother, the continuous and unintentional use of counseling skills in conversation with my mother – could be my sacrifice, my way of giving back to my parents who have had to give up so much more for me to have this Chinese American experience in this country.
Growing up in Chinatown in San Francisco with my family of four living in a tight one-room apartment, I was not given the luxury of privacy, which meant that I could hear every noise and conversation in the apartment at any given time. Whether that be the blaring TV in the living room or the near-daily bickering between my immigrant parents, I grew up wondering if there would ever be a moment of complete silence and peace in my home. On top of that, although I spoke Cantonese at home, I constantly felt like I had disagreements with my mother, as we would spend hours trying to explain our perspectives to each other only to be even more frustrated by the end of our conversations. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized we were trying to communicate with each other through different worldviews – her perspective being more aligned with traditional Chinese values while my perspective stemmed from my acclimation to White, American culture. There was something missing in our communication even though we were speaking the same language, and the constant miscommunication left us both confused and exasperated. Home felt chaotic, and I was overstimulated by the conflicting sounds and voices I heard on a daily basis. However, I didn’t feel like I had the ability or skills to discuss these issues with my parents, despite speaking Cantonese fluently. There was a missing link that I was determined to locate somewhere along the way in my development.
After I discovered that my mother was a teacher in China, I remember 8-year-old me submitting an “About Me” classroom assignment and writing, “When I grow up, I want to become a teacher.” Perhaps it was naïve of me to think that pursuing a career in teaching would open up a window for me to think and speak like my mother. And sure enough, after getting a master’s in education and teaching English to 12th grade newcomer immigrants for a few years, I was discouraged by how much I did not like being in front of the classroom teaching 25-30 students at once. Instead, what I really enjoyed were the moments of connection with my students: the check-ins that I did with individual students during class time, the tutoring sessions that I spent with them during lunch break or after school to provide them feedback on their essays and college personal statements, or the little conversations I had with them during passing period when they shared with me quick tidbits of successes or frustrations both in school and in their personal lives. Through listening to my immigrant students share about their home countries, reading their personal statements, and learning about their immense stress due to acculturation and English language difficulties, I saw a glimpse of my mother in each of their stories. By creating and building connections with my students, I was able to develop an understanding of their lived experiences and struggles, which gave me the unique position to be able to speak into their lives in a way that I was not able to as a teacher in front of the classroom. That was when I knew that I needed a career change that better reflected the kind of work I wanted to do: to build connections with people and, ultimately, to better understand my mother and her experience as a Chinese immigrant in this country.
I started my master’s program in mental health counseling about a year and a half ago, and this past year, I obtained a counseling internship working with Chinese immigrants with substance use disorder. While I did not specifically seek out my internship to work with individuals who struggled with addiction to substances, I had intentionally sought out an internship site that trained counselors to conduct counseling sessions in Chinese. I wanted to refine my bilingual abilities in my counseling work, with the ulterior motive to learn how to better communicate in Cantonese with my mother.
Some of the most valuable training that I received at my internship site happened in supervision, which was the weekly scheduled time that my supervisor would help me talk through the challenges that I experienced when counseling Chinese immigrants. With my supervisor’s help, I learned to adapt the English counseling interventions that I learned in my master’s program into Cantonese. I learned how to discuss mental health issues with my clients in a way that was more culturally appropriate and less stigmatizing for them to share in sessions. I also learned to reframe my clients’ feelings from a different point of view. For example, many of my Chinese immigrant clients would say things like, “Even if I miss her, it’s in the past,” or “There’s no point in thinking about it anymore,” which, I learned, would require a good listening ear to pinpoint that the clients are actually disclosing that they do, in fact, “miss her” or have thought about it in the past. To extract the thoughts and feelings from my clients to describe their experiences, I have to present the words to them as if they were foreign, as if we were speaking about someone else other than them. It has been helpful for me to say things like, “If I were you, I’d feel hurt,” or “I’ve heard other people who have experienced something similar who said that they still think about it.” This way of reframing feelings helps to depersonalize the emotions and “take the pressure” off of them, which actually puts them more at ease to open up and freely discuss those emotions in the room with me. My supervisor described this roundabout way of clients’ sharing of thoughts and feelings as them opening a door for the counselor just a crack, just to test whether the counselor would take the bait, which would take a perceptive counselor to keep an eye out for these small openings and ask for more.
My counseling skills were unexpectedly put to the test when my mother called me a few weeks ago to catch up. She asked the usual questions – what I’ve been eating, how I’m doing in grad school, who I’m hanging out with, and if there were new eligible men that I might be interested in dating in my social circles. I found myself feeling more comfortable speaking to my mother in Cantonese, sprinkling in some new vocabulary that I picked up from my clients, and my mother commented on how “sophisticated” I had become in my word choices.
My mother then started talking about a recent verbal conflict with my brother. Without intentionally doing so, I found myself jumping into counseling mode and using counseling techniques that I learned from school and my counseling internship. I did a lot of paraphrasing and summarizing of what my mother shared with me. I asked some open-ended questions for her to explore her feelings some more, and then I offered an interpretation of her feelings to help her reflect on what she shared.
“Mom,” I said, “It seems as though you had certain intentions going into that conversation with him, but he misinterpreted and assumed the worst. If I were you, I’d feel pretty hurt that your own son misinterpreted your intentions to be malicious.”
My mother paused before elaborating on her frustrations. I affirmed her feelings and then asked for her permission to provide some of my thoughts on the situation.
“Mom, can I share with you what I think might be my brother’s point of view, based on what you’ve told me so far?”
It seemed as though, for the first time, my mother was intent on listening to me. She didn’t interrupt me as I offered my brother’s perspective, and she asked follow-up questions regarding how to best resolve this conflict.
At the end of the conversation, my mother said, “You seem like a different person now. What you say makes sense to me now, and I don’t have a rebuttal anymore because what you share is so reasonable. I feel like you understand me now.”
My initial feeling after that conversation was one of pride; my mother gave me the highest of compliments when she said that she felt understood by me now. I felt like that was a big victory considering all our misunderstandings and exasperated conversations from my youth. I had taken steps closer to my goal of improving my communication with my mother in Cantonese, and my counseling work had helped me immensely. However, the pride eventually waned, and a day later, upon processing that conversation, I felt disappointment.
While my mother said that she finally felt understood by me in that particular conversation, that feeling wasn’t necessarily reciprocated on my end. During that conversation, and a few more conversations I’ve had with my mother since then, I didn’t feel as though she was able to see from my point of view or my brother’s point of view as Chinese Americans in this country. Even in the conversation that I had with her, I had to advocate on my brother’s behalf, helping her to understand his perspective during their disagreement. I still had to put in the work to help her understand that there could be another way of looking at any given situation because we were speaking from and operating from different worldviews. And I considered how daunting that task would be in the long-run – to essentially continuously “translate” thoughts and feelings from my Chinese American worldview into Cantonese and in a way that my mother would understand from her traditional Chinese worldview. And what if, in future conversations, I continue to try to emotionally support my mother using what I’ve learned from my counseling work, but she still feels as though I don’t quite understand her, retracting her initial compliment of feeling understood by me? Then what would become of my endeavor thus far to learn more about her, connect with her, and try to better understand her?
But perhaps all of this – the frustration, the seemingly endless seeking of answers to the “missing link” in my communication with my mother, the continuous and unintentional use of counseling skills in conversation with my mother – could be my sacrifice, my way of giving back to my parents who have had to give up so much more for me to have this Chinese American experience in this country. There are plenty of other spaces and relationships in which I can feel seen, heard, and known, but what a privilege it is for me to provide that for my own mother and immigrants like her who may feel othered and misunderstood in so many other contexts in this country, time and time again. If in the 45-minute counseling sessions with my Chinese immigrant clients, or in my 2-hour long phone conversations with my mother, I can give of my time and counseling skills to provide a safe, therapeutic space for them to healthily release their thoughts, feelings, stressors, and trauma, even if imperfectly and just for a moment in time, then maybe that is enough.
Cindy J. Huang is a second-generation Chinese American Christian from San Francisco and a daughter of Chinese immigrants from the villages in Guangzhou. She is currently a PhD student in the Counseling Psychology program at Teachers College, Columbia University where she also obtained her EdM degree in Mental Health Counseling. Prior to attending Teachers College, Cindy earned her MA in Education and single subject English teaching credential from UC Berkeley and worked as a 12th grade teacher in San Francisco. Her research focuses on improving parent-child relationships and mitigating intergenerational conflict in Asian immigrant families through effective communication, language use, and parenting skills. She speaks Cantonese and Taishanese/Hoisanwa (a Chinese dialect) with her family. In her free time, she enjoys reading, writing, hiking/sightseeing, stargazing, and watching Korean dramas.