This Lunar New Year, I’m thinking about the tens of thousands of Chinese and Vietnamese international students in the US who are unable to spend this joyous time with their families.
I wasn’t homesick when I spent my first Lunar New Year away from my family and all things familiar to me. Having left my country, Singapore, a month prior to that for graduate school in Seattle, I found everything here exciting: the short and chilly days, American food, friendly service in stores, free speech. I was thrilled at the prospect of fitting in, of perhaps adopting a new identity. I couldn’t wait to be Americanized.
Fast forward a year later. Despite having a social life and doing well in school, I felt inexplicably empty. Suddenly I wanted to be home badly, to jostle with the crowds in Chinatown (yes, you find them in some Asian countries too) as everyone stocked up on New Year’s supplies, decorations, and goodies. I yearned to have a whiff of that burning incense in my neighborhood as families offered their prayers to their ancestors. My heart ached for the traditional hot pot reunion dinner with my family.
By then, I was also coping with mounting schoolwork and dwindling finances. I started to doubt whether I made the right decision going to graduate school. I didn’t know this then, but depression began to creep in. And not knowing I had a problem, I didn’t know to reach out for help.
My experience was far from unusual among international students in the US. Homesickness, school pressure, social isolation, and high expectations from parents often create the perfect storm for depression and anxiety among these young people at a time when they are searching for meaningful life goals.
A recent article in New America Media highlighted similar struggles many students from Asian countries have. Notably, mental health problems among Asian students often go unnoticed until it is too late. Even students from Asian immigrant families may struggle in silence with their troubles. Here is one chilling statistic reported in this article: from 1996 to 2004, 55 percent of suicides at Cornell University involved students of Asian ethnicity, even though Asian students comprise only 14 percent of the total student population.
I see some similarities in my personal experience and my work counseling Asian international students with depression. Shame is a common experience that compounds and envelopes feelings of insecurity, sadness, and hopelessness. Students tell me they do not want their families to worry about them. Some do not think anyone will understand what they are going through. Language is also often a barrier. I’m not just talking about one’s level of comfort with the English language; perhaps more importantly, because depression is not something that is talked about much in their home countries, students may struggle to find the words to describe the internal processes they are going through. They may not even be aware that their lethargy, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, and changes in appetite or sleep patterns are all symptoms of depression. Instead, they may dismiss these as effects of stress that will go away at the end of the quarter or when they next go home on a school break.
Depression is real. It speaks to a deeper issue of feelings of disconnect. This may come from the misalignment between the person’s ideals and reality, conflict between the individual’s dream and the family’s expectations, or isolation from the community. In the experiences of international students, the loss of a sense of cultural bearing can further raise the existential question, “Who am I?” and its cousin, “What am I doing with my life?” For some, this is a time for reflection that will ultimately reward them with growth and self-discovery. For others, the pain in this process can be unbearable and despairing.
If you are struggling with painful feelings, know that you don’t have to suffer alone. Talk to someone, no matter how unlikely you think they’ll understand.
I know. I was there myself.